Peace On Earth?

[This is a somewhat modified post I wrote just before Christmas in 2011.  I will simply add my best wishes to all for a very happy holiday — and urge that we continue to hope there can be peace on earth and good will among men and women.]

 

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited by their wealthy bosses who did little actual work. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that has echoes in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: there are still those who are aware that there are the few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund and they go way back. The difference between the two is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Joe Hill has blinders on: all issues are black and white, the poor are good and the wealthy are evil. There are no shades of gray.  Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. And while there are many good and decent people on this earth, our urge to violence seems ever at the ready: quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we turn up the sound on our TVs as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies in the name of American “freedom.” There’s a bit of Joe Hill in many of us it seems: would that we could take a page out of Lund’s book.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. He puts me in mind of the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot who tries mightily to live a good, Christian life in a world filled with greed, deceit, and animosity. It is small wonder that idealists often becomes cynics in their old age. With this in mind, while I sincerely wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing our navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel in the end pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the fat-cat bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Nor would they today (did I hear someone mention Walmart?). Sometimes it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace; however, it would be a good thing for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund urging “reasonable cooperation” — especially if we are at all serious about “peace on earth.”

Peace On Earth?

[This is a blog I wrote just before Christmas in 2011. The more I consider the state the world is in at present the more I think these thoughts somehow express what I want to say best.]

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited and treated as slaves. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that still echoes in the Occupy Wall Street movement: there are still those few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund, and he is another Swede, just like Joe. The difference is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Hill has become bifurcated in his thinking: all issues are black and white. There is no gray. But Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. They give us food for thought while quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we sit back quietly as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies, we are told.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. And while I wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I do recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing the navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Some times it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace. But it would do well for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund — especially when we are given to mouthing platitudes about “peace on earth.”

Self-Esteem

Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.

Tragedy and Conservatism

I wrote in yesterday’s blog that my adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, developed a notion of “unmitigated tragedy” that is based on his conviction that evil is simply a part of the world we live in. It is in each of us and it is in the natural world as well, in our hearts and in the natural catastrophes that destroy lives and property on a grand scale.

This conviction formed the basis of Vivas’ conservatism, and he was welcomed into the bosom of conservative groups as one of the true believers. He argued in print that his conservatism was grounded on his conviction that there is evil in the world and there is nothing we can do about it other than accepting the fact and trying to move on, not to attempt to justify the evil or explain it away, but to reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil if we can. He faulted liberals for their futile attempts (as he saw it) to eradicate evil from the world root and branch. It is a profound notion but one that I doubt is shared by a great many other conservatives whose ideology is based pretty simply on the desire to protect their wealth — and expand it if possible. Vivas called these people “dollar conservatives,” and refused to be grouped with them.

But in any case, as much as I admired and respected Vivas, I think he was wrong. I agree with Camus that we can recognize evil in the world and in ourselves as a necessary part of who we are and where we live. Much, if not most, cannot be justified or explained away. But we don’t have to simply accept it, as Camus himself showed in his brief life by fighting against the death penalty. Indeed, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering wherever possible and try to alleviate wrong wherever we find it — knowing that the problems will never go away completely. Vivas’ thinking smacks of bifurcation: evil is a fact. Either reconcile yourself to it it or despair. There is a middle ground. We can struggle against it wherever possible, even though we cannot hope to eradicate it “root and branch.”

This was Camus’ insight into human existence that he formulated philosophically in his brilliant if somewhat opaque essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In that myth, Sisyphus pushes a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again when it nears the top. But, paradoxically, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill and starts again, knowing the same things will recur. “And we must imagine Sisyphus happy,” concludes Camus. Existence is absurd, but we must push on. Stegner shows the same sort of resignation in the novel I mentioned yesterday, All The Little Live Things. After the trauma of his dear friend’s awful death, and the death of her unborn child, the narrator reflects:

“I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of  trouble and harm. . . . There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”

Life goes on and we must continue to weed the garden. And do what we can to lessen the suffering of those around us. It defines us as human beings who belong on the earth in ways that no amount of wealth and possessions can.

Peace On Earth?

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited and treated as slaves. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that still echoes in the Occupy Wall Street movement: there are still those few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where a friend, one of the few Joe Hill has, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund, and he is another Swede, just like Joe. The difference is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Hill has become bifurcated in his thinking: all issues are black and white. There is no gray. But Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. They give us food for thought at this time of the year when we talk about peace on earth while quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. And while I wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I do recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing the navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the bosses would have sat down and listened to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Some times it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace. But it would do well for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund — especially at this time of the year when we are given to mouthing platitudes about “peace on earth.”

Violence in America

I must confess I have a real weakness for the sports highlight shows on TV, such as ESPN’s Sports Center. I love to watch exceptional athletes as they perform at the highest levels. But I have noted the growing tendency on the part of TV networks over the years to focus in on the violence which is also present in so many of our sports: the collision on the football field, the car crash, the slam-jam in basketball, the fights on the hockey ice, the knockout punch in last night’s fight.  When an athlete gets hurt on the field or the race track, we are given a close-up — again and again.

Clearly, the audience craves this sort of thing: TV is in the business of entertaining people for the sake of sponsor’s dollars. If people didn’t want to watch the violence, Sports Center would show something else. It tells us something about ourselves, something that is a bit disturbing. The best-known exploration of this issue, perhaps, was Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,”  which acknowledges our taste for violence but leaves the question of causes in the air. We are, indeed, a violent people and we love to witness violence in pretty much any form. Take what Hollywood has done with Sherlock Holmes, for example. Conan Doyle presented us with a genius who solved crimes by using his superior intelligence; Hollywood gives us a crime-fighter who uses his fists more than his head, and fills in the empty spaces between times with explosions and mayhem. It sells: it’s that simple. Give the people what they want.

Worse yet, we imitate violence. How could it be otherwise? All animals learn by imitation and as we are animals, we also learn that way. And when we see violence on our TV sets — in sports or the latest thrill flick or video game — we want more. Our kids grow up on this stuff and we wonder why we have become such a violent nation. I do realize that it is almost impossible to make a causal argument. Just think how many years it took to make the connection between smoking and lung cancer strong enough to force the tobacco companies into something akin to submission. But I will appeal to the authority of Wallace Stegner who tells us, in his novel Crossing to Safety that in primitive cultures “. . .the young learn by imitating their parents. Girls learn household tasks and the feminine role, including motherhood, by playing house and looking after their younger brothers and sisters. Boys follow their fathers to field and forge, and ape their ways with tools and weapons.” Ours is not a “primitive” culture, we hope, but the point still stands. And if the parents aren’t around, children learn by imitating others they see around them — or on TV. How could it be otherwise? Obviously, there is room for debate about whether TV violence coupled with violent video games are the reason young kids become violent, as Moore’s movie showed. Nevertheless, they are most assuredly a contributing factor, and we could determine how large a role they play if we were to reduce the amount of violence on TV and withhold video games from the kids.  We could start by showing athletic grace and excellence on our highlight shows in place of the crashes, the collisions,  and the blows.

Any bets it will never happen?