Obligations of the Wealthy

It is always instructive and even at times interesting (or even painful) to take a look at ourselves through the eyes of those who live on the other side of the pond. These days one can only shudder to think what the impression must be, but I shall avoid that in order to retain some semblance of my sanity — what is left of it.

In any event, in 1877 British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone took a careful look at what was going on in America — an America that Alexis de Tocqueville had previously examined under the microscope. He did not like what he saw. Considering the fact at the time that Cornelius Vanderbilt had just left his son $100 million Gladstone worried that

“Wealth on so grand a scale ought not to exist accompanied by no ‘obligation to society.'”

Gladstone thought that the government should take great wealth away from the wealthy and redistribute it if the wealthy did not take part in governing the country. That, of course, has not happened. In fact in the nineteenth century we have examples of such worthies as John D. Rockerfeller, Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnegie who amassed huge wealth and yet never participated in any way in the political arena. It appeared as though the wealthy worried more about their wealth than they did the fate of their nation. That seems to have set the tone for the country in the years that have followed.

What makes this of particular interest, of course, is that as the nation was aborning the Federalists, led by such men as Alexander Hamilton, sought to establish the wealthy at the head of the nation in positions of great power and influence. Some of the Founders, such as Hamilton and even Washington to a degree, regarded the wealthy as the closest thing we had to an aristocracy. The Senate would be peopled by the wealthy as a faint echo of the English House of Lords. They were convinced (as was Plato after seeing what a jury did to his beloved Socrates) that ordinary men and women would run the ship of state aground. The wealthy and the “well born” as Hamilton saw it were in a better position to know what was best for the “general good,” while the rest of the common folk were busy trying to make ends meet. Strange to say, a great many people agreed with Hamilton and the other Federalists — enough at any rate to ratify the Constitution which was written is such a way as to make sure that ordinary folks would be separated as far as possible from the seat of government.

Gladstone’s concern is especially interesting not because his observation flew directly into the face of what the founders had intended — namely, that the wealthy and well educated would rule the nation — but that it proved to be prescient. As things stand today, the very wealthy avoid public office — with a few notable exceptions — while they and their companies maintain a tight grip behind the scenes on the power that politics promises them, the financial avenues those they have chosen to rule open for them. I speak of the corporations which, thanks to the abortive Supreme Court decision regarding “Citizens United,” have considerable influence on who it is who runs the country and which direction it will take.

In a way my concern here dovetails with a more general concern I have voiced from time to time on these pages about the “obligation” the wealthy have to those around them. Some notable exceptions can be allowed, but by and large wealthy individuals tend to worry more about their portfolios than they do about the plight of those around them who, in many cases, do not have enough food to eat or a place to call their home.

But the general point that John Murrin makes in his book Rethinking America — from which my references to Gladstone arise — cannot be ignored and does make us pause:

“In a capitalist society that generates huge extremes of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk. . . .The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupts individuals. It threatens to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Indeed so. Those who have are obliged to concern themselves with those who have not: the more they have the greater the obligation. And the very wealthy have an obligation to others and to the nation that extends beyond simply promoting those laws that enhance their opportunity to become even more wealthy. Gladstone was right to be concerned.

Now That’s Ironic!

Back in the day when I was teaching a course in the Humanities I was discussing The Book of Job with my class. I suggested that the God of the Old Testament was quite different from the God of the New Testament. After all, He made a wager with the devil that Job would not lose his faith no matter what might happen to him. During the test that the devil contrived Job’s “comforters” insisted that the must have done something wrong because God would not allow him to suffer for no reason. But the lesson, apparently, was that humans suffer for no good reason all the time and they ought to maintain their faith in God despite all.

Further, the God of the Old Testament asked Abraham to take his infant son to a mountain top and slit his throat, testing Abraham’s faith. The Old Testament is full of examples of a God who tests His believers, who seems to all outward appearances to be vindictive and all-powerful, not given to forgive and forget, much less to love. In fact some of the true believers are able to find in the Old Testament the seeds of their own racial prejudice.  I suggested that the New Testament God was a God of love and He was clearly quite different.

One of the students in my class, whom I knew to proudly consider herself among the spiritually certain, insisted that “it is the same God.” And, indeed, to those who claim to know their Bible this may be the case. But I suggested that from a theological, a philosophical, or even a literary point of view the two Gods were quite different.

After all, the New Testament is supposed to be the NEW Testament, to supplant the Old Testament; the God depicted in the New Testament (whether one believes in Him or not) is a God of love, not a God who plays favorites, inspires fear, and is given to testing his followers. In fact, in the New Testament God sacrificed his son in order to save humankind — whether or not one believes that humankind is worth saving (and at times I do wonder). He admonishes His followers to eschew wealth, reminding them that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven. He demands that they turn the other cheek, forgive one another, never judge another lest they also be judged by the same high standards. In a word, the two Gods are different in practically every respect.

The irony, however, is that so many of those who pride themselves to be among the spiritually certain seem to have failed to read the New Testament carefully and seem to be filled with hatred toward their fellow humans, not love. So many of them feel themselves to be superior to those who do not believe and are therefore not among the elect. They are quick to judge others, despite the admonition not to do so. And the love they are supposed to feel for one another is often very selective and the majority of their neighbors, whom they are asked to love like themselves,  are targets of their ire — especially if they look different, happen to have a different life-style, or practice a different religion. Many of the true believers pursue mammon with astonishing determination, seeing no problem with their love of wealth and personal possessions (even including private planes among some of their leaders), despite the admonitions in the New Testament not to do so.

In fact, it is difficult to say if the great majority of those who claim to Have The Truth and to be among the spiritually certain have any idea what is contained in the New Testament. The gospel of love, for so many of them, is simply a license to feel superior to others and to pursue their personal pleasures rather than to seek ways to become better human beings. Now that’s ironic, is it not?

Work and Wealth

It is fascinating to consider that for centuries work was regarded as demeaning and beneath all other human activity. This is the reason that even the seemingly enlightened Greeks regarded slavery as a good thing: the slaves’ role in life was to work and to save the citizens from such demeaning and distasteful activity. Even the great Aristotle defended slavery on the same grounds: human beings were never meant to do work. Slavery is required in order that those who are able to use their minds and engage in creative activity are free to do so.

The slaves, in the case of the Greeks, were the unfortunate victims of countless wars, of course, and the thinking may have been something like this: if these people were not able to win this war or this battle then they are not deserving of genuine human status. I don’t know, but I suspect I am not far off — given some of the things Aristotle said and the attitude of the Greeks generally toward slaves.

Slavery continued for centuries, or course, as did the attitude toward work. It was John Calvin in the sixteenth century who first argued that work was in fact a good thing — while slavery, with no attempt whatever to justify it, continued to make men wealthy in both England and America. According to Calvin work actually was directed by God and enabled human beings to demonstrate how much they relished the life they had been given. In a word, work was a good thing. Indeed, as Calvin insisted: work promotes the glory of God.

For Calvin human beings have no free will. Some are saved and others are damned. Only God knows which of us will be saved or damned. But we must act as if we have freedom and we must glory in our work which is not in the least demeaning; it is glorifying. Not for ourselves, of course, since pride is a sin, but for God. The fact that  a man profits from his work demonstrates that he is among “the elect.” It is a sign that God has touched him, as it were, and made it possible for him to do well. Work requires self-control and the acknowledgment of duty, that one is doing what God wants him to do. It must be approached with singleness of purpose and the determination to glorify God. This is true of the wealth that accrues from hard work as well.

As increasingly money became the means of accumulating wealth, the ethical problem changed from determining the nature of work to the question of whether or not the accumulation of wealth was a good thing.  John Locke, for example, argued that in a primitive society a man has a right to only that which he can make use of himself.  He is speaking of pears and apples. In the case of money, the notion of rights became irrelevant — for Locke. Not, however, for John Calvin who worried about both work and wealth.

In no way did Calvin, or what came to be called “the Protestant work ethic,” condone the gaining of untold wealth for the purpose of the greater glorification of those who are wealthy. For the Calvinist, wealth is a sign that God is pleased, but one must always keep in mind how this wealth came about, Who made it possible. Max Weber, in his study of the Protestant Ethic, notes that:

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only insofar as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.”

Note, please. the strings attached to the accumulation of great wealth:

“[A person] must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.”

That is to say, those who are touched by God and able to achieve great wealth have a responsibility to increase it by “restless effort.” The greater the wealth the greater the obligation to do good with it. Calvin repeatedly warns against the “irrational use of wealth” and the hazards of losing sight of where it came from.

One does wonder, then, how the founder of the Work Ethic that has taken over the Western World — and increasingly the Eastern World as well — would regard the fact that in this country, at any rate, a tiny fraction of the population has gained the bulk of the wealth and for the most part show no signs of a willingness to share it with others or recognize any responsibilities whatever to guard against “the irrational use of wealth.”

Calvin, and those who follow him, thus rescued the notion of work from derision. But they warned against the gaining of wealth for its own sake. There were always strings attached, duties to be acknowledged and others to regard. Those strings have been cut, have they not?  As Weber notes in his study,

“the religious roots [of the Protestant Work Ethic] died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness.”

Thus, along with so many of the virtues that modern humans have tossed into the bins of irrelevant, ancient history, we can add the Protestant Work Ethic and any sense that wealth carries with it a burden of responsibility to others. This is sad, indeed.

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

Morrison’s Pill

Carl Gustav Jung noted in the 1930s that modern man is in search of a soul. Postmodern man denies he ever had one. In any event Jung proposed a number of possible substitutes for the loss of a deep relationship with a powerful and demanding God, and many of those suggestions have been taken to heart by a people who share a sense of the loss of certainties once so assured. Many would argue that those certainties were compensation for short lives, deprivation, wide-spread poverty, and human suffering; but, be that as it may, Jung was very much aware of the radical alteration in the outlook of a disenchanted  people who exchanged an all-pervasive religion for psychiatric counseling, T-groups, scientism, and creature comforts. The age of Industrialism, capitalism, and democracy came in with a roar and folks turned away from the heavens and toward their iPads and determined that their very own here and now was the most important thing.

One of those who worried about the radical changes and sought to cling to a past that was already dead — perhaps to resuscitate it and bring it back to life — was Thomas Carlyle, a conservative who, at the same time, espoused universal education and worried deeply about the disadvantaged, restless poor and what could be done to make their lives easier.

Carlyle was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and saw what he called the “Healing Parliament” of 1660 (usually referred to as the “Cavalier Parliament”) as the turning point in English History, marking the death of true religion for all intents and purposes. This Parliament acted in accord with Charles II who was restored to power after the death of Cromwell — one of Carlyle’s heroes. Carlyle saw him as a powerful man who could rule England with an iron fist and make the decisions that would heal her wounds and avoid another “reign of terror” that tore France asunder. In any event, the major results, as Carlyle saw it, of the “Healing Parliament” were the ruthless attempts to restore the Church of England and displace other religions, attempts that took the form of “repressive religious legislation.” Religion was once again experiencing a power struggle among the various Churches: the plight of ordinary folks was ignored in the fallout.

Carlyle saw what Jung saw later: human beings had become cut off from a God who could save them from any and all evils that might befall them while making the demands on their consciences that would result in the salvation of their immortal souls. Needless to say, these demands were not welcomed by increasing numbers of people who worried much more about the state of their pocketbook and where the next pint of ale might come from. Carlyle saw this alteration of focus as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. In his book Past and Present — in which he wanders all over the place and sounds at times like a born-again preacher with a sense of humor (if you can imagine) — he makes a number of astute and somewhat startling observations. Regarding our love of money (including the Church’s love of money, of course) he has this to say:

“Money is Miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral sense in large masses of mankind. . . . Let inventive men consider whether the secret of this universe, and of man’s life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money?”

The problem, as Carlyle saw it, is precisely the loss of religion — not a religion we put on once a week for an hour and which allows us to seek wealth through self-indulgence, but rather a religion that demands that we seek virtue through self-sacrifice. He likened the recent practice of religion to taking a pill, one that would quickly and painlessly cure all ills. As he put it:

” . . . religion shall be a kind of Morrison’s Pill, which they have only to swallow once and all will be well. Resolutely once gulp down your Religion, your Morrison’s Pill, you have clear sailing now; you can follow your affairs, your no-affairs, go along with money-hunting, pleasure-hunting, etc. etc.”

The point of my bringing up the ramblings of a mind long dead and often dismissed out of hand is that despite his peculiarities, his concerns have been echoed by many intelligent folks who have lived since Carlyle died in 1880. One such thinker is the liberal economist Robert Heilbroner who notes in his study of capitalism that the passion of the capitalist to gain more and more wealth has created a “moral vacuum” in which anything goes and the end always justifies the means — the end being the maximizing of profits, needless to say. And, of course, there’s Jung, the brilliant psychiatrist, who echoes Carlyle’s regrets that modern man has lost his soul. As Carlyle would have it:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness, a Parliamentary expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an astronomical time-keeper . . . . man has lost the soul out of him; and now after the due period begins to find the want of it!”

One is tempted to dismiss this man as so many have done. But, still, he does make us think in our disjointed age — if we can think any more. Just because a man is a bit off-the-wall at times doesn’t mean he may not have important things to say!

On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.

 

The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Are We Happy Yet?

Toward the end of that incredibly prescient novel, Brave New World, the Controller is having a discussion with Helmholtz and the Savage who have come to the point where they cannot accept the Brave New World and are about to be shipped off to an island where other malcontents live, though the Savage will hang himself before that can happen..

The Savage has been brought up in a reservation as an outcast reading, of all things, Shakespeare and he has been asking the director if such books are read any more in the Brave New World. Of course, they haven’t. Folks like Shakespeare simply don’t happen in the Brave New World. This world, the world Huxley sees as our future, has traded great artists and creative minds for “happiness.” As the Controller says:

“. . .our world is not the same world as Othello’s world. You can’t make [fast cars] without steel — and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they are safe; they are never ill; . . . they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. . . . that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art.”

Hopefully the reader will recognize the allusions to what is going on in Huxley’s dystopia. But there are several points I want to make that do not require any familiarity with the novel. To begin with, we might note the comment at the very end of his snippet: “we’ve sacrificed high art.” I used to assign this book to my students many of whom simply could not see what it had to do with them. But it has everything to do with them, because in so many respects ours resembles Huxley’s world. We have, consciously or not, traded high art for what we deem to be happiness. But, then, we have no more idea what happiness is than do the citizens of Huxley’s world. We think it’s all about pleasure as we live our hedonistic lives eating, drinking and making merry (or Sally or Ruth, or Ben) while our minds atrophy on the constant bombardment from television and electronic media and we gleefully replace the real world with social media. We even have soma — or any number of reasonable substitutes.

Huxley’s world is based on the premise that stability is better than unrest and discontent. Those who are discontented are simply removed. We haven’t gotten to that point yet — certainly not the elimination of discontented people. But if one of the two principals running for president of this country has his way we will get there. The man is deluded, of course, and wouldn’t recognize high art if it bit him in the butt. But he’s all for stability and insularity, getting rid of those who just don’t fit — i.e., those who would disagree with him and his insane policies.

It is, of course, discontent and even resentment that have formed the warp and woof of this country since a group of rebels got together and threw off the yoke of British rule and then declared their independence and wrote a constitution which is, for the most part, one of the truly great documents created by the human mind. But since that time we have seen the country gravitate more and more in the direction of Huxley’s dystopia. We seem to want to rid ourselves of those who would disagree with us or who are simply different. We certainly won’t listen to them. Rather than embrace difference and dissent, which are the lifeblood of any democracy, we seem to be content to see the country head further and further down the road toward oligarchy: let the rich buy the country and tell us what we want. After all, they are the ones who provide us with entertainment and keep our minds off real problems while, with their other hand, they rake in the profits. If this means that a great many people will die from guns going off haphazardly it matters not as long as they don’t go off in my direction. If it means that the wealthy will continue to suck the life out of a dying planet, so be it, as long as the planet lasts long enough for me to get in another round of golf.

Like the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World, we know about diversions and having fun. We avoid strong feelings of love and affection — though we allow hatred to run rampant. We don’t have any Shakespeares any more, or any Beethovens, or build buildings that inspire deep feelings, such as the Cathedrals of old. Instead, those few with creative minds invent and tinker with inventions, ways to make our lives easier, make sure we don’t have to suffer or do without.  What is left of the arts is largely ignored in our haste to get back to our iPads. We no longer have the attention spans or the imagination necessary to engage art fully.

The fact that so many of my students couldn’t see what Brave New World had to do with their world is the thought that shakes me the deepest. We cannot possibly address our problems if we refuse to admit that  they are there, and we seem perfectly content to be….content..

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.

Controlling The Masses

With tongue in cheek, I recently imagined the possibility that a small group of very wealthy men meet secretly to decide what steps should be taken to continue the status quo — to allow them to continue to amass huge profits and maintain their power in a supposedly democratic society. I want now to suggest that while the meeting of such men might be a “paranoid fiction,” the notion that the country is becoming increasingly undemocratic and that the wealthy exercise their power in insidious ways is by no means a fiction.

In his book The Revolt of The Elites, subtitled “And The Betrayal of Democracy.” Christopher Lasch notes that the dissolution of classes was one of the “great benefits of democracy.” He quotes Henry Adams as saying that “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization now aims at this mark.” Lash, in expanding on this claim, notes how we have always rejected the notion that there is in this country a “laboring class.” As he goes on to point out

“A laboring class implied as its necessary antithesis a learned and leisure class. It implied a social division of labor that recalled the days of priestcraft when the clerical monopoly of knowledge condemned lay people to ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition. To have broken that monopoly — the most pernicious of all restraints on trade, since it interfered with the circulation not only of commodities but also of ideas — was widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the democratic revolution.The reintroduction of a kind of clerical hegemony over the mind would undo that achievement, reviving the old contempt for the masses and the contempt for everyday life that was the hallmark of priestly societies. It would recreate the most obnoxious features of class societies, the separation of learning from everyday experience.”

In other words, democracy is incompatible with the notion of social or economic classes. In a democracy everyone is educable and all have a right to participate fully in the political process. Priestcraft presupposes an intellectual elite that has knowledge and exerts power through that knowledge, as was the case, for example, in ancient Egypt. These classes of men were less concerned about closeness to their God than they were about their presumed authority over the ignorant. As Lasch notes in this regard, “[Priestcraft] was incompatible with the authority of reason and freedom of mind.” And that’s the point.  Ignorance among the many was encouraged in order to assure the power of those who knew — or claimed they know. Is it possible that we are headed down that same road?  Lasch does not suggest this, but I do wonder.

Consider these items: To begin with there is the obvious shrinking of the middle class in America, the continued growth in wealth and power of the very rich, and the growth in the numbers of the poor who depend upon others for their daily bread. Next, there is the widespread attack on the public schools, targeting such things as teacher unions which seek to assure the teachers a living wage and, presumably, allow the profession to attract better minds to our schools which currently rank near the bottom of the 32 “developed” countries. This trend is coupled with the stress on job-preparation in the schools and the trend away from liberal learning in the colleges, a trend that assures that those who graduate will know something about one or two subjects, but lack the ability to think critically about things outside the area of their expertise. They may learn how, but they are not encouraged to ask why.

Both of these trends seem directed toward creating a class of persons who will make good workers but fail as leaders, malleable and adaptable, but not thoughtful and imaginative. The very few who can afford to attend private schools and continue to amass great wealth might very well be separating themselves as a “priestly class” who claim to know what is best for the country and — through the media which they control — what is best for the masses to think about. It was never clear that the priestly class in Egypt really knew anything important, but it was clear that they used what they knew to control those who knew even less. Knowledge is power; ignorance guarantees the lack of power.

Though I hesitate to attribute superior knowledge to our “ruling elites,” a pattern is emerging that suggests the priestly class that claims to know and thereby gains control over those millions they keep in the dark by pulling the strings of those they have seated in places of political power and controlling the media that daily preaches to the masses the false values of a materialist culture.