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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Keeping Others Out–The Normality Of Fences And Walls From Neighborhoods To National Borders

Many foreign visitors to America remark on the openness of residential neighborhoods.  The spacious lawns, absence of locked grated doors, and the sense of accommodation and welcome are striking.  On the contrary, homes in San Salvador, Bamako, or Bujumbura are walled, grated, and hidden.  Razor wire or glass shards are placed on the tops of garden walls, and in the wealthier areas guard towers, stanchions, and surveillance cameras are common.   The older, colonial homes of South American cities like their European counterparts are completely walled off; but inside the flowered courtyards, balconies, fountains, tiled arches, walkways, and gardens show off Andalusian and North African Islamic design. 

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Those who are invited are welcome, all others keep out. Admittedly the residences of wealthy Europeans were built in a more lawless age and the dirt and squalor of unpaved roads, the odors of poor sewage and drainage were best kept at a distance; but there was always a historical element to the seclusion – Europe unlike America knew nothing but war, civil strife, and social unrest since its first settlements.  The Hundred Years War, The Polish-Teutonic War, The Georgian-Turkoman War, and the Hussite Wars were just a few of the long battles fought in the 14th century alone.  The combination of war, crime, social unrest, poverty, poor infrastructure, and vast differences in wealth, status, and income made defensive perimeters necessary.

Fortresses from the Atlantic to the Black Sea were built on the highest ground surrounded by high, impenetrable, and unscalable walls.

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In Europe and the Middle East entire portions of cities were walled off to keep out invaders, assassins, and outsiders.

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On closer inspection, American neighborhoods are indeed fenced off and fenced in.   While never as imposing as the closed perimeters in Europe and often disguised with shrubbery or vine-covered wood fences, they are still protected – not from invasion or assault but from prying eyes, and the distraction of other people’s children and animals.  Perhaps most importantly such fencing is the physical expression of the familiar American adage, ‘A man’s home is his castle’.  He has a right to his privacy, his particular individualism, and his right to property, land, and tenure.

Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote:

There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.' Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.'

Yet Frost’s idea of a common humanity, one without walls is no more than a pipe dream.  History if nothing else has shown that human nature is aggressive, self-interested, defensive, and territorial.  There have always been walls, perimeters, fortresses, and barriers.  The instinct to throw up a physical defense is natural and normal even though even the strongest ramparts can be breached and the highest walls scaled.  False security though it may give, the construction of a wall, a fence, or a defended perimeter is satisfying – an expression if nothing else of right.

Fences do not always make good neighbors.  In fact spite fences are so common, that many jurisdictions have passed laws against them.  Wikipedia defines a spite fence this way:

Spite fence is a term used in American property law to refer to an overly tall fence , structure in the nature of a fence, or a row of trees, bushes, or hedges, constructed or planted between adjacent lots by a property owner (with no legitimate purpose), who is annoyed with or wishes to annoy a neighbor, or who wishes to completely obstruct the view between lots. Several U.S. states and local governments have regulations to prohibit spite fences, or related regulations such as those establishing a maximum allowed height for fences.

Even if spite fences are outlawed, the animosity between neighbors, both of whom feel that their home is indeed their castle to be defended at all costs, is unrelenting. 

An older man who lived in a leafy residential neighborhood of a large American city parked his car right up to the property line of his neighbor, forcing the neighbor to parallel park and block his own walkway.  There was plenty of room in front of the man’s house, but he felt he had to align his vehicle exactly on the northwest boundary line.  When the neighbor politely asked the man to please move his car up five feet to give him more room, the man refused, saying that he would then have to park in the fall line of the old tree on his front yard.  The tree had been pruned down to half its original size, and the remaining trunk was thick and solid and far too short to come down anywhere near the curb.

The neighbor’s blood began to boil and began to think up a spiteful response.  When the man was not at home, the neighbor parked his car two feet into the inviolate space.  In return, when the man returned, he jammed the back bumper of his car tight against the neighbor’s front grille.  Each day this spiteful pas de deux continued, and the neighbor found new and ingenious ways to irritate the man.  He blocked his path, parked backwards under the suspect tree, piled leaves under the man’s front wheels so that in the heavy rain the water would back up and puddle by the driver’s door.

These spiteful episodes were the rule and not the exception.

Natalie Angier has written about spite in an article in the New York Times in which she summarizes the latest academic research.  Spite has been given less attention than it should because it flies under the moral radar.   God did not chisel spite into Moses’ tablets along with apostasy, adultery, and disrespect, nor did the early Church include it, along with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony in The Seven Deadly Sins. In fact spite seems petty and silly when compared with covetousness, betrayal, and murder.

What is spite, exactly?  Researchers at Washington State University devised a study to determine how important spite was to college students and came up with a series of illustrative questions:

A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches.”

In short, there is little to be gained by spite – as opposed to adultery with a beautiful, available, and passionate neighbor – and its only reward is to make someone pay for a real or imagined slight and then to gloat over it, even if you yourself are harmed.  Here is the best example of spite from an Eastern European folk tale: “A genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets double the prize; the man says, ‘Put out one of my eyes’.”

Yet spite and spiteful behavior continue.  It is not, as Angier suggests, one of the cardinal sins, but a subsidiary of at least one of them, so must be taken seriously.  Since there seems to be no hope for conciliation, compromise, or harmony, then more serious, structural moves are logical.   Fences serve a purpose.  Had their been a wall between the two neighbors, the incident of the cars might never have happened.

The lyrics of A Boy Like That from West Side Story are telling:

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind…

We may preach love, harmony, social integrity, and compassion; but we are at heart as territorial, possessive, and defensive as our Paleolithic ancestors.  Human society has survived and thrived because of this innate hostility – the need to expand and defend territorial perimeters; and the need to push back against aggressive neighbors.

There are better ways than a border wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.  In a sophisticated modern economy legal, financial, and economic means are readily available.  Some have argued that if the minimum wage were raised to even higher levels and more closely approximated the real value of work, Americans would take jobs currently filled by undocumented workers.  Others have said that employers who higher illegal workers should be assessed punitive fines with the threat of shutdown possible.  Others have proposed a national identity card and the ability of law enforcement to ask for it on demand.  All of these proposals have major flaws and are unlikely; but the point is that a wall is the least promising and certainly the least effective means of dealing with the problem.

Yet it feels good to build a wall.  It is a sign of national integrity, or national purpose and strength.  It says ‘This land is our land’.  Woody Guthrie did not have border walls or national perimeters in mind when he wrote his famous song; but there is an ironic sense to it.  This land belongs to you and me….not to him.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me…

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                   New York Times

So, let the wall be built.  No walls last forever.  ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ was prophetic not only regarding the Berlin Wall but for a unified Europe.  There are no longer borders, walls, and fences between countries; but there are likely to be again soon.

Walls and fences are as much a part of the human experience as any; and if they are only symbolic they are no less important.  Mr. Trump, ‘Go ahead and build that wall.’

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Best Of All Possible Worlds–Yet To Come, Here And Now, Or In Days Past?

Leibniz and Voltaire remarked that theirs was the best of all possible worlds.  God, said Leibniz, who is all-good, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing, and supreme, he said, could never have created evil without a reason; and that was to challenge us, incite and urge us to goodness.

Voltaire satirized Leibniz and his idealistic optimism in Candide where Dr. Pangloss speaks glowingly of ‘the best of all possible worlds’.
Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.
The zeitgeist of today is to complain that ours is far from an ideal world, not the best by any means, not the worst, but in need of reform.  There are those who,  dismissive of any ingrained ineluctability of human nature, believe that through committed action Utopia is indeed possible; that nothing is set in stone, no obstacle too high, and no challenge to difficult for a free, determined, and faithful citizenry.  There are others who see nothing but familiar, predictable, and unavoidable cycles of history, set in motion by an aggressive, self-interested, and territorial set of hardwired imperatives.  There can be no compromise between absolute determinism and idealism. No sitting on the moral fence.

Charles Dickens began his Tale of Two Cities this way:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
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There is  no better way to describe a humanistic philosophy which bridges determinism and optimism.  In Dickens’ view there is no good or evil, nor any hope for a better world; but the likelihood of both together – a random, accidental, perhaps felicitous ebb and flow which ultimately changes nothing, erodes some shores but adds to others, but is in itself unchangeable – is most likely.
Nietzsche went one step further.  In his view the moderate, philosophically temperate world of Dickens was fantasy itself.  While he agreed that his world – any world – was beyond good and evil, he saw no hope in settlement or resignation.  Only the herd trampled on while the Supermen, amoral and beyond good and evil, gave meaning to their lives through the expression of pure will.  There were no better days neither in the past nor to come.  Life was a matter of randomness, insignificant and unimportant, with no morality, higher purpose or ends.

It was easy for a serf in Medieval England, a low caste peasant in Mauryan India or a slave in Ghanaian Africa to accept his lot.  His world was the only the one he was born in, would die in, and would perhaps be reincarnated in.  There was nothing special about his penury, servitude, or misfortune.  Such was life.

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The Buddha and his Hindu predecessors understood this unavoidable determinism and made a religion of it.  While there was no escaping the miseries of life, there was another world that awaited – a spiritual, enlightened one.  The world was nothing but illusion, said Hindu sages, not only neither good nor bad but illusory, nonexistent.  Not worth a second thought, a waste of time considering all eternity.

The European Church was built on the same foundation – the insignificance of life within the context of a divine eternity – but it demanded more than philosophical understanding.  The Kingdom of Heaven was only for those who were worthy.  In other words, life did have a purpose and was far more than colliding billiard balls of chance.  It offered an opportunity for salvation – to do the right thing, to believe, and to have faith if not good works.

The Church, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and even Nihilism offered sanity if not hope.  Since there was no way to engineer a better life either for oneself or one’s children, acceptance was the most reasonable and sensible response to chaos.  Religion and philosophy offered a temporary sanctuary and a promise of better days.

Today’s citizen has no such support – no doctrinaire, absolute religion to assure salvation; no willful secular individualism; not even an established principled society to at least make one’s days as pleasant and untroubled as possible.  One is on one’s own.  Life is once again to be lived in the raw without institutions, doctrines, or even principles to provide guidance if not hope.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Such floundering begs for a home.  Regardless of existential despair, lost faith, or profound depression; and despite the erosion of trust in church, society, and government, there is a way – a facile way perhaps, but at least a port in a storm.  If you take your identity however configured as the essential character of who you are and ask no more, you are welcome.  Regardless of Aquinas, Tertullian, Paul, or Augustine; and despite Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Nietzsche, you can have meaning. You need not ask existential questions.

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We live in a facile, expedient, age. Philosophy is settled. No moral inquisition is required.  No questions about being, non-being, and existential purpose are necessary in secular world in need of civil and environmental reform.

Some would say that despite the moral ambiguity of the present day and, given the complexity of society, the impossibility of coming to rational conclusions, we live in the best of all possible worlds – one which is not settled at all, but dynamic; and what more affirming than human inquiry?

Others would say that we live in the worst of all possible worlds - one absent of true belief, direction, and purpose.  Better to live in a structured, inflexible, and inopportune world with clear guidelines of behavior and intimations of immortality than to flounder betwixt and between, uncertain, anxious, and without direction.

Most of us have no such decisions to make.  Métro, boulot, dodo is good enough for most.  Surviving the only challenge for millions; and living well without question the option for the privileged few.  In the end we all end up ‘dans un tas pêle-mêle’, undistinguished, without identity and without purpose.

Progressive movements despite their passion and insistence are without philosophical perspective and are limited to immediate, secular questions. Advocates neither ask nor attempt to answer the question 'Why?'.  To what end is temporal reform? In a perpetually changing world and an imponderable universe, how can secular conviction have any resonance? 

Religion has provided some context.  The world is deceptive and illusory; and man's only purpose is to know God. Philosophies like Nihilism and Existentialism have offered a secular foundation for human action. Believing only in the perpetual revolutions of history or the randomness of the universe is a faith.  Meaninglessness can be as comforting as the idea of God.  Pure secularism - action to satisfy immediate concerns with neither moral, spiritual, or philosophical foundation - can only itself be temporary and unsatisfying.

We do not live in a perfect world nor will there ever be one.  Perhaps that conclusion alone is hope for the future.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

That’s Entertainment! No Truth Required–Trump, Hollywood, And The Heart Of America

The movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes, is a fictionalized account of the quiz show scandals of the late 50s.  Quiz shows like Twenty-One and Tic-Tac Dough were among the top-rated on television, and despite the revelation that contestants were given the answers, the genre remained popular and continues so today. 

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When Charles Van Doren, an English professor at Columbia, is being interviewed by the show’s producer and told how contestants are given the answers, he balks.  That would be dishonest, he says; but the producer counters by saying the show is only entertainment.  Truth, lies, fact, fiction are irrelevant as long as viewers are entertained.  “What's dishonest?”, the Enright character says. “ When Gregory Peck parachutes behind enemy lines do you think that's really Gregory Peck? That book that Eisenhower wrote, a ghost writer wrote it. Nobody cares.“

When Enright is questioned by the chairman of the subcommittee investigating Twenty-One, he accepts no guilt.

ENRIGHT Well, sir, I don't know what else to say. Give the public what they want. It's like your business.

CHAIRMAN Uh, do you see a, a need for government regulation in this area?

ENRIGHT You know, it's not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It's entertainment. We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're, we're in show business.

The subcommittee does not agree, the show is cancelled, and subsequent investigations are launched into all other quiz shows.  The American people have been duped, they conclude, and  government under its mandate of guardian of the public trust must intervene.

While it is not surprising that Twenty-One was cancelled, it is surprising since Enright’s claims were exactly right that it caused such a furor.  Nobody cares.  Most people were disappointed not that the show was fixed, but that the truth came out, spoiled good fun, and disrupted what was a family affair.  The ethical questions raised were soon forgotten, and television returned to its stock and trade – romance, melodrama, action, adventure, and crime; all genres of impossible fantasy and uncomplicated by truth.  The only mistake television made during the quiz show era was getting caught - a calculated risk, one which could easily be borne, and one which would have few if any consequences.  What ethicists never realized was that when viewers looked back on Twenty-One they had good memories of the suspense, the drama, the excitement, the heroics.  They like most Americans were used to hucksterism, snake-oil salesmen, fraudulent preachers, corrupt businessmen, and fixed fights.  Cheating, chicanery, dishonesty, and manipulation were part of the American story of get-rich-quick.  There was no end to scheming, cutting corners, and skating around the legal and ethical edges of behavior.  It was expected; and in a caveat emptor society, the consumer bears as much responsibility as the trickster.

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Quiz Show was an important movie not because of its story of the exposé of television but because of its conclusion that for most Americans the truth does not matter.  We factor dishonesty into everything we do – what we watch, what we buy, and who we vote for.  Products are automatically discounted.  We filter out braggadocio and impossible claims.  We have over the many years of the Republic learned that everyone is out to make a buck.  No one really believes advertising claims or political promises; and we don’t hold it against those who make them.  In fact we pride ourselves on our individualism, street smarts, and personal integrity; and want no part of government regulation.

Donald Trump is no different and is perceived no differently by his supporters.  His partisans easily extract core messages from hyperbole, melodrama, and Las Vegas showmanship.  They have no interest in the ‘truth’ and could care less about statistical accuracy.  They want no carefully-worded statements of policy, no considered on-the-one-hand-on-the-other economic debate.  They want the meat and care little about the dressing. 

Trump supporters know that facts and figures might well get lost in the fireworks of a Trump rally.  Precision is only the tool of those who have no patriotic conviction, no passion, and most of all no understanding of the political, social, and cultural revolution that Trump represents.  Moreover and perhaps as importantly they love him, his stunning wife, his gorgeous daughter, and his grandchildren.  They wish they could live in Fifth Avenue penthouses, have homes in Mar-el-Lago, Biarritz, San Remo, and Gstaad.  They wish they had his private planes and yachts.

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He is the squire of beautiful women, magnate and owner of yachts, mansions, and things that we would like to be.  He is quintessentially American in his appetites, his braggadocio, and over-the-top personality.  If we confuse leadership with personal appeal and defer or dismiss reality in favor of fiction, we are simply being American – as American as can be.

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Everyone knows that a man who has made his fortune in New York real estate and Hollywood has made it by bullying, shameless self-promotion, and bloated promises.  His is a world of posturing, intimidation, and playing loose with the facts.  He has never denied this, moved to the political center, or adopted the conciliatory, temperate, and manipulative behavior of Washington.  He, more than any of his 44 predecessors, is a President of the people.  They understand him; and he understands them.  Facts have no role to play whatsoever.  If one is out to indict Trump, one must indict the American public first.  Who can possibly judge Donald Trump who has ever been to Las Vegas or Hollywood; or who has ever set foot on Wall Street or the streets of New York?

How many women fall deeply in love with men who continually feed them a line about fidelity, respect, and intimacy?  How many daughters continue to idolize fathers who have done nothing to merit their love let alone respect? How many of us fall hook, line, and sinker, for outrageous advertising claims because we have been brought up on Campbell Soup or Heinz ketchup?

We are not a nation of disciplined, rigorous rationality, and we fall for lovers and politicians equally.  We are still a young, immature, and naïve nation, say the French.  Infidelity is taken for granted, afternoon liaisons de rigeur, and corruption in the quest for power commonplace.  What else could citizens of a nation with a 1500 year history of kings, civil wars, palace coups, insurrections, and autocracy believe?  To take anything on face vale, to assume truth and responsibility is laughable.

Not so in America where we are still sorting things out – adjusting and readjusting individualism and social democracy, populism and liberalism – squaring our hucksterism and Hollywood imagery with serious governance. 

Yet this very unschooled, bare-knuckled, entertainment society is what much of the rest of the world wants.  Better to live in a land of snake-oil salesmen than under the yoke of neo-feudalism, socialism, or caste.

From a more philosophical perspective, valuing entertainment and image over fact makes complete sense.  What is history if not a circular, repetitious reply of predictable events?  Civilizations and societies come and go regardless of political philosophy, hegemony, or resources; but they all are characteristically similar.  There is little difference between the powerful kings of Renaissance England, the mandarins of Imperial China, the tsars of Russia and today’s autocrats.  The struggle for power, geopolitical influence, respect, and resources is no different today than it was 1000 years ago.  We as a race are just as self-interested, aggressive, acquisitive, and ambitious as we ever were.  In such a world, does fact really and truly matter? And has there ever been such a thing?

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Of course not. And if all is subjective, then why should image, appearance, show, and posture be so suspect?  Americans have always been more right about philosophy than any academic exegete.  Our dismissal of fact and our love of glitz, glamour, and the fake – what makes us American – is as an important cultural signifier as any.