So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.

 

Moira Revisited

A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.

The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.

Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.

All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.

Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones)  are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all.  Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.

Personality vs. Character

I’m reading Christopher Lasch’s book The Minimal Self again in which he analyses with penetrating scrutiny the sickness that pervades today’s consumer society. It is a society, Lasch insists, that puts a premium on appearance over reality, resulting from the fact that advertisers have convinced us that it is only appearance that matters. We “upgrade” when what we are using is no longer in fashion, whether or not it still works. Indeed, he says, it’s not about how the thing works anyway. It’s about how our owning it will appear to others. We must have the latest because our friends will think less of us off we don’t. (Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave your trailer home standing prominently next to your house so folks will know you have one!)

Lasch knows better than anyone that the reduction of the “minimal self,” which  we are fixated on, does not translate into the need to build better character; rather it translates into molding our own appearance so we will be attractive to others. In today’s parlance, he might say, it’s all about how many “likes” we get on social media. Regarding the cult of personality, Lasch notes the following important difference:

“Since [a person] will be judged, both by his colleagues and superiors at work and by the strangers he encounters on the street, according to his possessions, his clothes, and his ‘personality’ –not, as in the nineteenth century, by his ‘character’ –he adopts a theatrical view of his own ‘performance’ on and off the job. . . .. the conditions of everyday social intercourse, in societies based on mass production and mass consumption, encourage an unprecedented attention to superficial impressions and images, to the point where the self becomes almost indistinguishable from its surface.’

Indeed, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. in my memory who was the last to speak not only about the “moral high ground” but also about judging men and women by the “content of their character.” We don’t talk much about character any more (or about the moral high ground for that matter). We don’t seem to care about what sort of person, say, an athlete happens to be. If Tiger Woods is a womanizer and behaves like a wild animal on the golf course we care not a whit as long as he can hit his drive over 300 yards and beat the opposition. Though, in saying this, it must also be noted that in our racist age it is interesting that a black man can be so popular in a world otherwise peopled by wealthy white men who play a game at posh golf courses. That, in itself, may be a good thing.

In any event, the switch from a concern with the kind of people we are to the concern with how we appear to others is based on our consumer culture, according to Lasch, and results in a superficial view of the world — indeed a view filtered through a lens that is focused primarily on the shallow self and how what we do will impress others. We want them to “like” us, whether they like us for the right reasons or not. The “minimal self” is still the focus of our attention, but it is not focused on the deeper self that is formed in the real world meeting both success and failure, growing by way of occasional suffering and struggle. This is a self that can only be found by looking elsewhere. Instead we find a shallow self that purchases goods on the basis of their popularity (“It’s a terrific shirt, sir. Everyone is wearing them today.”) and presents itself as something to be bought on the same basis, a self that cares only about how many friends it has on Facebook.

Imposter?

One of the more intriguing stories to come out of the race among a truly ridiculous bunch of clowns for the Republican nomination for President arises in connection with Dr. Ben Carson who claims to have risen from dire poverty to become a world-famous surgeon. Are the stories he tells about himself true? Does it matter? A recent article by Matt Bal on-line addresses this issue. As the article tells us, regarding the close scrutiny that faces every political candidate these days:

Perhaps more to the point, though, such scrutiny fails to make a critical distinction when it comes to measuring integrity — namely, the distinction between the stories a politician might contrive to tell you, on one hand, and the stories he has always told himself on the other.  . .

It seems very likely that, at least until this week, Carson had always believed he tried to kill his friend and that he spurned West Point to become a doctor. So what. That doesn’t make him an impostor. It makes him someone who found meaning in some pivotal moments of his boyhood, even if memory sharpened the edges a bit.

And these kinds of moments, real or embellished, have value when we assess our candidates, if we’re not looking at everything through some superficial, true-false lens. Carson’s book, which I devoured in a day, probably doesn’t tell us much about his trustworthiness now. But if you’re reading with any genuine curiosity, it can tell you an awful lot about the way he sees his own journey.

It explains the sense of destiny that propels a man who has never held elective office — and doesn’t know very much about government — to suddenly get up one day and seek the presidency. . . .

The things politicians believe about themselves are often a lot more illuminating than the truth.

Perhaps more “illuminating” but not more important. The truth of the stories politicians tell about themselves matters a great deal. People who tell falsehoods about themselves are in some sense of that word “delusional.”  And Ben Carter’s stories are not only false but also delusional. Take, for example, his claim that he turned down a “full ride” to West Point to enter medicine. West Point doesn’t have “full rides.” They basically enlist the men and women for a free education which then requires that they serve in the Army for a full term to repay the favor. In that sense, all who matriculate at West Point, or the Naval or Air Force Academies, have a “full ride.” Carter seems to be telling us a story he made up about himself to impress us with his determination to become a  man of medicine but also one who might well have taken another turn and become a major-general. Kids do this sort of thing. Perhaps we all do to some extent — as the article above suggests — but we are not all running for president! The main question to ponder is are those stories we all tell “porkies,” as the Brits would say, or are they a sign that we really don’t know what is true anymore?

The fact that Carson makes up this stuff raises the question of the man’s inherent integrity. Are we sure we want a man to lead this country who not only “doesn’t know much about government” but also has a very loose hold on the truth? Do we know what we are getting? Or is it sufficient that he has no track record whatever in the political race and THEREFORE must be OK? Our determination to find someone to replace the clutter that now fills the hallowed halls of politics is understandable, but we must be very careful what comes out when we turn over every non-political rock in sight.

I do love the comment I quoted in a previous post: “Whether or not you like the man, Ben Carson has forced us to ask the really tough questions, such as ‘Have we overestimated the intelligence of our brain surgeons?'” But it’s not all about intelligence. Not in the least. Martin Luther King once dreamed that the day will come when we are not judged by the color of our skin but by “the content of our character.” As near as I can tell, when it comes to character, this particular politician is running on empty.

Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.

Revisiting The 60s

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am working my way through my friend David Pichaske’s book A Generation In Motion, a book about the culture of the 1960s in America and Europe. I have resisted Pichaske’s tendency to see the age through rose-colored glasses, but am beginning to see what I have missed for years: the genuine commitment on the part of a great many people to ideals that run head-on into the ideals of a capitalist society devoted solely to filthy lucre. True, I have been critical of that society as well, but I had thought for many years that the kids in the turbulent 60s were just along for the “trip.” If you catch my drift.

But I am now persuaded otherwise. Pichaske makes a strong case for the genuine depth of commitment on the part of most (if not all) who were determined to bring down, or at least escape from, the establishment and reestablish a society grounded on love and peace and mutual understanding — rather than bigger and bigger profits. At one point Pichaske quotes from a report by the Cox Commission “On the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968.”

“The ability, social consciousness and conscience, political sensitivity, and honest realism of today’s students are a prime cause of student disturbances. As one student observed during our investigation, today’s students take seriously the ideals taught in schools and churches, and often at home, and then see a system that denies its ideals in actual life. Racial injustice and the war in Vietnam stand out as prime examples of our society’s deviation from the professed ideals and the slowness with which the system reforms itself. That they seemingly can do little to correct the wrongs through conventional political discourse tends to produce in the most idealistic and energetic students a strong sense of frustration.

“Many of these idealists have developed with considerable sophistication the thesis that these flaws are endemic in the workings of American democracy.”

What distresses Pichaske most is that the dream died. As he says, “There is no such idealism today. Only bucks.” What happened, according to our author, was the assassination of John F. Kennedy followed closely by the shooting death of his brother and Martin Luther King as well, compounded with the gradual assimilation of the counter-culture into the establishment as evidenced by the career of such people as Elvis Presley or, perhaps, the following jingle brought to you by Budweiser Beer:

“So you’ve a right to sing your own song;

No one else can tell you if you’re right or wrong;

Living’ your own life, that’s what America means . . .”

Here we have the “co-option” of a movement based on ideals by a force powered by greed impossible to resist that simply moved over it and sucked the life out of it. Ideals were replaced by “bucks.” The young who wanted a beautiful alternative bought into the notion that the happy life is found in suburbia with a mortgage, two cars and 2  1/2 children — and a can of Budweiser.

Not to grind an old ax or anything, but the problem is exacerbated by the mindless entertainment that keeps the attention of the young directed toward themselves and the gratification of their endless pleasure. As Nate Hagens noted in a talk picked up on YouTube, “we are indeed dopamine junkies in America — Hand-held gadgets embody that perfectly, to the point that today’s kids will completely lack self-control in 20 years. Immediate gratification is the norm, and patience for delayed gratification is out the window.” So the ideals of those kids in the 1960s have been replaced by bucks and the young, especially, are easily diverted from any thoughts about higher ideals by toys that provide them with an escape into a world of self-gratification while they drift mindlessly toward the crass ideals of a monied society.

 

Refuge of Scoundrels

Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. During the Viet Nam war we learned what he meant when the “true patriots” of the “my country right-or-wrong” variety were telling critics to love their country or leave it. But unqualified love, blind love, is the sign of a bigot and a zealot, not of a true lover. One who loves his or her country is aware of its faults, but loves it just the same — much like the couple who have stayed together for 50 years and plan to stay together for the rest of their lives.

When traveling abroad in years past I was proud to carry an American passport. I have always thought this was a remarkable country, one that provides an opportunity for all to achieve their dreams. This is the country that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War, a war we entered in our own small way on behalf of Britain even before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. But this was the country that also locked up Japanese citizens in concentration camps during the war, so one had to maintain some sense of balance and perspective. Still, we seemed to be on the right track, concerned about the moral high ground and doing the right thing by the rest of the world. After writing a Constitution that protected slavery, for example, this country eventually managed to free the slaves and years later struggled against Southern bigotry to guarantee those former slaves the right to marry, vote, ride on buses, and eat in restaurants. We even came to realize that women ought to be able to vote! We seemed to be on the right track.

This is the country, after all, that managed to put a bridle on the unfettered greed of capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and J.P, Morgan and bring them to heel, softening somewhat the blows of the predatory rich against those who worked in their dark mines or stifling tenement sweat shops for pennies a day.  This is a country that seemed, not long ago, to still know where the moral high ground was located even if we weren’t holding it quite so tight.

But then something happened to turn the country away from the moral high ground and it seemed to be slowly disappearing in the distance. While our education system began to fall toward the bottom of the heap, we learned that our country was engaged in torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, incarcerating people for years on end without the fundamental right of trial by jury, killing suspected (I stress suspected) terrorists living half-way around the world with unmanned aircraft, breeding hatred in those we suspected might be our enemies. All in the name of  Homeland Security. Moreover, as we know, America leads the so-called “civilized” world in the number of shooting deaths and gun control is not seriously discussed. Somehow, the moral high ground that folks like Martin Luther King so eloquently urged us to seek and find not so very long ago was becoming an empty phrase. We had lost our way as the corporations once again grabbed the reins of power and filled out the dance card of the puppet politicians they bought and paid for, the military increasingly determined foreign policy, and the middle class began to slip into the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Soon less than 1% of the people in this country were contributing nearly half of the money needed to elect a politician who would be beholden to that money interest, money that might better have been spent on maintaining a tottering infrastructure or, perhaps, helping those in need, those living in cardboard boxes and eating out of trash cans. We seem to have become a nation of “ugly Americans.”

So, how far does patriotism go? At what point does one cease to love his or her country when aware of the sins of omission and commission it is committing on a daily basis? As suggested, I answer that true patriotism consists in an awareness of those sins coupled with the determination to point them out and do whatever can be done to mitigate them somehow. Criticism and rebellion were the forces that created this country, after all. To pretend the sins don’t exist, to rewrite history, to curse those who insist that they do exist, is not the mark of a true patriot. It is the refuge of a scoundrel. The true patriot, if there are any left, continues to love his country in the hope that it will once again turn toward the moral high ground and do whatever it takes to hold it and not let go. The only worry is that some day, after hope has died, the love will also die.

 

 

Do Cheaters Win?

When I coached the women’s tennis team at our university back in the Dark Ages we were initially associated with the A.I.A.W., which was an athletics association organized specifically for women in the early days of Title Nine. The organization made the huge mistake of taking the N.C.A.A. to court on the grounds that they were a monopoly and were in violation of anti-trust laws. The N.C.A.A., which even at that time was very powerful, won the case easily and the A.I.A.W. faded into the night. Our conference was faced with the option of joining the N.A.I.A. or the N.C.A.A. and I was delighted when the Conference decided to join the former. It allowed a great deal of local autonomy and there was very little politicking involved. For example, when we won our district Championship we automatically went to the National Tournament. In the N.C.A.A.  a committee votes on who gets to go to their national tournaments, though they pay the expenses, whereas the N.A.I.A. does not.

The Conference was dominated in most sports by the University of Minnesota at Duluth and when their softball team won their district championship one year it cost the university a small fortune to send the team to Florida for the National Tournament. The President of the university decided that this was enough of that sort of foolishness and he threw his weight around to persuade the other presidents to leave the N.A.I.A. and join the N.C.A.A. At that point I retired from coaching women’s tennis, thankfully. I was delighted that I would not have to deal with the N.C.A.A. which had a rule-book as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory and was an organization that was run out of a central office that allowed little or no local autonomy and politics were the order of the day.

Since that time I have had an opportunity to take closer look at the N.C.A.A. and especially its control over the large semi-professional (let’s admit it) sports programs at the Division I level. I have written about it and will not repeat here what I have already said. But I noted recently that Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference expressed his dismay over the alleged fact that the N.C.A.A. was lax in its enforcement of its own rules. He indicated that a high percentage of the universities involved in football and basketball at the Division I level were in violation of the rules and yet the N.C.A.A. was doing nothing about it. Bowlsby also claimed that their infraction committee hadn’t even met for nearly a year — even though it is generally known that there are violators of the innumerable rules governing fair play in all sports at the collegiate level. Furthermore, many of these violators were heading up very successful and lucrative programs, prompting Bowlsby to remark that “cheating pays” at the highest levels of college sports. Needless to say, a number of football coaches expressed well-rehearsed outrage at those comments.

Sociologists love to point out that the problems at the collegiate level merely reflect the problems of society at large. If this is so (and I don’t claim to be a sociologist) then there are a lot of cheaters out there who are very successful in spite of (because of?) the fact that they are breaking the rules knowingly. As some wag once said: “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” This is nonsense, of course, but I do believe that this attitude is widely shared and that the colleges and universities are merely in step with some of the most successful people in this society. As a culture we have lost sight of the moral high ground that Martin Luther King spoke about so eloquently and have convinced ourselves that since everyone does the wrong thing that it therefore isn’t wrong. When Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal, for example, it was said by many outspoken commentators that this wasn’t such a bad thing because all politicians do that sort of thing. If everyone does it, it can’t be wrong. This is what logicians call the fallacy of ad populum, or the appeal to what is generally done. It saves us having to think about things and, of course, is a handy excuse if we do get caught.

But one would hope that the universities and colleges would hold themselves to a higher standard than politicians and other low-lifes, and if, in fact, cheating in college sports is widespread it should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits publicly shamed. The Commissioner I referred to above suggested that outside agencies, even the Federal Government, should get involved. I would hope the Federal Government has more important fish to fry, but the suggestion of an outside agency is not a bad one. If the N.C.A.A. cannot police its own rules, then someone else should do it. Or the N.C.A.A. should be disbanded altogether, which may not be such a bad idea. If the N.C.A.A. won’t even enforce its own rules, it seems to have outgrown its usefulness and appears to be motivated by greed, pure and simple. There is a hellova lot of money involved in collegiate sports these days — and that may be the root of the entire problem, come to think of it.

The Content of His Character

I have referenced Christopher Lasch’s thought-provoking book The Minimal Self which is filled with insights along with summaries of various psychological theories and a great deal of psychological jargon. It is hard to quarrel with Lasch’s conclusions as it is many of his seminal points made along the way; after wading through the technical jargon, what his thesis comes down to in the end is that young men and women in this culture no longer can be said to concern themselves what used to be called “character.” This is an old-fashioned word that was the center of Victorian ethics and ultimately came from Aristotle’s notion of areté (virtue) which has to do with the sort of person one happens to be — courageous and honest or cowardly and deceitful.

The reason Lasch thinks we no longer care about character is because we have become a “narcissistic” culture, not one that is merely selfish and hedonistic, but one comprised of individuals who are empty at the center and who take on the various persona of those presented to them by the entertainment industry or the culture at large. The world “out there” ceases to exist; it becomes a “world for me” — an extension of the ego. Values disappear: the beautiful object ceases to be beautiful in itself, it becomes pleasurable for me. The distinction between subject and object breaks down. The act of courage or honesty ceases to have any intrinsic value, it becomes simply an act of which I approve or disapprove — or ignore.

In a word, people are no longer courageous or honest at the core, they are empty at the core and take on the characteristics that those around them happen to exemplify at the moment. It is what Jean Paul Sartre once called “Bad Faith” — the inability of a person to be what he or she is, as a distinctive individual, and their relentless determination to take on roles and play at being something else. Watch the waiter, Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, and you will see that he is playing at being a waiter. He carefully balances the tray and darts between the tables and seems to relish the image he is projecting to those around him. Watch the football coach stalking the sidelines: he is playing at being a coach. Like the waiter or the coach, we lack “authenticity” and take on roles dictated by those around us: we identify with those on the screen or the playing field who are merely a projection of our own “take” on others; so in the end we are playing roles we simply adopt for the sake of getting along in a world we pretty much make up for ourselves. This is the core of narcissism. The Greek character Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water because he mistook that image for himself: the world of objects became the world of the subject. Period. Lasch thinks we do this to a greater or lesser extent and in the end abandon any genuine core of self-hood and are mere role-players in a drama we have invented for ourselves. It’s all about us: the world and the people around us are what we make of them and our concern for them extends only so far as they continue to make our lives pleasant and comfortable.

What I find most interesting and provocative about Lasch’s analysis is his notion that in this process parents and teachers have been removed from their traditional roles as mentors and guides for the young — forming character by way of their own examples, admonition, and their determination to correct and judge in accordance with an ideal of what a human being should be when correction and judgment are necessary. Parents are now perfectly willing to turn their kids over to the “helping agencies,” the social workers and psychologists (not to mention the entertainment industry) who would dictate how the children are raised. In the end the kids grow up to become adults who continue to behave like kids and who lack any real sense of “self” and an inability to make moral choices and resist the charlatans around them who would sell them pipe dreams. Long into adulthood, they remain soft clay waiting to be molded into whatever form those around them choose to make them into.

The solution to the crisis we now face, as Lasch sees it, is for parents to resume their proper parental role and take control of their kids — turn off the TV and take away the electronic toys, take them away from the “helping agencies” and return them to the homes and the blend of love and respect that ultimately comprise the very authority that the kids themselves crave and require in order to become fully human — to mold that core of self-hood that we call “character” and which Martin Luther King Jr once hoped all of us would be judged by, rather than by the color of our skins (or the social roles we happen to play). It’s worth pondering.

Survival Mentality

“The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever proposed by one man to another.”

William James

It has become a commonplace to remark about the preoccupation with self that defines our current culture. We know all about the “me generation” and have come to learn that Gen-X, in whom we placed so much hope for the future, is even more preoccupied with themselves than their parents. Christopher Lasch, whom I have referenced in previous blogs, is one of the few thinkers to attempt to understand why this has come about. And he is one of the best minds I have encountered to think with about our cultural condition. He likens our present outlook on our world to that of a POW, especially the inmates of Auschwitz, during the Second World War. As Lasch notes regarding our current malaise, in his remarkable book The Minimal Self:

“People have lost confidence in the future. Faced with an escalating arms race, an increase in crime and terrorism, environmental deterioration, and the prospect of long-term economic decline, they have begun to prepare for the worst, sometimes by building fallout shelters and laying in provisions, more commonly by executing a kind of emotional retreat from the long-term commitments that presuppose a stable, secure, and orderly world. . . . Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live only one day at a time — these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in a  more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of total control.”

According to Lasch, this has given rise to a siege mentality as we embrace a survival ethic — not unlike those in the camps such as Auschwitz who struggled to remain human while they gradually retreated within themselves.

“In fact, the siege mentality is much stronger in those who know Auschwitz only at second-hand than in those who lived through it. It is the survivors [of Auschwitz] who see their experience as a struggle not to survive but to stay human. While they record any number of strategies for deadening the emotional impact of imprisonment — the separation of the observing self from the participating self; the decision to forget the past and live exclusively in the present; the severance of emotional ties to loved ones outside the camps; the cultivation of a certain indifference to appeals from fellow-victims — they also insist that emotional withdrawal could not be carried to the point of complete callousness without damaging the prisoner’s moral integrity and even his will to live. [In contrast, we exhibit]  a diminished capacity to imagine a moral order transcending [our own experience], which alone can give meaning [to our lives].”

This is heavy stuff, indeed. As the quote from William James at the top of this page suggests, mere survival for its own sake is hardly a lofty human ideal. What truly matters is what survives — what sort of person or culture. It’s about character and moral fiber, not about breathing in and out for as long as possible. We don’t talk much about character any more, and at present it is certainly the case that the moral high ground seems to have flattened after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr leaving the landscape rather barren, which is something to be deeply regretted. And there are many signs around us that point to our ignorance of the past and loss of hope in the future in our preoccupation with our own present experience. As the ads tell us, “Do It Now!”  This attests to the very malaise Lasch describes; his analysis seems to me to be quite plausible.

But he does not despair. He does not see the various movements to save the planet, stop the nuclear arms race, show concern about our shared world, together with the “growing criticism of consumerism and high technology, criticism of the ‘masculine’ psychology of conquest and competition” as complete answers, but they do “hold out the best hope for the future.” Though Lasch would not have us abandon hope for radical changes in the political landscape, at present politics does not seem to provide a way out, given the stranglehold those “profoundly undemocratic” corporations have on the political process. None the less, there are things each one of us can do within the limits of our own capacities to mitigate corporate greed and the destruction of the planet, while we seek to restore the moral high ground, reaching out to others and turning our attention toward a world filled with beauty and finding joy in the things and people that surround us — and certainly not abandoning hope in the future altogether. This would allow us to avoid the “survival mentality” of which Lasch speaks and which threatens to suffocate the human spirit.