"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 26, 2016

Honor The Fallen–Both Union And Confederate Soldiers Deserve Respect

The Veterans Administration has recently issued a declaration stating that no Confederate flags will be flown at any national cemetery.


Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Joe Davidson offered this commentary:
The offensive sight of the familiar Northern Virginia Battle Flag, the Stars and Bars or other rebel pennants flying high above the graves of American soldiers will soon be gone. That’s appropriate, since the Union troops fought to preserve the nation, unlike the traitors who would have broken it in defense of slavery.
The policy, dictated by revisionist historians wishing away the nasty bits of the Civil War and hoping to cast it cleanly as a battle between heroes and traitors, is part of the current movement to expunge all unpleasant bits of American history by viewing every ancestor of the Republic within a very shortsighted lens.

Many US army installations in the North are still named after Confederate officers - Forts Benning, Bragg, Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, and Rucker.  The names have been retained because they were not ‘traitors’ as the Post journalist suggests, but because they were professional soldiers many of whom were trained at West Point along with their future Northern adversaries. 

These men were honorable, courageous soldiers who accepted the duty imposed upon them by the truly traitorous politicians of the South who refused to accept the conditions of Union membership demanded by the North.  They were no different from today’s high-ranking officers who might have disagreed with politicians who determined that the war against Saddam Hussein was necessary.  They might have disagreed with the Washington politics behind the invasion/liberation, the strategies designed by their superiors, or battlefield operations; but as loyal soldiers taught to obey orders, they complied.

The military culture of antebellum America was quite different than that of today, however.  The fact that both Southern and Northern officers shared a common parade ground, mess, and companions cannot be overlooked.  World War I is often referred to as the end of patrician gentility – the honor and respect that military officers had for each other because of common breeding, culture, and heritage; and West Point in mid-century was still pre-Victorian, respectful, and filled with the spirit of camaraderie of fellow officers.

It was normal that military bases were named for Southern officers who distinguished themselves in battle.

Even more deserving of recognition are the enlisted men of the Civil War, most of whom were conscripted and fought because they had to not because they believed in the Northern cause.  Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage more than any other work of fiction described the carnage and horror of the war, a conflict where more men died than in any other war (as a function of population).
The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well.

Erich Maria Remarque wrote as eloquently about WWI:
From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us--mostly from the earth. To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever.
Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!

Over 70,000 men died in one day at the Battle of Borodino fought between Napoleon and the Russian Czar.  Tolstoy immortalized the battle in War and Peace and described its savagery and almost certain death.
The militiamen carried Prince Andrew to dressing station by the wood, where wagons were stationed. The dressing station consisted of three tents with flaps turned back, pitched at the edge of a birch wood. In the wood, wagons and horses were standing. The horses were eating oats from their movable troughs and sparrows flew down and pecked the grains that fell. Some crows, scenting blood, flew among the birch trees cawing impatiently.
Around the tents, over more than five acres, bloodstained men in various garbs stood, sat, or lay. Around the wounded stood crowds of soldier stretcher-bearers with dismal and attentive faces, whom the officers keeping order tried in vain to drive from the spot. Disregarding the officers' orders, the soldiers stood leaning against their stretchers and gazing intently, as if trying to comprehend the difficult problem of what was taking place before them.
From the tents came now loud angry cries and now plaintive groans. Occasionally dressers ran out to fetch water, or to point out those who were to be brought in next. The wounded men awaiting their turn outside the tents groaned, sighed, wept, screamed, swore, or asked for vodka. Some were delirious.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry decides to visit his troops in disguise to hear what they think of his adventure against the French.  They in no uncertain terms share their doubts about the legitimacy of his territorial claims and feel that they, the troops, are simply tools of the king’s arrogance and power.  Yet they do not run, but stay and fight.

As in the American Civil War, most soldiers were conscripts, forced to fight for Napoleon regardless of the legitimacy of his imperialist claims.  The fought for France, for the comrades, and to stay alive.

The boys who fought under the Confederate flag were not traitors nor heroes; but young men thrown into battle thanks to no wish of their own.  They did not die for a cause but because they had the misfortune of being men in 1863 sent to be slaughtered in a war which may or may not have been foreordained.  Historians debate to this day whether slavery would have collapsed under its own weight, buried by the North’s industry and enterprise.

The Confederate flags that fly in most Southern cemeteries belong there, for they honor those young men who died not for a cause but who simply died young.  They died heroically because they were forced to fight.  They had no preeminent will or purpose to fight, but fought nobly; and it is this sacrifice – the sacrifice of youth in unwilling but obedient service.   They are as much veterans of the Civil War as their Northern brothers.

The same is true of any war.  Those young men – some as young as 14 - who fought and died in Hitler’s army also deserve respect and honor.  They didn’t choose to fight.  They were not the architects of concentration camps nor of The Final Solution.  They did not make the decision to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland.  They simply fought and died.

Cemeteries are hallowed ground.  The Byway of Hallowed Ground passing through Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania honors all those who died in the Civil War.  The ground is hallowed because American boys’ blood was shed on it.

Using the word ‘traitor’ for fallen Confederate soldiers is misguided and wrong.  There is plenty of guilt to go around when assessing the causes of the Civil War both in the North and the South.  Let the term, if absolutely necessary, be applied to those who through their politics, ambition, and misguided sense of destiny made the Civil War happen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

There Is But One World And Everything That Is Imaginable Is Necessary To It–The Spiritual Existentialism Of Cormac McCarthy

Yet even so there is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale… So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted...Of the telling there is no end." – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
McCarthy’s character, however, is no nihilist, and his ‘everything is necessary’ is far different from Ivan Karamazov’s ‘everything is possible’.  The old man’s reflections are spiritual and profoundly religious.  The world, said the old man, was nothing but witness – tales told by others which define, delimit, and validate.
He saw the world pass into nothing in the very multiplicity of its instancing.  Only the witness stood firm. And the witness to that witness..If the world was a tale, who but the witness could give it life?Where else could it have its being.
This is an interesting take on existential philosophy.  On the one hand it accepts the vanity of identity. Every word we speak is vanity, the old man says.  There can be no absolute truth, no concrete establishment of reality because the world is nothing but observation.  A man or a stone are nothing but what each observer creates. 

On the other hand, because nothing in this subjective world can be left out, then the world itself has some intelligent cohesion.  The world may be nothing more than a collection of tales, but in its seamlessness, how would anyone know what to take away? 

A nihilist would stop there.  The world is made up of random events set in motion by no divine creator with spiritual purpose.  Nietzsche was the most expressive of this philosophy, saying that the expression of individual will was the only validation of humanity in a meaningless world.  Existentialists like Sartre added positivity – the world may be meaningless, but one can mitigate the loneliness by right action.

McCarthy could not stop there.  A relative, subjective world whose reality exists only by dint of tales of identity, cannot exist without substance.

The  philosophy of Kierkegaard resembles that expressed by McCarthy, at least until McCarthy’s final epiphany of grace.
One of Kierkegaard's recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity."
What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity (Hong, Howard and Edna, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Vol. IV)
Kierkegaard and Sartre agree that subjectivity can be mitigated by ethical action; but McCarthy goes much farther.  Any ‘ethical’ action would have to be itself subjective – in the eye of the beholder – and therefore of no absolute meaning.

Tolstoy in his treatise on history expounded in the second Epilogue of War and Peace concludes that not only is reality subjective, but that it has been so conditioned by past events that no individual act, no matter how it is perceived, has no objective meaning.  Napoleon’s victories or defeats were less due to his brilliance and military acumen but by the thousands of random and purposeful events on which these actions were predicated.

McCarthy’s most unusual and unique insight is about God’s witness.  Does this endless referential relativity stop anywhere, he wonders?  Does it stop with God?

It cannot, he reasoned, because God, the creator of all, stands alone and apart from those he created.   This was the existential tragedy, said McCarthy – God could have no witness. 
Nothing against which He terminated. Nothing by way of which his being could be announced to Him.  Nothing to stand apart from and to say I am this and that is other.  Where that is I am not. He could create everything save that which would say to him no.
Yet God must exist without witness because without Him, our world would have no anchor, no meaning, and no substance.
The truth is rather that if there were no God then there could be o witness for there could be no identity in the world but only each man’s opinion of it.
Bear closely with me now, said the old man.
There is another who will hear what you never spoke.  Stones themselves are made or air.  What they have power to crush never lived.  In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.
A world of complete subjectivity cannot possibly exist, reasoned McCarthy. There has to be an existential anchor; one permanent, absolute truth; one fixed reference point, a spiritual North Star.
The old man says:
For the path of the world also is one and not any and there is no alter course in any least part of it for that course is fixed by God and contains all consequence in the sway of its going and outside of that going there is neither path nor consequence nor anything at all. There never was.
In other words, God created the world with no meaning, purpose, or consequence; and it is the understanding of that illogical conundrum that is the essence of faith. 

Dostoevsky spent his entire life searching for God and for meaning. For years he was convinced that science, philosophy, and history might provide him proof of God’s existence and an anodyne for the despair of meaninglessness.  Yet no objective discipline could satisfy him.  Nor could any of the world’s theologians for, no matter how they relied on logic as Aquinas and Augustine did, faith was always a matter of subjective belief.  In the end, Tolstoy simply gave up, looked around him, and decided that if billions of people past and present believed in a Supreme Being, why shouldn’t he?

Constantine Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina dealt with the same doubts and came to a similar conclusion.
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the
coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions
tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of
holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still
go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for
it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why
I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my
whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every
minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has
the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put
into it.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of McCarthy’s philosophy is his theory of tales.  The stories of others define us and give us our identity.  In principle there is nothing new in this insight.  Authors like Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book), Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) and the filmmaker Kurosawa (Rashomon) all wrote about subjectivity.  There is no such thing as reality, they all said, only views of it.   Yet McCarthy focuses on the stories people tell, their narratives.

Oral traditions in Africa recall history through the retelling of stories.  However, because each griot must necessarily be subjective, history itself must gradually if only imperceptibly change over time.  Neither the past nor the present is fixed, discernible, and absolute.

Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ validated personal experience.  Everyone might see the world differently, he said, but the fact that each of us sees and reflects on what we see is validation of the the primacy of the individual.  Christianity teaches that each of us is endowed by God with a soul – our own special, individual, unique spiritual essence.  It is what makes us unique and uniquely responsible for understanding God, his nature, and his purpose.  It is what makes us who we are.

McCarthy’s vision, while spiritual, does not explicitly include soul.  If anything, it is a Buddhist vision, one of acceptance.  The path to enlightenment is one of negation, understanding, and patience.
McCarthy’s cosmology perhaps most closely resembles that of Australian aborigines whose ancestors sang the world into being and who can navigate the world by singing their songs.  The world is nothing but evocation of the past and the discovery of it in the present; and stories woven into relationships and their expressions are the only reality.


McCarthy’s stories are themselves compelling.  The story of the boy in The Crossing is one of myth, metaphor, philosophy, and native spirituality – and this book, more than any other, is a chronicle of his spiritual quest.

Monday, August 22, 2016

In Praise Of Objectionable People–Great Men And The Irrelevance Of Biography

Sanctimony is in, or so it appears given the drumbeat of critical reviews of famous people who have committed supposed transgressions.  The reputation of Thomas Jefferson, one of the most influential founders of the Republic, has been tarnished because he was a slave-owner,  had illicit sex with a slave, and traded in human capital. 

 Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great, courageous man; but he was also a Lothario who cheated on his wife even more than JFK.  

Many women disqualified Bill Clinton from any further political consideration after his affair with  Monica Lewinsky.  If he cheated on his wife, they said, he will most certainly cheat on us, they said.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt who single-handedly rescued America from the Great Depression and led the country to victory in World War II, had an  illicit affair with his secretary.  Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe and the man singularly responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany also had a decades-long dalliance with his secretary.  Lyndon Johnson was known for his tom-catting.

Henry Kissinger clearly enamored of his own power, influence, and access to presidents, kings, and emperors  famously said “Power is the great aphrodisiac”.

According to New Yorker journalist Paul Rudnik (4/11), Mahatma Gandhi had an illicit and passionate affair with a male lover.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites.   Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
It doesn’t take much scraping of the surface to find something in politics, literature, science, sports, or Hollywood to find some dereliction of duty, probity, or personal responsibility.  Mel Gibson is guilty of vicious anti-Semitic rants.  Gay slurs are common among football and basketball heroes.
Wilt Chamberlain boasted of the fact that he had slept with 1000 women and the clock was still ticking. 

In many people’s mind Chamberlain was a degenerate, a profligate, and a reprobate.  Gibson had committed the unforgivable sin – invoking racial hatred, raising the specter of virulent Nazi Jew-hating, and reviving centuries-old stereotypes.  Shaw, Pound, Kant, Dreiser, and Mencken were guilty of the same race-baiting, anger, and hostility.

Yet, Chamberlain was one of the NBA’S greatest basketball players  and changed forever the the game of professional basketball.  Kant was a brilliant philosopher, Mencken a trenchant satirist, Pound a poetic innovator and literary thinker, Shaw an influential writer and dramatist. 
Recently there has been flap in the British tabloids about the summary dismissal of Jeremy Clarkson, the moderator/presenter of the wildly popular BBC program Top Gear.
"Clarkson can be a deeply objectionable individual”, said Mark Thompson (Chief Executive of the New York Times Company) to The Sunday Times.
"But I would say his pungent, transgressive, slightly out-of-control talent was something the BBC could ill afford to lose”.
Clarkson was sacked last year after punching "Top Gear" producer Oisin Tymon because he was not served a hot meal after a long day filming.

Why are we so sanctimonious? Why do we hold our political leaders, athletic heroes, literary scions, and Hollywood heroes to such high, unattainable standards?  They only do what we can only hope to do – speak our minds, sleep with starlets, be privy to state secrets, and be loved and admired by millions.

Aspiration to such wealth and power is understandable.  Not only do they confer special social status and because they provide  comfort, security, and physical well-being,; but they provide special license.  Those with power, money, and influence are forgiven errors of judgment, transgressions, and moral lapses.  The privileged can have their cake and eat it too.

Of course we are envious and jealous of those with such license.  Our admiration comes with a penalty.  Men may love JFK for his dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and MLK for his healthy and fulfilled sexual appetite, but we are obliged to censure them at the same time.  We may be men, but we are all heir to a common Puritan heritage.  Sensuality and the satisfaction of physical desires must come with a price.

American men love the French because they have a guilt-free attitude towards sex.  The cinq-a-sept tryst, a man’s dalliance with his lover after work and before a home-cooked meal, has always been the ideal.  The French have understood male sexuality as a biological imperative, and have been loathe to condemn its expression. 

French women too have been far more sexually liberated than their American counterparts.  The Story of O, Liaisons Dangereuses, Anais Nin, and Madame Bovary attest to the French understanding of human sexuality.  To deny it is to confess ignorance. Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer were bullies. Tennessee Williams was a proud sexual libertine.  Churchill was an arrogant drunkard.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an alcoholic haze.

The great British statesman Benjamin Disraeli had his sexual peculiarities.

Disraeli's biographers have noticed that there were some romantic irregularities in his past: he preferred old ladies to young women; he married late; he had a passion for male friendship. The standard explanation for this is that in those pre-Freudian days there was a Romantic cult of friendship and that love between men was sexually "innocent" (the underlying assumption being that sexual contact is "guilty"). Some of his earliest biographers (such as W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle) explained away Disraeli's odd history of affectionate relationships by saying it was due to the "oriental" part of his nature (www.thefreelibrary.com)
Rothko, and Andy Warhol had their own sexual creativity. Warhol’s ‘Factory’ was renowned not only for its sexual permissiveness but for its disregard for traditional sexual roles.

In neither case- that of a British statesman or of a celebrated American artist – did personal preferences and proclivities make any difference to their craft.  Warhol’s silk screens of Marilyn hand only a peripheral reference to the artist’s sexuality. Disraeli’s personal life had nothing to o with his efforts to consolidate  social reform, to codify the law on public health and laws to prevent labor exploitation and recognition of trade unions.

The point is that not only should prominent men and women never be censured for their personal behavior, preferences, sexual choices, and political expressions; but that the relationship between marginal behavior, excellence, and creativity be celebrated.

Who knows how the sexual vitality of Martin Luther King and JFK was essential to their leadership?  How the adulation of women in passionate sexual affairs augmented their confidence and ability to take risks?  Who can say that prejudice and racial hostility did not provide the emotional abrasion necessary for the great works of Pound or Kant?

What about meanness?  Identifying weakness and vulnerability whether in a theatre of war, in cabinets of diplomacy, in the bedroom, or in the open market has always been part of human intelligence.  Exploiting this weakness to one’s own advantage has been the key to victory and success since the very first human settlement. 

For those who avoided hurting others at all cost, such actions were considered mean.  Tennessee Williams famously wrote that meanness was the only unconscionable and unpardonable act in life; and the faint-hearted often quote him to justify their reserve and misplaced generosity.
For the rest of us, those who use meanness as a tool for victory are winners.  A canny observer of human nature and a savvy manipulator of it, he had the intelligence to devise a strategy for victory and success and the will to carry it out.   A Nietzschean through and through and a modern day hero.

In this sanctimonious, righteous age, little is forgiven.  In days past genius was given license, for everyone knew that creativity, innovation, and leadership were functions of ego, disregard for convention, and absolute individualism.  Yet today an appreciation of the integrity of personality – warts, boils, blemishes, and scars notwithstanding – is lacking.  We judge looking through one narrow lens, and the observation is necessarily myopic and ignorant.

Judge politicians by service to their constituents, judges by their jurisprudence, poets by their meter, rhyme, and allegory; dancers by their elegance; artists by their insights and perception. 

Although biographical context has become increasingly current in judging performance – a writer according to deconstructionist theory is no more than the sum of those environmental factors which made him – it is no more relevant today than one hundred or five-hundred years ago.  Biography may illuminate, but conditions can never fully explain genius.