Frustration Aplenty

I think, perhaps, the most frustrating thing to me about the triumph of Donald Trump is the inability — or unwillingness — of hordes of people to see through the facade, to the man beneath. It is so painfully obvious to a great many people that he is replete with character flaws despite the fact that he is also a master at channeling human emotions, chiefly fear and hatred, toward a desired goal. In every case the goal is the greater glory of Donald Trump. I don’t think he cares a tinker’s dam about this country or about the well-being of those who adoringly hang on his every word and rush off in whatever direction he points to.

The latest example of this, of course, is the terrible shooting in Orlando where at least 49 people were killed by a madman. Immediately the Trumpet jumped into the confusion calling the event a clear act of terrorism (which it was by any definition of that term) and hastily pointing fingers at the religion of Islam. After hinting broadly that our sitting president was somehow complicit, Trump insisted that the shooter was born in “Afghan” (which I thought was a blanket, but which apparently is a country that Donald Trump invented). In fact, of course, the man was born in New York — not far from Donald Trump as it happens. But this obvious stupidity was overlooked, as it always seems to be, by his purblind minions who are ready to take up arms against the enemy who happens to be anyone who at the moment is irritating Donald Trump.

In the face of this emotional frenzy — which is the sort of situation Trump seems better able than most to make worse  — we hear the calm voice of reason in the form of Hillary Clinton’s urge to calm down and figure out how best to deal with the real enemy and avoid fanning the fires of hatred toward an entire religion that preaches, as it happens, peace and love. As someone recently said, “This act had about as much to do with religion as it had to do with horticulture. The guy was an unstable time bomb who hated everyone who wasn’t him, but who nonetheless had no trouble at all buying an AR-15 rifle and a handgun . . . ” None the less, Trump’s reaction is to refuse all Muslims admission to this country. As Clinton noted in a recent rally in Pittsburg, referring to Trump’s hysterical reaction to the shooting in Orlando:

“We don’t need conspiracy theories and pathological self-congratulations,” said Clinton. “We need leadership, common sense and concrete plans, because we are facing a brutal enemy.”

As Hillary goes on to point out, the Trumpet’s variety of hysterical fear-mongering is the very thing ISIS hopes to encourage in this country and it helps their cause immensely.  Now, I have said it before and I repeat it here: I am not  a Hillary Clinton fan. I think she sails way too close to the wind, has her hand deep within the pockets of the wealthy robber-barons of Wall Street who have so much to say about how this country is to be run, and seems to be every bit as ambitious as is Donald Trump. But as we have been told by the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, who worked closely with Donald Trump in Scotland, our choice is between sanity and insanity in the upcoming election. And that choice forces us, it would appear, to choose the lesser of evils. I say this while realizing that Clinton is politically astute, has wide and deep international experience, and is bright and able — despite her  flaws. She would make a decent president, I believe. But in light of the choice that faces us all, she appears brighter than bright white.

In the end, my frustration over the fact that so many have been taken in by a super-salesman whose main claim to high office is his ability to sell himself to the deluded and mentally incompetent. I will try to keep on an even keel and in doing so will choose to listen to reason, which is the voice Hillary Clinton speaks with most of the time, and to close my ears to the wild exaggerations and hysteria that are all around us and seek to drown us in a sea of hatred and fear. The coming months will test the best in all of us.

Feminist Ethics?

As one who would regard himself as a feminist, i.e., one who has argued many times in favor of women’s rights, I confess I have some qualms about the position of those who might be called “radical” (“rabid”??) feminists. I have no quarrel with the desire to right the ship, level the playing field, provide women with an opportunity to show that they can do everything that men can do — and then some. I would like very much to personally take a sledge-hammer to the glass ceiling. My stand goes back to Plato who insisted that women could become philosopher kings in his ideal republic because they were as fit as men to rule.

But, at the same time, I have a problem with those who insist that women should be treated the same as men, that there are no real differences, when there are obvious differences (not just physically); in the eyes of many radical feminists those differences are fundamental. There’s a contradiction here somewhere.

One of the most eloquent of the radical feminists is the psychologist Carol Gilligan who wrote the book (In A Different Voice) about the important differences between men and women, especially when it comes to ethics. She developed what she called the “ethics of care,” stressing the fact that women tend to be more intuitive in their thinking and group oriented (“the self and the other are interdependent”), whereas men tend to be more self-assertive and seek power and success rather than love. Above all else, in Gilligan’s view, men and women reason differently. This has given rise to the peculiar notion of “male reason.” As she notes:

“. . .the moral judgments of women differ from those of men in the greater extent to which women’s judgments are tied to feelings of empathy and compassion and are concerned with the resolution of real as opposed to hypothetical dilemmas. . .  Power and separation secure the man in an identity achieved through work, but they leave him at a distance from others who seem in some sense out of sight.”

The argument runs that men’s reasoning in ethics stresses respect for persons as individuals — as with Immanuel Kant — whereas her ethics of care stresses the sympathy all humans should have for other humans. As she puts is:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

The problem I have with this argument is that it smacks of black and white thinking: men and women are totally unlike; they reason differently about important matters. According to Carl Gustav Jung, whom I respect highly, we are all of us a strange blend of both the masculine and the feminine. And with healthy folks the integration of the two is complete. We all know of masculine women and feminine men, but that’s not what Jung is talking about. He is talking about the fact that each of us has the capacity to reason and also to act in the ways Gilligan spells out. This is the Yin and Yang of Eastern religions. The ethics of care, therefore, is not reserved for women. Men can and do act with compassion and concern for others. And the notion that women do not reason about their actions is a bit strange and even counter-factual. A complete ethics, it has always seemed to me, would involve both care and a respect for the rights of all humans. The failure to find balance between the two selves results in mental and emotional imbalance, not only in our thinking about ethical issues, but in all aspects of our lives. The two selves are not mutually exclusive. Karl Stern put it well in his remarkable book The Flight From Woman:

“. . . affect, untempered by reason, and rationality unfettered by the heart, are both, each in its own particular way, manifestations of trouble.”

And this takes us back to my quarrel with the radical feminists. They cannot insist both that women and men are fundamentally different and at the same time insist that women ought to be allowed the same opportunities as men because they really are no different. Because each of us is male and female, yin and yang, both men and women are capable of embracing an ethics that stresses respect and care at the same time. We can all reason and care for others: care about all those whose rights we realize must be acknowledged.

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.

Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.