Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.


Women’s Studies

I have a bone to pick with such things as “women’s studies” in our colleges and universities which have become all the rage. My bone-picking will extend to such things as “black studies” and other attempts to narrow down the educational enterprise. But let me begin with a disclaimer.

I have no problem whatever with women. On the contrary, I have always felt much more comfortable in the company of women than I do in the company of men. This probably stems from the fact that my father left my mother, sister, and me when I was two years old and I have never fully trusted men since that time. His leaving was compounded by the fact that my father didn’t support our family after the divorce and left his high-school educated ex-wife with two kids to raise and very little money to do it with. As I said, I have no prejudices against women. Indeed, I suspect there are few men who sympathize more than I with the plight of women in a man’s world. That being said, I am convinced that such things as “women’s studies” programs in our colleges and universities are a terrible mistake, not because they study women, but because specialized studies at the undergraduate level are tangential to the real purpose of the academy.

Such programs confuse the goals of higher education, which are less about what to know, than about how to know. Women’s studies programs, together with other specialized courses of studies, come perilously close to indoctrination, which is the furthest thing from true education. As I am fond of saying, education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It’s not about instilling in students shared attitudes with their instructors through biased readings and one-sided lectures. So often one hears about the need for greater “cultural diversity” in these discussions, but we hear very little about intellectual diversity, which is at the heart of education. Indeed, at least one woman in academia spoke out against women’s studies when Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst noted that they place politics over education, arguing that “the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.” This sort of thing is miles away from what education is supposed to be about. To take a young person right out of high school and narrow her focus on books and lectures about the plight of women — which is worthy of study, but something that can be studied by anyone who has learned how to learn — is a mistake of the first order. The same could be said about any narrow course of study.

Generally speaking, young people today come out of high school knowing very little and lacking the basic tools required to take possession of their own minds — such tools as a mastery of language, mathematical reasoning, knowledge of the rudiments of science, and, especially, critical thinking. Such things must, then, be the focus of attention in any undergraduate curriculum. In a word, higher education must be built on a broader base than it is at present. That is what the notion of the liberal arts has always been about, and those arts have been swallowed up in the frantic battle at the “higher” levels over politics and intellectual territory. College professors in my experience know little about the purpose of education; they don’t think about it much because they are convinced that their area of study is the only one that really matters. They know a great deal about their own area of expertise and delight in the thought that the young people coming to them want to know more about what they themselves know. Their advice to their charges most often centers around taking more and more courses in their major field of interest — which is also the professor’s own. The result is the placing of blinders on young people who can’t see very well to begin with.  The student becomes the victim because the student cannot possibly know what he or she is missing.

Thus, programs such as “women’s studies” that have a narrow focus and stress information about a tiny region in the domain of what there is to know about our world fool the young into wrongly thinking they are becoming educated persons. Education is about process, about how to learn, because well-educated people will continue to learn throughout their lives and not just during the four years they spend in college. As things now stand, a few bright ones do slip between the cracks and are inspired by their college courses to want to continue to learn. But any notion that such narrow programs as women’s studies, black studies, the examination in detail of the strange rituals of the Hottentot peoples, or one thousand ways to market spaghetti will turn out well-educated people who can think for themselves is absurd on its face. Those who lead  the young should know enough to realize that their own particular interests are not the most important thing; what is most important is the growth of the young minds that come to them empty and sadly inept.

Flight From Woman

Despite the fact that he never married, Henry Adams held women in the highest possible regard and often, in his autobiography, tells the reader how he was “rescued as often before by a woman.” In most cases it was Senator Cabot Lodge’s wife, who, with her husband and children, accompanied Adams on many of his travels. Indeed, it was with the Lodges that Adams first visited Mont St. Michel and Chartres and later wrote his remarkable study. He spends the bulk of one chapter in his autobiography taking about the plight of women in his age and says, in passing, “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed able to take care of themselves. . . . woman was the superior.” In addition, Adams wrote two novels that center around women: Sybil and Madeline Ross in Democracy, and Esther in the novel by that name. In the former, Madeline Ross finds herself unable to “purify politics” in all-male Washington because she discovers “an atrophy of the moral sense by disuse.” Indeed.  For the most part the women stand head and shoulders above the men in the novels as they did with the women in Adams’ life.  I suspect that it was Adams’ high regard for women that drew him to the Chartres Cathedral which was built as homage to the Virgin Mary. As I suggested in an earlier blog, the Virgin represented to medieval men and women the Earth Mother from whom we all came and whose warm embrace will enfold us all in the end. What is this all about?

I would suggest that this has nothing whatever to do with modern feminism. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that modern feminism has helped to effectively eliminate from common discourse any discussion of the woman as she was viewed by such men as Henry Adams. Some would insist that this is for the better. But let us pause and reflect. To Adams, women represent the softer and more gentle side of life, the intuitive and emotional, caring and loving side. Woman represents feeling, man represents reason and cold, hard logic. And despite the fact that Adams himself had a mind like a steel trap and could reason with the best, he preferred feeling which he insists brings us all closer to one another and to life itself. His heroes and heroines show extraordinary sensitivity and he himself was drawn to beauty in all its forms. Adams would have agreed with Jung who insisted on the duality within each of us and tended, for his part, to prefer the side of feeling, the compassion and love that was represented by women and which he was not himself afraid to acknowledge in himself. In fact, he seems throughout his autobiography to regret deeply not having lived in the medieval period when the Virgin Mary was very real and gave meaning to life; she was available to all as a source of comfort and succor.

But what of this duality? Why is it that so much of what is written and spoken about women and men today seems directed toward a categorical denial, a leveling down, an insistence of no difference where differences clearly exist? Why is it that today women so often must seek success in men’s terms, by wearing pants and being assertive and tough enough to break the “glass ceiling”? The male is hard and repellant in so many respects. As Karl Stern points out in his interesting book Flight From Woman,

“Just as in the function of the spermatozoon in its relation to the ovum, man’s attitude toward nature is that of attack and penetrate. He removes rocks and uproots forests to make space for agriculture. He dams up rivers and harnesses the power of water. Chemistry breaks up the compound of molecules and rearranges the position of atoms. Physics overcomes the law of nature, gravity, first in the invention of the wheel — last in the supersonic rocket that soars into the stratosphere. . . . Man’s activity is always directed against nature.”

Men are leading the onslaught against the Earth Mother today: why would women want to be like men? The answer is that society demands it. We have defined success in monetary terms and the only way women can be successful, as we define that term today, is to play a man’s game. and play it as well as or better than the men. However, it is not demeaning to women to insist that they are different, especially if that difference amounts to a superiority. And it assuredly doesn’t imply that women should be denied the same rights as men. For centuries, of course, they were denied a voice and recognition as morally equal to men. It is certainly understandable that women have become defensive about being set apart: they want the recognition they deserve and have been so long denied. But perhaps the fight has progressed a few steps too far. That is one of the consequences of the trend toward equality that slowly emerged from the age of Enlightenment when people first started thinking about moral equality and the need to recognize the rights of all. But moral equality does not translate into sameness: we should  eschew any leveling down, recognize difference and accept it.

As Stern insists in a remark that would offend many women today, women “act and react out of the dark, mysterious depths of the unconscious, i.e., affectively,  intuitively, mysteriously. This is no judgment of value, but a statement of fact.”  This does not mean that women should not pursue mathematics and science or become police officers, which are supposed to be more “manly” activities, but simply that we should all acknowledge that there are differences between men and women and that every one of us is an intriguing combination of the two natures. Some women make better physicists or mathematicians than men and some men make better poets or writers than many women do. Recent testing suggests that young girls do as well as or even better than young boys in tests involving math and science. But that does not mean that there are not differences between the two aspects of the human psyche or that women and men are not different from one another in ways that subtend the physical. It is precisely because we come to this topic with bags choked with prejudice and suspicions that when differences are pointed out we insist that value judgments are being made; we refuse to acknowledge the facts that stare us in the face.

But if in the end we insist upon making those value judgments, rather than simply to acknowledge that there are ineluctable differences between the sexes, then perhaps we should simply agree with Adams that the female is superior to the male. Love trumps aggression every time. As Joseph Conrad would have it, women are “not the playthings of Time,” they shine forth with “an unearthly glow in the darkness.” And that darkness is the result of man’s unfettered rapaciousness over the centuries.

But as I write these words I wonder if we have come to the point where they simply no longer make any sense.

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

All Dressed In White

One of the more bizarre incidents I have come across recently involved three students who attended a high school hockey game involving Red River High School and Fargo Davies High School in North Dakota. A recent fad in the area is to attend high school hockey games dressed in white — as the students do at the University of North Dakota.  But these three students (?) decided to dress in Ku Klux Klan outfits, complete with hoods and eye slits. A photograph was taken by a visiting student who was aware enough to wonder if the three were “racist,” and the incident has drawn considerable reaction in the region.

But the thing that interested me the most was the comment by the Athletic Director, Todd Olson, presumably an adult. Olson attempted to dismiss the incident as a tempest in a teapot — you know, kids will be kids. No, Todd, kids just being kids is when they wear tee shirts to a game in a hockey rink where the temperatures are low enough to freeze the nipples off a brass monkey. But Todd persists,  “To be very honest, I think you’re looking for something that is not there.”  Wrong again, Todd, there is something there and it is called “ignorance,” and as an educator you should be doing everything you can to eradicate it wherever you see it.

Photo From "Inforum"

Photo From “Inforum”

In this day we have come to expect the unexpected from young people. Further, we also expect the kids to be ignorant of their history and have no idea how offensive those hoods might be to minorities in this country who have had to deal with the hatred and prejudice of twisted minds for years in the South. And, granted, the likelihood of a black student attending a high school hockey game in North Dakota is slim indeed, still one would hope that the adults in this school would try to make this a learning experience for those kids and perhaps teach them a bit about American history, race hatred, and white prejudice. At the very least someone might have approached the three and suggested that they remove the hoods — if not themselves.

One of the truly disturbing things about the incident is that it involved young people who are supposed to be open-minded and liberal in their thinking: many see them as the hope for our future, even though recent studies have shown that they are even more self-absorbed and stressed out than their parents are. But even if we assume that those three students, presumably, who wore those robes thought it would be funny and had no idea what they were doing — which is a distinct possibility — one would think that at some point before they sat down, or during the game, someone around them would have pointed out how inappropriate their behavior is. Clearly the student who took the picture realized how offensive it was, but he only made the comment later, after going public with the photograph.

Given all the negative fall-out from the incident, we can hope that the school will, in fact, turn the situation to their advantage and make of it an object lesson. And they might start by having a long talk with Todd Olson.

Nostalgia, Satire, and Bigotry

The satirical Onion (“America’s Finest News Service”) has a provocative article that begins as follows:

WASHINGTON—With just days left before the election, the nation’s 150 million registered voters have started to remember the simple, reassuring comforts of entrusting control of their country to an extremely out-of-touch white man, sources confirmed Monday.

In the wake of the presidential debates, multiple polls have shown that citizens nationwide are beginning to recall, with great clarity, the soothing, familiar sense of security that comes with handing total domestic and foreign policy authority over to a sixtysomething white male who is completely cut off from any way of life other than his own. And with the country having gone four years without such a familiar, calming, clueless Caucasian presence in the Oval Office, experts reported the populace is now overcome with nostalgia.

I have blogged before about how this country is easily taken in by images — especially the ones recently seen on Debate TV. Though clearly tongue-in-cheek, this article makes an important point. It cites “studies” that have shown we want the comforting image of a sixty-something white man with grey on his temples to take us by the hand and lead us into the next four years. True or not, it would seem plausible given the level of fear and uncertainty in the country.

I recall a bit by stand-up comic Shelley Berman back in the 60s when the comedian mimicked a calm and soothing voice coming over the speaker on an airplane just prior to takeoff: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Captain Holbrook speaking…” and Berman, who professed to be scared to death to fly, cut in and said “It’s Daddy! Daddy’s taking us flying!” The same sort of thing might very well be going on in this election. How else to account for the fact that millions of people in this country plan to vote for a man with as many faces as Eve who lies through his teeth while showing himself unwilling to retract his falsehoods in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Daddy’s going to make things right. Daddy’s taking care of us. Obama doesn’t fit that image: he’s the wrong color.

A recent study reveals that more than half of the white people in this nation are prejudiced against black people. I dare say many Hispanics also have their prejudices, as do the Blacks themselves. Prejudice seems to be a common human attribute and plays no color favorites. But we did manage to elect a black President the last time around, although the more reliable pundits tell us he will lose the popular vote this time. They also say, thank heavens, he will win the electoral college vote and be reelected. When this happens it will result in immediate calls by the Romneyites and their minions to trash the electoral college which is an eighteenth century invention designed to safeguard the country from idiots in high political office. It hasn’t worked since politics is overrun with idiots, but the electoral college may be short-lived after this election if the corporations that pull the political strings have to deal with the fact that it interfered with the election of their man.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how many fools in this country buy into the comforting image of a duplicitous businessman who was handed success on a platter and is out of touch with practically everyone around him who doesn’t happen to belong to his country club. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote, as predicted, it will tell us something about ourselves we may not want to know. To paraphrase Lincoln let’s hope you can’t fool enough people this time around, that the voters in this country aren’t that easily duped and just maybe are a bit less bigoted than we have been led to believe. Time will tell.