Dilemma

I find myself caught on the horns of a dilemma as I try to determine whether conservatives or liberals make most sense when they talk of human freedom. On the one hand, conservatives insist that increasing social programs will deprive humans of their freedom while on the other hand liberals insist that human beings cannot be said to be free if they have no food on the table or homes to live in. I find the latter position more appealing, but the former one is not without strength.

When I speak of conservatives I speak not of reactionary conservatives such as our fractious leader who takes great delight in spreading hatred among his mindless minions. Nor do I speak of the “dollar conservatives” whose only love is of filthy lucre and who think freedom is all about free enterprise. Rather, I speak of those intellectual conservatives such as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who thought that socialism, for example, would deprive humans of any real freedom in the name of making them feel more safe and secure. Dostoevsky knew whereof he spoke as he had been condemned to a firing squad as a young man for having radical political ideas and then, after a reprieve, was sent to Siberia for five years to live among convicts in clothing that stank and crawled with lice while he picked cockroaches out of his thin soup. He was convinced that in order to be really free humans needed to suffer and he hated the Church because he was convinced that they took upon their own shoulders the burden of human freedom thereby reducing humans to “denizens of an ant heap.” Socialism, in his view, was nothing more than the stepchild of the Church.

How does one argue against a man who went through what Dostoevsky went through? How does one living in modern day America possibly understand how much we take the easy life for granted when so many in this crowded world struggle to survive? As Dostoevsky would see it, our freedom has been reduced to determining which loaf of bread we will select from the huge variety on the shelves at the grocery store or which car we will lease this year. We fear the risks and responsibilities of true freedom. And Heaven knows we don’t want to suffer in any way. (Where’s the aspirin?) At the same time, however, even in this wealthy country there are those who must scrounge in dumpsters for their meals and live on the streets, it is hard to agree that such people are free in any real sense of the term. There’s the dilemma.

Thus, one turns to politicians such as Bernie Sanders who embraces socialism in the name of human compassion and a genuine concern for others. I take him at his word; I believe he is sincere. He does want to help others. In wishing to do so, however, does he threaten to make us all “denizens of an ant heap”? I would prefer not to give up my freedom in order to dance to the tunes played by the corporations or in order not to have to make moral choices for myself. It is true as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky say that living in a state in which people are taken care of by a powerful political machine does not seem to allow room for any true human freedom.

But what about those who suffer? There’s the dilemma. And the care for others coupled with the compassion we ought surely to feel for our fellow human beings who do suffer — even though we do not do so ourselves (or, rather, because we do not do so ourselves!) would seem to be a demand we make of our moral selves. Must we trade genuine human freedom in order to make sure there are none who suffer to the extent that freedom becomes an empty word?  I think we must. I acknowledge the strength of the position taken by Dostoevsky who suffered immeasurably and grew in the process from a shallow human being with a few tattered radical ideas to a genius who knew that what really mattered in human lives was the love we have for once another and who cared about others while he was convinced that they must suffer, as he did perhaps, in order to become fully human.

But I finally come down on the side of those whose care for others would take some of their freedom away in the hope that in doing so they could live meaningful lives and achieve some semblance of meaningful freedom that is denied to them as they seek to keep body and soul together on the streets of our cities. We risk becoming “denizens of an ant heap” in opting for a political system that focuses on the needs of our fellow human beings. But the conservative view of freedom that was held by thinkers such as Dostoevsky has been reduced in our day, as I noted above, to a preoccupation with free enterprise in which the only thing that truly matters is the increase of creature comforts among the few at the cost of misery for so many others. In the end, the escape between the horns of the dilemma seems clear: err on the side of compassion for our fellow humans.

 

Desensitized?

I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Victimhood

My good friend Dana Yost recently made an excellent comment on a previous post dealing with Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. While I noted that the narrator admired his grandmother’s Victorian stoicism in dealing with a self-involved husband, Dana pointed out the fact that his grandmother, like so many of the women in her era, was worthy of our sympathy. She had, after all, lived with a man who loved her but, as Dana notes “always on his terms.” She was indeed powerless in an age in which women were generally powerless. Dana fell short of calling the grandmother a “victim,” but what he was saying put me in mind of a book by our mutual friend Joe Amato, titled Victims and Values, on the nature of victimhood in which he says, speaking of American history after the debacle of the Viet Nam War:

“The language of victims, spoken by blacks, Native Americans, women, Latinos, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, animal rights advocates, representatives of wildlife, and others, became a part of standard public discourse, as did the poor, hungry, and the oppressed of the third world. This language escalated and it becomes a means for seeking moral dominance and contending for power. . .

“. . . heightened sensitivity was proclaimed to be a precious good; caring became an obligation; and compassion, ever more conspicuously flaunted, was assumed to be readily available in the human heart. At the extremes even those who committed crimes against property and persons were welcomed into the fold of victims. In fact, their crimes became proof that they themselves, not the victims of those crimes, were the true victims of the system. . . .

“The word ‘victim,’ once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hyper-complaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

In a word, the term is being used so widely — and for various reasons, some of which are bogus — that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Amato’s notion that it being used to seek “moral dominance” and “contending for power” by certain groups of people is especially interesting and echoes the point I made in an earlier post about the “will to power.” Assuredly, many of those who claim to be victims do so to draw attention to themselves and to demand recompense. Their suffering may be real or imagined. In any event, we tend to use a word like “victim” for so many referents that is eventually loses all meaning whatever. For the most part it still refers to those who suffer in one way or another.

But I am going to suggest something outrageous, something that very few people will allow as even a remote possibility. I am going to suggest, following Fyodor Dostoevsky, that we have lost sight of the notion that suffering may be a good thing. We simply assume, without any questioning whatever, that it is necessary to eradicate all suffering wherever possible. This has made it popular for all and sundry to claim that they are suffering and require our sympathy — whether they suffer in fact or not.

Recall that the Victorian women, like so many of the disadvantaged at that time, would have simply accepted the hand they were dealt and tried gamely to make the best of it. One doubts if they thought of themselves as victims. We might even admire their courage to endure the treatment they received at the hand not only of their husbands but of society generally, though we have also lost sight of what courage truly is. In any event, I quote Dostoevsky, in his notes to Crime and Punishment to make the point:

“Man is not born to happiness. Man earns his happiness and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. . . . “

And, in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky suggests that it is through suffering that we achieve true freedom, which is central to our very humanity.

It is certainly the case that most Americans in the twenty-first century suffer very little. This may go a long way toward explaining our self-absorption. We do whatever is necessary to eliminate pain and suffering: complain, take pills, seek medical assistance, find an understanding and sympathetic partner. It seldom occurs to us that it may be a way to increase  our appreciation for what we have in hand, that it makes us deeper and more interesting human beings. I do not want to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to prevent suffering or that suffering in an inherently good thing. As Amato notes, “There is an elemental moral requirement to respond to innocent suffering.” But we do need to consider that, whether or not we agree with Dostoevsky (and what he says about suffering does sound like heresy these days, despite the fact that it is a notion fundamental to Christianity) we would do well to watch the way we bandy about terms like “victim,” because if everyone is a victim then no one is.

Disappointments

I have just returned from a train ride to Cooperstown and back which gave me time to reflect on many things — and time away from the blog, which was a bit of relief, I must say. One of the things I reflected on was a number of huge disappointments in my life. As one gets older, I am told, this is the way the mind wanders.

I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in (of all places) Baltimore, Maryland. Every year the students put on what were called the “Poly Follies.” It took several days and was well attended. It also required the printing and handing out of hundreds of programs. In my senior year the art department decided to have a contest to pick the cover for the program. It was a big deal and I hurried home after hearing the announcement and spent the entire weekend drawing and painting three covers — at least one of which I thought pretty good. At that time I drew and painted a bit and even submitted several pen and ink cartoons that were included in that year’s Yearbook. In any event, I was sure I would win (of course). But when the winner was announced and the cover placed in a large glass case in the main hall, along with all of the other submissions, none of mine were there. I was stunned. There were the three top covers and also all of the other submissions — none of which I thought as good as mine (!) In any event, I was deeply hurt to have my hard work ignored like that. So I went to the art department and reminded the teacher that I had submitted three covers which had not been displayed with the rest. A sudden look of awareness appeared in his eyes as he remembered my submissions, which he had placed in a cupboard below one of the art tables. I had submitted mine early and he obviously forgot all about it. I sensed that, but it simply increased the pain. I had been ignored and my covers were never even considered: they were in that cupboard the whole time.

The point of this little story, which recounts one of several disappointments I reflected on during the long train ride, is that disappointment is a part of life. The move today, which I have remarked upon repeatedly, to build our children’s self-esteem and help young people avoid pain and disappointment at all costs may be costing them the growth they require to develop as whole persons. It is the pain and disappointment that deepen sensibilities and broaden our perspectives and help us grow. Our society’s determination to disallow these experiences on the part of our children is a mistake of the first order, I believe, and I call on Dostoevsky as an authority on the subject. He was convinced that suffering is essential for the development of the human person. And he should know as he suffered a great deal himself and witnessed it in many others.  It is not something we should encourage, of course, but it is something we should allow as part of the necessary steps in growing up — along with failure from which we learn so much about ourselves. In its place, we try to guarantee our children only pleasure; we have self-esteem movements in the schools and at home where no one is denied and everyone gets a prize, while only a few truly deserve it; this in turn has devolved into the entitlement we see all around us where spoiled children grow into shallow, spoiled adults whose attention is turned only on themselves.

I don’t regard myself as exemplary, by any means; but I am aware that most of the people I admire and respect have had many disappointments in their lives and have suffered at times a great deal. Dostoevsky may have overstated the case by insisting that suffering is essential to becoming fully human, but our attempts to protect the young from every type of disappointment and harm is assuredly misguided.

Good Fortune

In reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov I have noticed a number of recurring themes. I have commented in a previous blog on one of them: the conviction on Chekhov’s part that in great measure a person’s good fortune is simply a matter of luck. Another theme that recurs is the conviction that one person’s good fortune is only possible as a result of the hard work, suffering, and even death of others less fortunate. This is a thought that may or may not be true, but it is almost certainly one that never crosses the minds of very wealthy folks, like the Koch brothers, for example, who have earned their millions by sending the less fortunate to work in their coal mines and oil fields to sweat and strain so the brothers can use their millions to live the high life and attempt to buy a government. Nor does it occur, I dare say, to John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s pizza chain whose employees work for minimum wage and are cajoled into voting for the candidate of the owner’s choice at election time. And one must wonder how much time the descendants of Sam Walton have spent worrying about the thousands of exploited workers who sweat and toil so the Walton heirs can sleep on silk sheets and eat at the best restaurants. In any event, it does seem to me to be a thought worth considering and I have selected a couple of passages from two short stories by Chekhov to convey the rather persuasive way he presents his case.

In the first case, “Gooseberries,” the narrator has this reflection:

“obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would not be possible. It’s a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as the wind stirs an aspen — and everything is fine.”

We hear the echoes of the notion that good fortune and happiness are a matter of luck, and as Chekhov says in another place, quoting Pushkin, “Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion.” Indeed. But the notion that happiness for one person rides on the backs of misery for countless others is repeated in another of Chekhov’s stories, “On Official Business,” where the narrator, a coroner investigating the apparent suicide of an impoverished man, after a sleepless night in which he was haunted by dreams, reflects as follows:

“What [the men in his dream] sang had occurred to him before, but this thought had somehow sat behind other thoughts in his head and flashed timidly, like a distant lantern in misty weather. And he felt that this suicide and the peasant’s grievances lay in his conscience too; to be reconciled with the fact that these people, submissive to their lot, heaped on themselves what was heaviest and darkest in life — how terrible it was! To be reconciled with that, and to wish for oneself a bright, boisterous life among happy, contented people, and to dream constantly of such a life, meant to dream of new suicides by overworked, careworn people, or by weak neglected people, whom one sometimes talked about with vexation or mockery over dinner, but whom one did not go to help.”

At the end of the second of Chekhov’s stories above, the beadle,  a poor man, dressed in tatters,  who works hard to keep body and soul together, struggles on foot through the deep snows left by a blizzard that fell overnight and has kept the coroner and his doctor friend trapped at a friend’s house a mile out of town; he hopes to find them and assist them on their way back into town. He remarks with a mixture of relief and concern that “Folks are very worried, the kids are crying . . . .We thought you’d gone back to [Moscow], Your Honor. For God’s sake, take pity on us, dear benefactors. . . ”  But, as Chekhov says with stinging irony, “The doctor and the coroner said nothing, got into the sleigh, and drove to Syrnya.” The beadle, of course, will walk back to town through the deep snow. No thanks, no tip. He doesn’t really expect any. After a night of soul-searching on the coroner’s part, it’s back to business as usual.

Indeed it is a truth that should challenge our cherished illusions that those who are careworn and suffer in this culture are dismissed “over dinner” by the contented fat-cats as lazy and shiftless. And yet it is precisely those people, struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level, who make the easy life possible for the fat-cats.

Huxley Revisited

My friend Emily January wrote an excellent exposition and commentary on Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. In commenting on Emily’s blog, I made mention of the extended conversation toward the end of the novel between two of the main protagonists, John (the “savage”) and Mustapha Mond (“The Controller”). The former came lately to the Brave New World from wild and uncivilized America and brought with him the perspective of Shakespeare’s collected works to a world that had lost any desire it may ever have had to read anything. Mustapha Mond runs the show and has a most provocative discussion with the savage about the values and goals of Brave New World in which, the savage insists, “everything is too easy.”

Regarding this novel (which Aldous Huxley, Emily and I all admit is not great literature) I mentioned in two earlier blogs [and here] that a disturbing number of the students I had assigned to read the book in bygone days had no idea whatever what it had to do with them. I will now answer that question: everything.

Our part of the world is rapidly becoming the dystopia Huxley envisioned, though it may differ in certain particulars. But the central issue, as Mond explains to the savage, is that the sole meaning of human life in B.N.W. centers around experiencing pleasure, which we have also come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Mond’s world everything else today has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is free with no strings attached. We are not permitted to suffer. We have lost the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say), and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill….or two. Or we party hardy.

In one of the late chapters the savage asks Mustapha, “Art, science — you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” And the conversation proceeds from there. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. It’s all about reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our lives.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist and the “free” churches. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion — which requires sacrifice and self-denial — with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them no matter what (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our Brave New World. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will never produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations often came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage disagrees.

In a word, the Brave New World we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it) but not human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that they are sadly deluded: the prison bars that Huxley points to and which surround them are invisible to them. These people are amused and easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live — just as Huxley feared.

Enslaving Recipients

A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I suggested we need to alter our mind-set regarding the payment of taxes. Instead of the pejorative overtones the word has now we should try to give it a positive spin and bear in mind the immense good our taxes do — regardless of the abuses of the system that are inevitable. The blog received a most interesting comment from William Thien who appreciated my take on the question but who worried that recipients of tax relief for food, clothing, shelter, and schooling might in fact become “enslaved” by the money thrown their way: they might become dependent on the government’s largess. This is an excellent point and one I have worried about for many years.

In fact, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche both worried about it as well, and they had much larger minds than mine. They worried that “socialism” (which Dostoevsky regarded as the bastard stepchild of Catholicism, which he hated for the same reasons) deprived humans of their freedom by making them dependent on the generosity of the state (or the Church). In any case they insisted that freedom was the core of humanity: without it we are less than human, “denizens of an ant heap,” as Dostoevsky would have it.

The idea comes from Kant’s notion of autonomy which he regarded as essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human, The fact is that we, of all the animals, are the only ones who can make and follow (or ignore) our own moral precepts. This is real freedom — from which comes our responsibility — and it is the heart of our humanity according to Kant. To the extent that we initiate our own moral precepts to that extent are we human. It is a rich and very persuasive point of view.

But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival. They can hardly be expected to achieve freedom in Kant’s sense. Are they then less than human? Certainly not. Further, in the face of human suffering doesn’t it behoove each of us to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and care about our fellow humans who if ignored must go without? Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing are not really in a position to realize their full human potential in Kant’s sense of that term. One could argue that those who lack adequate schooling cannot be said to be fully autonomous human beings, either — again, in Kant’s sense of that term. These people are too busy just trying to survive in an unfriendly world. It’s not clear that in the extreme case the chronically disadvantaged should even be held responsible for their actions. These people deserve more. And if we are in a position to provide more it would appear we have an obligation to respond by being generous.

If it is wrong to alleviate suffering because it “enslaves” those who are the recipients of our generosity (or our tax money), it is much worse to look the other way and ignore the suffering of those we might be in position to help. I would say it is the lesser of two evils, except that I fail to see that the option of helping others is in any way “evil.” Furthermore, as I look deeper into the issue I wonder whether this sort of dependence, this “enslavement” that is associated with social programs that help people in need is any different from the perfectly ordinary forms of dependence that we associate with “free market” capitalism — to wit, the dependence of the wage earner or the salaried employee on the largess of his or her employer, or even the independent business person on his or her customers. I dare say the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalistic pyramid depend on tax breaks and subsidies to help them increase their already obscene wealth. We are all tied by numerous bonds of interdependence in this or any economic system. But the major impediments to real independence, the achievement of autonomy, are poverty and ignorance. And we are in a position to do something about those if we choose to do so.

In the end I still contend that we need to rethink our take on taxation. Despite the abuses our tax money does immense good: it eliminates a great deal of human suffering and frees many people from dehumanizing conditions. Surely, these are good things.