Looking Back

One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.

At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.

I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group  were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.

In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?

In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside  those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.

In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.

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Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

Inside The Ivory Tower

Several months ago I noted that the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb had pointed out in one of her many books that much that happens within the Ivory Tower has an impact on much of what happens  in what people like to refer to as “the real world.” The obvious example is “P.C.” that started within the Tower and has permeated our culture at present, especially the halls of corporate America where lawyers earn big fees making sure no one says anything to anyone the might get someone into trouble — or, more to the point, drag the corporate body into court. One might mention the postmodern attack on truth and factuality which has reared its ugly head outside the Ivory Tower in the form of “Alternative Facts.” In any event, all of us might want to pay attention to what those folks behind those ivy covered walls are up to.

Of greatest concern, in my view, is what is called “Identity Politics.” This movement started in the mid 70s in our academies of higher learning and has mushroomed into a full-out assault on everything once considered sacred, including much of the subject matter that comprises the bulwark of Western Civilization. In any event, the mantra in the Ivory Tower these days is that we must trash the detritus of Western Civilization — all of it bad — and care about, if not care for, the chronically disadvantaged, the marginal folks who have been long ignored in academia, and without. This has resulted in a spate of courses in such things as “women’s studies,” “black studies, “native American studies,” and the like. I have blogged about such courses before, but the main point is that these courses are important in their own way, but they are narrow in scope and have wrongly displaced the core of liberal courses that espouse a broad approach to education and also have the goal of putting young people in possession of their own minds, not the minds of their politically motivated instructors. “Studies” courses tend to be dogmatic and confuse education with indoctrination. The defense, when there is one, is that education has always preached and it is now “our turn.” But this a mistake of the first order. Education is not about preaching at all, regardless of what the message happens to be.

In any event, there are those who say that our institutions of higher education have become nothing less than therapy clinics designed to make sure that all who enter will never suffer the slings and arrows of bigotry or insult. This, too, is not a bad thing  — up to a point. We need to be sensitive to the concerns of those who have been marginalized and who might suffer from disguised attacks on the values they hold most dear in the form of language they find hurtful. But at the same time, higher education is supposed to prepare young people for the world outside the Ivory Towers and pain is part of life, as is racism and bigotry. And all ideas are deserving of consideration regardless of how unpalatable they might be. These young people might be better off in the long run if they confronted their fears and suspicions in a place where such things can be discussed in a rational and coherent manner, rather than pretending life is all skittles and beer and finding out later it is not so.

As far as the influence of identity politics outside the hallowed halls of academe is concerned, it has been said of the liberals who lead the growing numbers of folks within the academy in their collective outrage against all things Western that their influence is bringing about the demise of the Democratic Party. I have seen it argued that it is precisely the concern with marginalized people and the concomitant ignoring of “Mainstream America” that is destroying the Democratic Party. Instead of bringing America together, separateness is the word of the day. The connection here is liberals within the walls and liberal politicians without. And this despite the fact that Hillary Clinton, in the recent election, collected three million more popular votes than did her opponent — what’s-his-name. The logic I must say, leaves me a bit confused, but the point may be worth considering. It seems unwise to ignore the major players in the game of politics, the folks that could win or lose an election.

The Democratic Party has historically drawn its strength from the mass of men and women who have been ignored by the wealthy fat cats who control the strings of political power. The Democratic Party, it has been said, cares about people, the Republican Party  cares only about profits. Simplistic, I would agree. But perhaps not entirely wrong. In any event, it might be wise for the Democratic Party to take a long hard look at the people it seeks to draw into its house. Just pause and consider the loonies the Republicans have recently invited into theirs! Should the Democrats be concerned only about marginalized people and ignore entirely those who sweat and strain to make ends meet in “Mainstream America,” those folks who have traditionally been the backbone of the Democratic Party? It is a question worth pondering.

Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.

Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

Two Cultures

Writing in 1998 the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb predicted the victory of Donald Trump eighteen years later. Well, not exactly. But her analysis in One Nation, Two Cultures  does provide an explanation for the surprising results of the recent presidential election. The “two cultures” of which she speaks are the dominant culture and a dissident culture. The former consists of roughly 60% of the population, including the “elite” (her word) who help shape and mold opinion, college professors, journalists, certain bloggers I know of, together with the vast majority in this country of those who lean toward a more liberal take on such things as science, sex, marriage, religion, and morality — which they regard as relative.  The latter consists of a polyglot group clustered around what might be called “moral issues,” issues such as abortion, the Bible, sex in the schools, prayer in the schools, the sanctity of marriage, and the like — not to mention patriotic values, which they regard as closely related to religious values, issues such as respect for the flag, support of the military, and pride in our country. Also, they are uniformly critical of the public school system which, they feel, has too long been controlled by the dominant culture. In Himmelfarb’s words:

“[It is]not only fundamentalists who feel disenfranchised; so too, does a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who have strong religious concerns.

“Like the dominant culture, the dissident culture exhibits a wide spectrum of belief and behavior, ranging from a rigid adherence to traditional values only occasionally violated in practice, to a more lenient set of values more often violated. But even the laxer representatives of this dissident culture tend to subscribe to a more “austere” moral code, and to do so more conscientiously than their counterparts in the dominant culture. They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of their lives. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say….?” or “Personally… but….”

“At one end of the spectrum of this dissident culture, paralleling the “elites” of the dominant culture, is the religious right, a hard core of determined and articulate activists. Although this group receives most of the public attention, it is only a small part of this culture, for beyond it is a much larger and more varied group of evangelicals, as well as traditionalists another churches — mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and some Orthodox Jews. There is also a growing number of people who have no particular religious affiliation or disposition — but who have storing moral convictions that put them at odds with the dominant culture.”

The two cultures are neither monolithic nor static, she is careful to point out. There are folks who identify with values in both camps. And people change from one culture to another from time to time.

Yet “In general there is a common set of mind, a confluence of values and beliefs, that locates most people, most of the time, for most purposes, within one or the other culture.”

Of interest is the fact that a large portion of the dissident culture, who generally regard themselves not only as “God-fearing” but also as true “patriots” are very much involved in public, and especially political, affairs. 68 percent of the dissidents strongly believe that “our system of government is the best possible system,” as compared with 53 percent of the whole. And while many of those in the dominant culture are disenchanted with politics, prefer a Third Party candidate in major elections,  or are even too busy to vote, the vast majority of the members of the dissident culture are actively involved in politics. A great many of them have both wealth and position — which explains their presence in the Electoral College and their subsequent unwillingness to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she had won the popular election by nearly three million votes. Those in this group are involved and they are well positioned to exert political pressure beyond their numbers.

This all helps to explain how a man like Donald Trump won the presidency. He tapped into the deep well of resentment and frustration that characterize the dissident culture and gave them a voice and credibility. It is no wonder that the dissidents refuse to listen to criticism from the dominant culture, especially the media, since their Man is here to deliver them to the promised land where many, if not all, of their hopes and dreams will be realized. After generations of seeing the dominant culture hold sway over this country they now see themselves with a tight hold on the reins of power. And their commitment to this man runs as deep as their resentment of the dominant culture — so much so that if and when Donald Trump is impeached there will be a very loud hue and cry indeed. The culture war which Himmelfarb regarded in her books as a mere metaphor for the rift between the two cultures, will become an actual war with casualties.

 

 

 

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

On Not Reading Macaulay

I must confess I have read little of the historian/essayist/poet Thomas Babington Macaulay. But apparently very few historians read him either even though he is reputed to be one of the best historians ever to have set pen to paper (as was done in the old days). Indeed, the breed of new historians, about whom I have written in the past, regard the old historians as part of the problem with the world today: yesterday’s news, not important enough to waste time on. Many of them prefer the New History that makes few demands on their time or effort (how symptomatic of our times, eh?). They would prefer to do such things as psychoanalyze Hitler and determine that his hatred of the Jews, if not his reasons for declaring war on the rest of the civilized world, was the result of the failure of a Jewish doctor to save his mother who was dying of cancer. Or they would like to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” focusing on the little people whom past historians have ignored because of a lack of documentation to create accurate pictures. Lack of documentation is not a problem for these “historians.” They just make stuff up!

In any event, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, her again: she is brilliant) the tireless defender of the Old History and a great admirer of Macaulay notes not only that historians don’t read him anymore, she notes that the problem goes even deeper:

“a commentator [on Macaulay in 1959] thought it safe to predict that Macaulay would indeed be read half a century hence, ‘if there are readers left.’ It is not clear whether the ominous proviso referred to a nuclear catastrophe or simply to the death of the written word as a result of television or a debased mass culture. What was not anticipated was that professional historians would turn against Macaulay, making him seem . . . unreadable and unmemorable. . .”

I have commented on the death of old ways of doing history in previous posts so I shall not go there again. But the broader point is worth some serious reflection. The notion that we would lose our desire to read because of “television or a debased culture” is prescient — written as it was in 1987. It would be hard to argue against the fact that we now live in a digital age that has replaced the reading of books with television, iPads, wifi, and video games.

A critic recently noted the spike in interest of late in Orwell’s 1984 (are people actually reading it?) in light of the recent ascendency of a man into high office who looks more and more each day like a dictator and less and less like the leader of a democracy whose citizens are the ones he works for. The critic noted that Huxley’s Brave New World was more appropriate because while Orwell warned against the burning of books, Huxley warned against the loss of any desire to read in the first place. Huxley looks increasingly like he saw things everyone else was missing.

The point of all this is that we lose so much in turning our backs not only on great minds like Macaulay’s but on all of those who have brought us to this place in time, a time when we have come to realize the ills of former days, the lack of respect for persons world-wide; the persecutions of those who differ from us (though there are those who would prefer to keep the persecutions alive); the wholesale exploitation of other countries in the name of profit; the need for a more cosmopolitan and less nationalistic outlook on the world around us of which we are a part — also seeming of late to have lost much of its appeal. For all our problems and challenges, in many ways we have made moral progress and much of that progress is due to the great thinkers, not only in the West but in the East as well, who have informed our thinking and created the categories by means of which we seek to make sense of the world we share in common and which seems so confounding at times. In any event, before we turn our backs on those great minds altogether we should at least make sure we have read them. It is very sad indeed that we seem to have become determined to ignore our past and especially those who created out of that past a deeper and more interesting world, people like Thomas Babington Macaulay.

 

New History?

I have been exploring two themes recently in my posts. On the one hand, I am concerned about the current state of civilization, that is, the delicate fiber that holds together diverse peoples out of respect for law, tradition, and for one another. On the other hand, I have explored many of the problems in higher education that seem to somehow have had an adverse effect on the world outside the ivory towers that once protected those inside from prying eyes. I have been especially concerned about the movement called “postmodernism” that has taken over in our universities and which rests on the central tenet that there is no such thing as truth, only “texts.”

A major movement within the academy since the late 1960s has been “New History,” one of the bastard offspring of postmodernism. It is based on the notion that history is simply another form of literature and historians are no longer to be held to the standards and rigor that ruled the discipline for generations, demands for evidence and the desire to approximate the truth about the past as much as possible. Footnotes and reliable references are no longer required. Again, since there is no such thing as truth, there cannot possibly be any accurate depiction of the past. The new historian, therefore, is free to wing it, make things up and tell it like he or she would like it to have been. New history is more about the historians than it is about history itself.

One of the most prominent historians to have defended Old History against the onslaught of the New Historians is Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have mentioned in past posts. She has done a remarkable job of seeking to defend truth against the attacks of the subjectivists and relativists, but one has the sense that she is spitting against the wind — and she knows it. In any event, she has written a number of books attempting to show the absurdity of rejecting standards of evidence and attempts to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible and one of those books, The New History and The Old addresses the topic directly. In that book, a collection of her papers, she recounts the following anecdote about a Conference she attended in 1969 when New History was aborning and was regarded by most historians as merely a passing fad, a novelty soon to be dismissed. As Himmelfarb tells us:

“. . .what the history profession needed was a “little anarchy.” This . . . was the great merit of the new history — its variety, openness, and pluralism. . . . .there is no meeting ground between [different ways of approaching history] and there need not be. All that was necessary was the tolerance to permit “different people doing different kinds of things in different ways.”

What we have here is the wheels of an academic discipline falling off. The notion that two or three or four historians are free to reconstruct events in accordance with any loose principles whatever, drawing on psychology, anthropology, science, or any other unrelated discipline and every one of those views is somehow legitimate and is to be respected by historians across the boards is on its face absurd. Tolerance is here carried out to the extreme of denial that there is anything we ought to agree about, anything beyond different ways of doing things. Anything goes. We are intolerant if we do not make room for the absurd and the outrageous. There is no truth available, only opinion.

Traditionally, the various academic disciplines each had its own distinctive manner of approaching problems that require reasonable solutions. There has always been disagreement about the best way to approach those problems and one never really expected any two thinkers in diverse academic disciplines to agree with one another about which is the better way. Hell, it was seldom the case that two academics within the same discipline agreed about much of anything! But that disagreement was the key to keeping lines of communication open and encouraging the exchange of diverse opinions and theories which were designed to eventually lead us all closer to the truth about the human condition. Dialogue requires open minds and a conviction that there is a goal to be achieved in the end, no matter how long it takes. Difference of opinion was a good thing because it made us careful about the way we conducted research and put together evidence and arguments. Difference was a means to an end, not the end in itself; but it was required in order to eventually reach some agreement about what is true and what is not. With New History, as Himmelfarb notes,

“Two historians working on the same subject are apt to produce books so disparate that they might be dealing with different events centuries and continents apart.”

What has occurred, not only in history but in all of the humanistic disciplines and the social sciences as well, is that they are all dangerously close to becoming as like one another as possible in their unanimous rejection of the notion that there is a truth worth pursuing, rejecting in one way or another the conviction that if one applied the techniques of the various disciplines one could at least hope to reach some degree of accord about what is and what is not the case. In a word, it used to be held that there is an answer to every question, but that answer must be sought by each thinker in accordance with the rules laid down within the discipline he or she has chosen to pursue, different ways to achieve a common goal, as it were. The current relativism, the rejection of the notion that there is any truth, blurs the distinctions among the various disciplines and tells us that it really doesn’t matter what anyone says about much of anything because there is no point in reasonable pursuit of truth since there is no such thing as reason or truth anyway. There is no point in searching for a common meeting ground on which we could all stand in search for something beyond personal opinion. The most persuasive or colorful writer or speaker wins.

Needless to say, this relativism has found its way into the world outside of the academy and we now find ourselves surrounded by such things as “alternative facts” and the notion that truth is a matter of who shouts loudest and is able to shut down opposing points of view. Might makes truth.