Worth the Price?

I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:

“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”

This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.

Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?

On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?

It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?

I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.

Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.

But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.

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Active Shooter

My good friend Jill recently posted a comment about the release of a new video game called “Active Shooter” in which the player is armed and enters a school to see how many “cops and ‘civs'” he or she can shoot. The “civs” are civilians — presumably including children? I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. No do I want to. But her summary and description of the game caused me to burst forth with a comment in which I insisted that we must finally face the fact that violent games cause violence in children. Scottie, a fellow blogger, then politely took me to task on the grounds that he was (and is) a game-player and also in the armed forces later in his adult life and he has no desire whatever to enter a school and shoot children. Point taken. I would like to respond to his comment and expand on my argument in this post.

To begin with, let’s agree that a causal relationship is notoriously difficult to establish. Just ask the cigarette companies who denied for years what everyone now knows, to wit, that smoking causes lung diseases, including cancer. The problem is that in order to show that A causes B one must establish that B never occurs without A and that whenever we have A we have B. In the case of cigarette smoking, there are smokers who never get any lung diseases and there are those who never smoke who nevertheless do end up with terrible lung diseases, including cancer. So how can we say the one causes the other? In the end it is because there is a constant conjunction  or a high correlation of A and B, enough of a conjunction to conclude that there is a causal relationship between the two — not an inviolable relationship, admittedly, but a causal relationship none the less, in the sense that it is highly likely that A will be followed by B.

Now, we know a number of things about human beings. Freud has told us, to our chagrin, that we are all aggressive and inclined to violence in one way or another. As infants we are immersed in our own world where our demands are almost immediately met. As the months and years pass we gradually learn that there are things we cannot have and things we are not supposed to do. (Well, we should learn those things; we assume that parents and teachers are doing their jobs.) The result is what we call “civilization,” and it comes from the sublimation of violent, aggressive impulses into socially acceptable channels, such things as art, philosophy, and science. Or else we find socially acceptable channels to provide us with vicarious release of those impulses, such as humor and violent games like football and boxing.  Moreover, we also know about humans that we learn by imitation– like all animals. What we see we tend to imitate.

Thus, it would seem natural to conclude that constant playing at violent games would result in children growing into adults who seek to imitate those same actions in order to release aggressive impulses.  But what about those kids that play the games endlessly, not only in this country but all around the world? Violence is more prevalent in this country than in others where the games are still played. And as Scottie noted in his case, he played the games and later became a professional soldier and yet he has no desire whatever to shoot children. We seem to have come a cropper.

The answer, I think, lies in the Freudian notion of the “reality principle,” which Freud uses to explain how the infant we spoke about a moment ago gradually learns to adapt to a society that disallows the sudden release of violent impulses. With good parenting and good role models, the young children who play the games (in this case) learn to sublimate those violent impulses, as we all should. But in a permissive society where parents both work and kids are raised by the television (which is also filled with violent images) and day-care where they cannot possibly receive the love they crave, kids are more likely to have a weak reality principle and find it more difficult to separate the games they play from the real world around them where, if someone is shot, there is terrible pain and serious consequences for the shooter.

In a word, I think the case can be made that there is a conjunction between the repeated immersion in an imaginary world where violence is the norm and the trend toward greater violence in this society that is generally too busy to instill in the young what used to be called “good character” and which Freud called a sound reality principle — the ability to distinguish between games and reality. I think the conjunction is strong enough to call it a causal relationship. But just as there are smokers who do not get cancer of the lungs, there are game players, like Scottie, who have a stronger reality principle and who do not become violent adults entering the schools and shooting “civs.”

The way to test this theory would be to take the games away from the kids and see what results. But that will never happen. So the alternative is to have parents spend more time with their children, reducing their game-playing somewhat while at the same time explaining to them how things work in the real world. I suggest that if this does not happen we shall see more and more examples of violent behavior on the part of more and more people.

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.

 

The Younger Generation

It’s a cliché that the older generation has complained about the younger generation since God wore short pants, as they say. But I have been maintaining for some time now that something new has appeared on the horizon; the “millennials” — those born in the middle to late 80s of the last century — are a new breed posing new problems.

Accordingly it was most interesting to come across an interview with Simon Sinek, a “Leadership Expert” (?), on You-Tube who is making quite a splash with his analysis of “what is wrong with the present generation.”  According to Sinek there are four major areas of concern that must be explored to understand what is going on. He stresses that he is not making judgments about the younger generation and he refuses to blame them. Rather, he blames (1) bad parenting, (2) technology, (3) impatience, and (4) the environment.

I have touched on most, if not all, of these points in many of my blogs — most especially the “self-esteem” movement that has caught fire in the schools and in parenting (thereby contributing to what Sinek calls “bad parenting”). This movement rests upon the totally false psychological premise that by praising kids endlessly we will raise their self-esteem, whereas clinical studies have shown that false praise and the awarding of such things as “participation trophies” actually decreases self-esteem. It sends false messages and instills in the young an expectation to be praised for everything they do, thereby reducing their motivation to actually put out an effort to achieve something difficult. It leads invariably to a sense of “entitlement” on the part of growing young people. True achievement, of course, would in fact raise their self-esteem and would give them a sense of satisfaction they now expect to receive for no effort whatever.

Sinek stresses how damaging this is to the young who know, deep down, that they have done nothing to deserve the praise. But worse yet, they later become depressed because they do not receive the same praise for every effort when out in the workplace — the “environment” of which Sinek speaks. In the real world of real work, folks have to make an effort and many times their efforts are unrewarded. That’s just how it is. But Sinek has himself interviewed a great many bright and able young people who, after a few months on the job, find themselves deeply depressed and disillusioned, even suicidal. Others drift with no goal or sense of purpose. They simply are not getting the stroking they have become used to.

Of considerable interest to me is Sinek’s second point, the factor of technology in the world of the young. In a word, the electronic toys. I have written endlessly (some would say) about this problem as these toys have always seemed to me to drive the users deeper within themselves and to construct barriers between themselves and the world outside themselves. They promote what I have called the “inversion of consciousness,” preoccupation with the self and its reactions. Worse yet, Sinek says there is considerable evidence that these electronic toys are addictive. Like such things as gambling and alcohol, social media and the “likes” on the toys increases levels of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is increased in addictive behaviors. Thus our intuitive sense that these toys are addictive is well-founded. We (and this includes the schools that hand out electronic toys as a sign of their advanced educational views) are handing these young kids an invitation to become involved in a make-believe world where they are all-powerful at the center and which they find increasingly difficult to escape from — much like the alcoholic who tries to go on the wagon.

The third item on his list, it seems to me, is the result of a combination of #1 and #2 above: the refusal of parents to deny their kids anything coupled with the ready availability of toys that provide users with immediate gratification in so many ways. They are impatient because they have never learned to put off gratification for a later and fuller sense of satisfaction. So many parents tell us that they don’t want their kids to have to “do without” as they did — while it may very well be that putting off gratification, learning self-discipline, is the key to true satisfaction and happiness.

Sinek is not long on solutions, suggesting only that we encourage the young to put aside their iPhones and iPads for a few hours each day and try to build bridges with other people in the real world. This is an excellent suggestion, but one that is easier said than done.  It takes “tough love” on the part of parents who truly care about their children and who are determined to take more time to be with their kids and interact with them on a personal level. And the schools need to get back to good teaching and stop turning the kids into addicts .

The only other element I would add to Sinek’s list above is the entertainment industry which compounds the problems Sinek points out. The ultimate cause of the problems he discusses is the removal of these young people from the real world, the weakening of what Freud calls “the reality principle” that allows them to function fully in the world of people and things, interact with others, build meaningful relationships, and find true joy in living and working in the world. This, in my view, is the central problem and it is one that we all need to think about and deal with in our interactions with a  generation that is in danger of becoming lost in a world of make-believe where their sense of power and importance is imaginary and can never live up to the real thing. This must ultimately lead to depression — and worse. And the cost to society at large is beyond reckoning.

Are Poets Mad?

Going back in time at least as far as Plato there have been those who insisted that poets, and artists generally, are mad as hatters. Plato thought they were “inspired” and the Platonic dialogues are full of exchanges between Socrates and assorted poets and artists who are unable to explain to Socrates what exactly it is they do and what it is they claim to know. And because they cannot explain what they do in discursive terms — as a geometer would explain why it is that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, for example  — Socrates was convinced that these folks who wrote about things they didn’t understand were in some sense of the term “mad.”

This notion persisted through the ages in the West until the time of the romantic poets, such as Byron, Keats, and Shelly who actually took pride in the fact that they were a bit mad and relished the notion. This was a view shared by many of the “beat” poets in the 50s and 60s and it still has its adherents. The problem is, of course, that we don’t know just what these folks meant by “mad” when they ascribed it to poets and artists. Freud called it a “neurosis” and sought to explain the genius of someone like Leonardo da Vinci on the grounds that his creations are the expression of his neurosis: indeed, all artists are neurotic and their art is neither more nor less than the expression of that “illness.” Later, as he thought more about this “illness” Freud came to the conclusion that we are ALL neurotic — not just the artists. As he said  in his Introductory Lectures:

“The result depends principally upon the amount of energy taken up in this way: therefore you will see that ‘illness’ is essentially a practical conception. But if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree, you can very well see that we are all ill, i.e., neurotic: for the conditions required for symptom-formation are demonstrable also in [so-called] normal persons.”

Neurosis, as Freud developed the notion, was the result of a conflict within the person, frequently an emotional one, but at times both intellectual and emotional. It often had to do with the person’s inability to develop a strong “reality principle,” that is, to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary. Cervantes had played with this notion years before when he was writing Don Quixote, since the knight can be regarded as either a poet or a madman because of his inability to distinguish between reality and his own vivid imagination. Is the barbers basin really Mambrino’s helmet? Are the windmills really giants? Is the herd of sheep really an army to be fought to the death? Are the prisoners on their way to the galley really decent folks who have been wronged by a system that is stacked against them? Quixote is always working his way through these questions. The clue that Quixote is not mad, of course, is that he is often aware of what these things appear to be to others. He knows, for example, that Sancho takes the object for a barber’s basis while he “knows” it to be Mambrino’s helmet. A madman has a weak “reality principle” and would lose the distinction entirely between what is going on his head and what is “really” going in the world we share with him. The neurotic person has difficulty separating reality from the imaginary; when the distinction breaks down completely that person is psychotic.

We have a president at the present time who seems to have a weak reality principle, who seems a bit mad. He certainly is not a poet or artist, but, rather, a deluded man who insists that reality, and facts as well, are of his making and those who disagree are clearly in the wrong.  We may all be headed in this direction as we play with our electronic toys and lose ourselves in a world of make-believe that becomes more “real” than the world we share with others. This, it seems to me, is a very real possibility since in that world we are all-powerful. In this world not so much.

In any event, poets and artists generally are no more neurotic than the rest of us and their power as artists consists of their ability to deal with the conflicts they experience through their talent and skill that allows them to create poems and works of art that reveal to the rest of us what it is they see and we are all missing. As Lionel Trilling puts it: “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.”

The rest of us must simply learn how to deal with that pain with more or less success, depending on who we are and how successfully we can develop the reality principle that makes it possible for us to remain in the “real” world and not lose touch entirely with the one the rest of the world occupies. That world, for all its pain, is also beautiful and filled with many good people trying their best to do good things.

 

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

The Need For Authority

About four years ago I posted a piece on my blog about “Parental Authority” that incorporated the comments below by Christopher Lasch. Now, I have referred to Lasch many times as I regard him as one of the most astute thinkers I have encountered and certainly one of the very few who seems to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Lasch is convinced that our permissive society has brought about the “Culture of Narcissism,” and while we are fond of accusing our current president of this malady, it would appear that it is widespread in our commodified, hedonistic culture in which success is measured by the size of one’s pocketbook and increasing numbers of folks can’t see beyond the perimeters of their own diminished selves. In any event, I want to revisit the comments I quoted from Lasch’s book in an attempt to unpack some of the more important insights he shares with us in an attempt to understand the role of authority, not only in the family, but also in the society at large.

The undermining of parental authority began in the 1920s with a book, Parents On Probation, by Merriam Van Waters. The movement toward the rejection of notions like “authority,” “discipline,” and “virtue” was given tremendous impetus in the 1950s by people like Dr. Spock and the other pop-psychologists who decided that it was they who should be raising the kids, and not the parents, and that in the end no opinion ought to be given preference over another — unless it was their own. In any event, Lasch had this to say about the lost notion of authority and its effects on society as a whole:

“. . .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls,’ and the shift ‘from a society in which the Super Ego values (the values of self-restraint) were ascendant, to one in which more and more recognition was being given to the values of self-indulgence.’ The reversal of the normal relations between the generations [in which the children have come to rule the home], the decline of parental discipline, the ‘socialization’ of many parental functions, and the ‘self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused’ actions of American parents give rise to characteristics that ‘can have seriously pathological outcomes, when present in extreme form,’ but which in milder form equip the young to live in a permissive society organized around the pleasures of consumption. . . In this way [parents] undermine the child’s initiative and make it impossible for him to develop self-restraint or self-discipline.”

Lasch is convinced that not only the kids but their parents as well all need some sense of authority to give structure and coherence to their lives. It is the development of a healthy Super Ego, according to Lasch, that provides this structure and without it we have self-indulgence, confusion, uncertainty, and even the frustration that leads to violence when we are told that something we want we cannot have. The “values of self-restraint” that Lasch speaks about in the above comment are precisely those values that were once called “virtues” and which made the peaceful and successful coexistence of humans in society possible. These were the virtues that were prized during the Victorian Age and before that in the Age of Enlightenment and which lead to such things as the founding of this nation on the basis of  the conviction that citizens were virtuous and would invariably elect wise and virtuous men and women to high office. This, unfortunately, has not been borne out as recent experience will attest. Much of this comes from the rejection of the notion of authority, the notion that there is someone else who knows better than you or I what is the proper thing to do in a given situation. Some would argue that the Protestant Revolt diminished the role of the church as the ultimate authority and this has undermined the notion of authority of the church and placed the ultimate authority in the Bible which is subject to the interpretation of anyone who could read. Is it possible that this displacement planted the seeds of relativism, the gradual translation of virtue, which is fixed, into values, which are merely matters of opinion? I simply ask.

The “reversal of normal relations” between parents and children of which Lasch speaks refers to the child-oriented families and schools that are now commonplace in which the child is regarded as the better judge of what is best for him and the parent hides in the forest of self-indulgence and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. The teachers also look to their students for guidance as to what it is their pupils want and those whimsical desires are codified into a curriculum that changes with the whims of the students. Everywhere we look we see confusion and self-doubt — except on the faces of the spoiled and entitled children who appear to be self-assured while all the time they have no idea where it is they ought to be going. Indeed, the notion that there is an “ought” that needs to be recognized is alien to a narcissistic culture that revels in pleasure and self-indulgence. The parents and the teachers reveal, as Lasch mentions, “self-centered, impulse-dominated, detached, confused actions.” The children and students are bewildered and float aimlessly through life. The authority of a parent or a teacher, someone who knows better and who can provide guidance, is missing and the result is  predictable: it becomes impossible for the children or the student to “develop self-restraint or self-discipline.” Indeed, it is not clear to most of us just what these things are or why they are needed.

In the absence of a fixed point of reference provided by an authority figure or indeed any sense that there is anything other than self that matters, it is no wonder that undisciplined and bewildered children grow up to become ill-suited to a society or a job that may demand of them self-restraint and at times sacrifice.  It is no wonder that many of them resort to violence in rejecting those demands which are foreign to them, demands that were once normal but which are slowly being eroded away.

Lies and More Lies

In light of the fact that the New York Times recently reported that Trump was guilty of 87 “misstatements, exaggerations, and falsehoods in a week” I thought this post from a while back worth repeating, though, as I say, those who follow this man are convinced that every criticism that is leveled against him is a lie by “those damned liberals.” As I also say, we have lost sight of just what lies are — they are not just those statements we dislike, they are those statements that seek to alter the truth and tend to mislead.

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Lying becomes merely a word that is used by the minions to discredit criticism of their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the “successful businessman” standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he alone says, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our Infallible Leader.

Lies, Lies, Lies

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Truth becomes merely a word that is used by critics to shame their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the successful businessman standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he says alone, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our infallible Leader.

Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.