Paternalism II

I was recently accused of sounding like Donald Trump in suggesting that the tendency on the part of the “powers that be” to tell us what is good for us is “paternalistic.” I argued that those who cherish their freedom should be outraged that the state, or any other agency, should tell us what is the best course of action. In saying this I noted that the freedom that is so highly prized carries with it the responsibility to act with respect toward other people. Indeed, my point was that in taking this giant step toward paternalism in the case of the caronaviorus we are being told we are too stupid to decide what steps we should take for ourselves.

My position is closer to that of John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” than it is to Donald Trump — if anyone is in a position to say exactly what it is that the man is saying. I confess I don’t understand much of what he says. But from what I do understand the two men seem to be at polar opposites on any intellectual scale with which I am familiar. Mill’s “very simple principle” says, in effect, that there are no moral grounds for stopping a person from doing something unless it is clear that his or her actions will harm another person. And let’s be clear about this: we are talking about intentional harm — as when a woman is abused or a thief holds up another at gun point. Mill is not talking about “incidental” harm, that is, harm the person cannot possibly be said to know he or she is inflicting on another — as in the case of attending a sporting event while one (unknowingly) carries the virus.

Now it might be said that by telling people not to attend sporting events the state is prohibiting us from infecting others with the virus, thereby harming them. But this assumes that we have the virus and that those who do have it, or might have it, are unable to make the decision to stay at home and seek medical attention. Or, as noted above, it ignores the case of the innocent carrier who infects others without knowing it: in that case the responsible thing to do is to make sure one is not a carrier before attending a packed event. The claim that we need to be told when to attend or not to attend a sporting event rests on the assumption that we are all a bunch of lemmings who blindly follow the latest leader who wants us to attend next Friday’s NBA Basketball game between the Wolves and the Clippers. We don’t have enough sense to stay at home and watch it on television. We are too stupid to know that helmets do protect those who ride a motorcycle, seat belts do protect those in car crashes, and infant car seats do protect the very young. Thus laws are written and enforced.

But, and here’s the heart and soul of the comment that accused me of Trumpism (the worst thing anyone can say about another person): We ARE too stupid. I can’t disagree. My argument, like Mill’s, assumes that reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and act rationally. And this assumption cannot hold up to empirical evidence. Folks really are too stupid to do the sensible thing. We must be told.

But what this means is that the libertarian dream and the argument against paternalism is based on a “best of all possible worlds” scenario. In that world people would do the smart thing. In this world, sad to sad (and increasingly) we do not. Thus steps taken to protect us all from the coronavirus are justified — and those who scream about their freedoms have no idea what they are screaming about. They certainly do not want to accept the responsibility that goes along hand in hand with freedom. You cannot have one without the other.

Is Repression a Bad Thing?

This is one of my first posts — eight years old, would you believe?! I repost it here because it stresses one of my favorite themes and it still seems to me to be relevant, and the fact that it brought about needed change shows how powerful and influential my posts have been.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and — like all good novelists — presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow, self-absorbed lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Out Of Control

The story in the Washington Post reads (in part) as follows:

MASON, Ohio — Nick Kyrgios was fined $113,000 by the ATP for expletive-filled outbursts in which he smashed rackets, insulted a chair umpire and refused to get ready to return serve during a second-round match at the Western & Southern Open.

The tour announced the penalties Thursday, a day after Kyrgios berated chair umpire Fergus Murphy and left the court to break two rackets during a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Karen Khachanov.

The ATP listed a breakdown of eight fines ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 each for violations such as unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal abuse and audible obscenity.

The tour also said it is “looking further into what happened during and immediately after the match” to determine whether additional fines or a suspension is warranted.

Kyrgios is a 24-year-old Australian who is ranked 27th this week. He is a volatile sort who repeatedly has gotten in trouble for on-court actions. He was kicked out of the Italian Open in May after throwing a chair and being suspended by the ATP in 2016 for not trying to win and insulted fans during the Shanghai Masters.

You may not have heard about this if you are not a sports fan, or if you have been preoccupied with current world events, but this is an event worth noting because it is a symptom of a deep malaise; I suspect it is not restricted to Nick Kyrgios. It is a sign of the complete freedom that many liberal-minded folks prize as the virtue worth having above all others. It is freedom without restraint. As I have noted on numerous occasions, freedom without restraint is not freedom; it is chaos. And Kyrgios’ behavior — in this instance and in numerous others — may be a sign of the times.

Without sounding like a preacher looking for work, I would remind readers that in a world that does not prize restraint but which instead applauds behavior such as that of Nick Kyrgios there is a real danger of watching the threads that hold us together tearing apart. Ours is a culture, including Australia apparently, in which parents for years now have been told by the “experts” not to restrain the young because it inhibits their potential. Never say “No!” The result is a world in which the behavior of out-or control athletes and celebrities, not to mention ordinary folks like you and me, is not only tolerated but frequently met with applause. This athlete, in particular, is immensely popular and when he plays on television it is “must see TV.” The crowds wait breathlessly for an outburst which they label “honesty” and regard as worthy of emulation. And we must, really we must, ask what’s wrong with this picture?

Nick Kyrgios is slowly becoming the rule, not the exception. He has a huge following and openly admits that he doesn’t really like tennis where he makes a small fortune showing signs of his undeniable brilliance and occasionally winning — while always being on the brink of a meltdown. He is much more interested, it would seem, in drawing attention to himself than in winning tennis matches. He is a showman in an age of entertainment when those who behave erratically are the main attraction. After all, ordinary people going about their business, no matter how successful they might be, are not much fun to watch. It’s the out-of-control athletes and public figures generally who make a stir that interest those who present television pictures to large audiences. The more erratic the behavior the more likely the audience will be large and appreciative — and buy the sponsor’s products, needless to say.

Thus we do eschew restraint as boring and prize the Nick Kyrgioses of the world (who will pay this fine with the small change out of his tennis shorts) because they make life interesting. We flavor our infatuation with the sensational by calling such behavior honest. But if we are honest we will admit it  is extreme and not worthy of respect and certainly not admiration.  It is freedom gone amuck and self-indulgence of a sort, when adopted by more and more people, that ultimately strains the thin threads that hold civilization together. Entertainment is not the most important thing. Not in the end. And honesty does not equate with outrageous behavior.

Dilemma

I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.

When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.

How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.

Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.

But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word?  I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.

But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.

 

Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a small child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story,

“I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.”

These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

Still Pertinent?

Back in 2001 I wrote an article titled “Intercollegiate Athletics: The Tail That Wags The Dog” which was published in Montana Professor. In the article I analyzed the then current situation in intercollegiate athletics and pointed out what was then (and now) a serious problem; I speak of the corruption in NCAA Division I athletics, especially football and basketball and I recommended that the best possible solution was to eliminate the athletic “scholarships,” pay the athletes who played those sports at the major universities a reasonable salary, and let those few who wanted to receive an education pay for it out of their earnings. I thought it more honest and a worthwhile experiment at the time and I find it fascinating that now a good deal of talk has surfaced about the need to pay the athletes who play because they are being exploited by the schools they represent which are making tons of money from television and gate receipts.

In any event, I started the article with a couple of charges against the universities themselves which have lost their way, forgotten that their objective is to educate the young, not entertain them. With a few comments added for clarification, I simply quote those paragraphs here as I think they are still pertinent — if not impertinent!

Assuming we ever knew where we were going, in America, at least, higher education has lost its way. We are confused about what it is we are supposed to be and what it is we are supposed to do–which is to empower young people, to put them in possession of their own minds. These young people come to us decidedly unfree. For all practical purposes, they cannot read, write, or figure. They therefore cannot think their own thoughts or initiate their own actions, which are the activities that define us as human beings. These students belong to their parents, to television, to the malls, to advertisers, and to a hedonistic youth culture; though they believe themselves to be so, they are not free in any meaningful sense of that term. They are surrounded by options but they are unable to make informed choices; they cannot separate fact from fiction or reasonable opinions from wishful thinking; nor can they foresee consequences or entertain antithetical points of view. Our secondary schools cannot help because they are caught up in methodology, and society places impossible demands on the underpaid teacher’s time. Consequently, as things now stand, the only institutions standing between young people and a lifetime of slavery to whim and to manipulation by others are our colleges and universities, which, for the most part, do not seem to be up to the task. As Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently noted in this regard, “students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job.”  It is worth noting in this regard that Princeton University’s law school implemented remedial courses for their students because the college graduates that come to them, in many cases, do not have the reading, writing, and thinking skills required to do the work demanded of them.

Higher education is at present tangled in a web of conflicting ideologies, disputes over territory, and faculty concerns over tenure and job security. We have bought into myths that delude us into thinking education is about providing students with jobs, shoving them into the fast lane on the information highway, or indoctrinating them about cultural diversity in the name of what a zealous handful has determined is social justice. However, “vocational education” is an oxymoron: education should not be confused with job-training, though we would hope that educated persons would be able to find and hold a good job; education does not require the most advanced technical gadgets, because faster does not mean better; and finally, education must not be confused with indoctrination, though we would expect free minds to reject injustice wherever it is found.

Because it is hidden in the dust stirred up by these controversies, we can barely make out one of the most widely ignored obstacles standing between students and their inner freedom, namely, the multi-million dollar business we call “intercollegiate athletics.” In this article I should like to bring that obstacle into sharper focus.

I would only add to this  two items: (1) colleges and universities themselves have become “multi-million dollar businesses,” and (2) I would add “social media” to the above list of the major factors enslaving today’s young while giving them the illusion of freedom. In fact it should be at the top of the list!

If you are interested in reading more of this article, it is online at https://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html

Freedom: A Paradox

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my persistent attempts to understand the nature of human freedom. It seems such a simple concept one might well wonder why anyone would spend time trying to grasp it. But it a slippery notion and one not easy to understand fully. I dare say this  latest attempt will also leave questions. I do, however, note that the complaints folks have that they are not free because they can’t have what they want strike me as totally wrong-headed. This inspires me to forge ahead!

In  the end, it seems to me that freedom requires restraint, and with that paradox I shall begin. Complete freedom, complete absence of restraint, is not freedom at all. It is chaos. Those who scream loudest among us that they are not free because there things they want but cannot have are really demanding a life without restraints at all. What they want it chaos, but they don’t know it. If they did they should shut up. And the man who claims the top political office in this land would stop telling them that it is an unmitigated good thing and a thing that only he can deliver to them. But, then, that claim got him elected. So there you have it.

The point was driven home to me in reading Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in which he noted the demand by the people of France for “freedom.” To be sure they wanted equality as well, but above all else, they wanted freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1860, realized that Americans who already had freedom preferred equality, that we would abandon our freedom completely as long as we had equality. God forbid that anyone might have more than I do! But the French people wanted Freedom. They lived in a Monarchy and among wealthy aristocrats who had everything. They had nothing. To make matters worse, they were the ones who had to pay the taxes while the wealthy were allowed to relax in the lap of luxury. Whenever it was suggested that perhaps the wealthy might bear some of the expense of running the ship of state they shouted “No!” and the tax burden was shifted back to the poor — who had little or no money. The results were predictable: the poor became sick and tired of bearing all of the weight of the political state on their backs and they rose up and initiated the “Reign of Terror” — the likes of which humans have seldom seen in their entire recorded history.

In any event, their notion of freedom, like that of a great many of the rest of us, simply meant the absence of restraints, the shifting of the burden of  taxation elsewhere — the ability to come and go as they pleased and to throw off the shackles of poverty and have it all. For a while they seemed to have succeeded, except that it brought with it the constant fear that they might be the next poor soul suspected of conspiring against the political body, sent to prison and there wait for their name to be called and their ghastly and untimely end to arrive. In any event, they achieved something like the freedom they craved but it brought with it the chaos of unrestrained terror. Because if I have complete freedom then so do you — and do I know if you can be trusted or whether, these days, you are carrying a weapon?

If an unruly crowd wants to take a rope tow to the top of a hill in order to ski down and there is no order at all, only complete freedom, there will be chaos. Without law and order we cannot expect to be free. It’s a quid pro quo.Without the willingness to give up some of our freedom we can only expect to be in something resembling what the eighteenth century philosophers imagined a “state of nature” to be — a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live together with others we must restrain our impulses and allow that freedom cannot be absolute. John Locke saw the paradox and stated in no uncertain terms that freedom requires law and it requires order. We must all restrain ourselves in order to be truly free.

 

A Thin Veneer

 

“Alas then, is man’s civilization only a wrappage through which the savage nature of him can still burst, infernal as ever?”

Thomas Carlyle

In order to answer the question whether our civilization is weakening, threatening to crumble under the weight of indifference, self-interest, and greed, one might well reflect upon the condition of ordinary citizens during times of great stress. Beneath the shiny surface of civilization, our language, religion, laws, science, history, art, and manners, there burbles a cauldron of potential turmoil.  Freud was one of the few who could look into the abyss without flinching. But no one listens to him any more: he’s a “dead, white, European, male.”

Another dead, white, European male, Thucydides, wrote about the revolution in Corcyra during the lengthy Peloponnesian War many years ago. For the time, that revolution set the standard for kinds of atrocities and the cruelty that humans are capable of once the veneer of civilization is scraped off. As Thucydides tells us, revolutions and civil wars transform ordinary people into something quite extraordinary:

” In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and proves to be a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. . . .[During that revolution] reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; the ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. . . . such [transformations] as occurred [will] always occur as long as nature of mankind remains the same.”

But it took a writer like Thomas Carlyle to fully describe the atrocities that men and women are capable of when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away. In his monumental study of the French Revolution Carlyle tells us of the countless cruelties that human beings can inflict on one another.  As he has noted, “there are depths in man that go the length of lowest Hell as there are heights that reach highest Heaven.” He describes at length the depths. In a massacre at Nanci during that terrible war, for example, he tells of the slaughter of 130 men, women, and babes in arms by the “Patriots” in expressing their distrust and even hatred of the nobility. There followed the infamous “September Massacre” in Paris involving over a thousand men and women followed by countless hangings and decapitations, including Regicide. At Arras mothers were forced to stand and watch “while the Guillotine devours their children.”  Blood flowed in the streets, bodies were piled up everywhere and stank as the flies feasted. Carlyle describes the aftermath of the attack on the Tuileries early in the revolution:

“A hundred and eighty bodies of Swiss [ who sought to protect the royal family] lie piled there, naked, unremoved till the second day. Patriotism has torn their red coats into snips and marches with them at Pike’s point: the ghastly bare corpses lie there under the sun and under the stars; the curious of both sexes crowding to look.  . . . Above a hundred carts, heaped with the dead, fare toward the cemetery of Saint-Medeleine . . . . It is one of those carnage-fields, such as you read by the name of “Glorious Victory,” brought home in this case to one’s own door.”

Echoing the words of Thucydides, Carlyle describes what the chaos surrounding revolutions does to nations and individuals:

“Very frightful it is when a nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations . . . must now seek its wild way through the New Chaotic — where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Unbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated — in that domain of what is called the Passions. . . . Horrible the hour when man’s soul, in its paroxysm, spurns asunder the barriers and rules, and shows what dens and depths are in it!”

The point of all this is to aid us in understanding the thin veneer of civilization that we take for granted and which is so easily peeled away during times of crisis, when law and order disappear and chaos is embraced in the name of liberty. We must pause as we look around today and see the gradual deterioration of respect for law (in many cases deserved), the call to arms brought about by the terror that has been turned loose in our churches and schools, the fear that seems to dictate action, and the tendency of each to claim the “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do without any regard for the “rights” of others to whom we once insisted we have responsibilities.

As Carlyle notes in passing, “without good morals Liberty is impossible.” And yet so many today insist that “good morals” are a fiction, that ethics and morality are simply a matter of personal opinion and gut feelings. The moral high ground disappeared with the death of Martin Luther King, some might say. So we arm ourselves and we demand the freedom to do whatever we want without restraint. And to assure us of this liberty we elect a clown whose only claim to the highest office in this country was his promise to provide his followers with unlimited liberty to do as they want, without the interference of governments and restraints of any kind.

Surely, as we face the prospect of all citizens, including teachers of the young, arming themselves out of the very real fear of sudden terror and total chaos, the handwriting is on the wall: we must consider the possibility that we are at present witnessing the birth of a new barbarism. Civilization which is above all else the will to live in common is all but withering away –unless we refuse to allow it to happen!

Carlyle worried that the revolutionary spirit would infect the English where there were thousands of disenfranchised people, downtrodden and poor, and a government that had lost the trust of the citizens. England avoided that revolution for a number of reasons, but it remains a possibility not only for that country but for any country that wallows in fear and hatred, insists that freedom viewed as the absence of restraint is a paramount value, and ignores the poor — where bloated politicians promise everyone that complete freedom and prosperity are theirs for the asking when, in fact, there cannot be any as long as those who hold the purse strings keep them tied tight and we hate and fear one another.

 

Forget About It!

I have blogged in the past about our country’s anti-intellectualism which is glaringly obvious and has been commented upon by numerous others. I refer to our increasing determination to deny the higher purpose of the human mind, its capacity to achieve order, inclusiveness, and coherence. Our country was founded by practical people who were busy building lives in a new country. Following those early years we seem to have attracted a great many people, with notable exceptions, who were convinced that such things as education were esoteric and not really worth the time or attention they received in Europe, for example. Following those early years, we have seen increasingly pragmatic people who have narrowed their focus on the here and now and such things as the making of profits. Today, as I have noted on numerous occasions, we have reduced everything to the business model, including religion and education. The human mind now simply calculates profit and loss — or checks out social media.

There were exceptions, as noted, and one of those exceptions was Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on the State of Virginia proposed a system of public education for all (boys) that would be capped off by several years at his university where the very best and brightest would be given the best possible classical education then available.

Interestingly, even in the three primary grades of his proposed public education, Jefferson did not stress such things as reading, writing, and figuring. He thought those things were a given — all kids learned them at home. In the very early years he advocated more substantive subject matters, such as history. The memories of young children were to be

“. . .stored with the most useful facts of Greek, Roman, European, and American history. . . .History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and actions; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Jefferson was clearly in the minority, since history has never been the strong suit of American schools and by the time of the intellectual rebellion in the 1960s of the last century history was rejected by student radicals as “irrelevant.” It has now been removed from the basic core requirements of the majority of American colleges and universities and many high schools as well. Henry Ford thought it “bunk,” a sentiment taken up by Huxley in his Brave New World in which his citizens were nothing more than ignorant pleasure-seekers. Young American men captured in Korea during that “police action” were easily programmed to take anti-American half-truths as the whole truth because they were ignorant of their own history. Moreover, many of those who teach, even today, insist that the teaching of such things as “facts” is a waste of time when, indeed, facts are the building blocks of thought and like it or not they must be learned if thinking is to take place. Without those blocks thinking and speaking are merely gobble-de-gook — as we can tell by reading or listening to our Fearless Leader. And history is the subject best able to prepare the young to be “judges of the actions and designs of men.”

Santayana famously said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and we have seen how true that is. But in Jefferson’s program outlined above there are other elements that also deserve to be considered. For one thing, he is advocating what might be called a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest rise, like cream, to the top. Borrowing from Plato, he thought the preservation of our Republic depended on this. Education was the key. The Republic, if it was to be successful must attract the best and brightest to the halls of power to make the important decisions regarding the correct path the country should follow. We have no idea how that might have worked because we have never really committed ourselves to the education of all citizens as Jefferson would have us do. Job training, yes. Education, no. And our anti-intellectual sentiments lead a great many people to regard a liberal education, for example, as “elitist,” a citadel of social privilege, if you will. In fact, a liberal education is one that would provide the very best possible foundation for anyone with a mind to make important decisions and be aware of the forces that operate around them — forces that threaten to imprison them in chains of bias and ignorance and overwhelm them with such things as “alternative facts.”

We pay a huge price for our ignorance, not only of the past which we blindly ignore, but also of such things as science and mathematics which enable us to better understand the world around us and make sense of things. Jefferson’s was a pipe-dream, many would say, though he rested his hopes for the future of his beloved Republic on that base. And my dream of a liberal education for all — which owes its origin to such thinkers as Jefferson and Plato, among others — is also a pipe dream. I have kicked this poor, dead horse so many times my foot is numb (and the damned horse simply will not budge). But we might do well to recall that one of the founders of this nation who had high hopes for a free country of free minds once outlined a program for maintaining freedom in the years to come. And in ignoring his admonition to educate (not train) all citizens we may well have made ourselves a bed of thorns upon which we now must sleep. If we can.