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

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.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Ethos Of Greatness–In Praise Of Conquerors, Heroes, And Their Conquests

Tolstoy debunked The Great Man Theory of history in Epilogue II of War and Peace; but despite his contention that since all human events are conditioned by events in the past and no any one individual can take credit for them, he was as much a hero-worshipper of Napoleon as anyone.  Tolstoy was aware that the Emperor, although he had his comeuppance at Borodino and Moscow, and was later defeated at Waterloo and exiled, transformed France and by so-doing influenced the rest of Europe.  He was indeed expansionist, territorial, and arrogant, but he was convinced that his conquests would spread enlightenment, justice, and equality.

In fact without the the likes of Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Mohammed, Louis XIV, and Henry V borders would be simply arbitrary perimeters, civilizations would be timid and communal, and little would ever happen other than the milling of barley and the tending of sheep. 

Tolstoy knew this but wanted to have his cake and eat it too.  He straddled the philosophical fence by expressing his nihilism but by writing a 1500 page book about the Napoleonic Wars.  Of course he was right on both counts, for no philosopher has ever claimed that the two points of view are mutually exclusive.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino may well have been because he had caught cold and couldn’t think clearly; and that his cold was brought on because of the forgetfulness of his valet who neglected to bring the Emperor’s gum boots to the battle; but there was no disguising the fact that he was in charge, that he had always been a strategic genius, and that it simply failed him this time.

Rather than a very common story of gum boots, nasal congestion, and fatigue, the tale of Napoleon is a heroic and tragic one - a very great man, the most powerful in Europe with grand designs, great ambition, and indomitable will, finally brought down and disgraced.

Shakespeare was a nihilist.  In his Histories he wrote of king after king who rose and fell because of the same venality, arrogance, greed, and ambition as those who had come before.  History repeats itself, said Shakespeare, because human nature has not changed in 100,000 years.  Yet he delighted in telling the story of the uniqueness of kings, queens, and courtiers.  History may be determined but the chance splicing of genes and accidental influence make it fascinating.

Nietzsche, perhaps better than any other thinker, understood that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of  absolute will.  All we know of life is through our own experience; and existence has no meaning except as we see it. Why then should we plod along with the herd, indistinguishable from every other beast, when only our self-expression validates, defines, and justifies our existence?

Not only did the early days of the American Republic produce one genius, but many.  Jefferson alone might have been an Augustus or a Napoleon; but around him were Hamilton, a man of aristocratic temperament and philosophy who challenged Jefferson’s belief in populist democracy; a man who with technical, professional, and political astuteness set up the country’s financial system.  Franklin, like Jefferson, was a polyglot – a man of science and diplomacy who was Jefferson’s emissary to France.

Franklin originally  expressed his doubts over the draft Constitution, but in an address to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 displayed his particular if not unique understanding of democratic rule:
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

Both Jefferson and Monroe had a particularly astute understanding of the political, economic, and military power of the new Republic.  Jefferson’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition to map 0ut and plat the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory provided the legal and historical basis for Westward expansion and American colonization of the West.  Monroe subscribed to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined to expand their reach to the Pacific, and he provided political, moral, and financial support for this effort.  His genius was that he saw what the country could become, and with only a necessarily sketchy understanding of territories west of the Mississippi, acted decisively.

Every civilization is known and remembered for its great men.  The ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Socrates ruled The Golden Age and influenced philosophy, science, art, and literature for millennia. The kings and emperors of Persepolis, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, and Palestine were responsible for the superiority and lasting influence of their civilizations.  The monarchs of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, while often embroiled in brutal warfare, ruled with legacy and supreme power always in mind.  It was they who not only fought Europe’s wars but were responsible for the patronage of the arts and the encouragement of high civilization, life, and learning.

All societies are based on the Bell Curve.  Even the most primitive Amazon tribe has the same distribution of genius as the France of the Sun King, the England of the Age of Enlightenment, or the heroic age of Augustus.  They are the shamans and the witch doctors of the Amazon who have the intelligence to understand human nature, the environment, and the powerful forces of both.  They are adept at interpretation, explanation, and the use of inspired power.

In those tribes which are less circumscribed by the forest and have more economic and military potential, shamans become priests and then kings.  The ancient kingdoms of Mesoamerica – the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs – were ruled by geniuses no less able than Darius of Persia.

We live in an age of democratic excess, and far from venerating the heroes and geniuses of the past, we hold them up to pedestrian scrutiny.  Jefferson was not such a great man because he owned slaves and slept with them.  The legacy of both Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy has been tarnished because of their sexual appetites, manipulation of women, and arrogation of male power.

Kings and Queens of the 17th and 18th century were privileged, autocratic, feudalists who held back social progress of the disenfranchised for centuries.  Dostoevsky, Mencken, Eliot, Faulkner, and Joyce were – according to deconstructionists who see history and human events through the lens of race, gender, ethnicity and a strictly communal environment – impossible of greatness because of their social myopia.


‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ rather than individual excellence and uniqueness are today’s passwords.  Not only are men created equal in opportunity but equal in fact.  No child is less able than any other, just differently abled. Any culture regardless of promise or dysfunction equals any other.  We begrudge geniuses their fame and fortune and find fault with their rise rather than admire and emulate them.  The One Percent are not American heroes who through financial prowess, intelligence, innovativeness, and risk-taking enterprise have enriched millions of Americans, enabled businesses to grow and pension plans to fatten; but viciously greedy predators. 

We limit political intelligence if not genius because of our distorted view of democracy.  Our leaders must be ‘regular guys’, easy to have a beer with.  Men of simple language, simple manners and simple beliefs.   We accept the lot of candidates thrown up by the system – Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson,  Perry, Rubio, and Walker – and are willing to consider them despite their ordinariness, lack of curiosity and insight, and self-serving ambition.

Populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States.  The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.

Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone.  Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian.  Both voters and candidates exist within this same context.  It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.

Our public schools have become factories of mediocrity.  The theory of multiple intelligences rules, neutering the idea of individual genius as classically defined, and stirring everyone in the same, homogenizing pot.  Billions have been spent on attending to ‘children with special needs’ and little on those who have the potential to be highly productive, creative, and enterprising. 

Relativism is still current, and adhering or promoting classical moral and ethical values is considered Eurocentric and insulting in a pluralistic society.  The fact that honor, courage, respect, compassion, discipline, enterprise, and honesty have been the hallmarks of Western civilization since its inception, they are dismissed as retrograde and revisionist.

As a result, Americans are befuddled by the likes of Vladimir Putin, a strong, aggressive, extremely intelligent leader who understands geopolitics, history, and the aspirations of his people like no other.  Putin understands the current pusillanimity of the West which which is floundering and uncertain whether to man up and face the music of terrorist enemies or to cling to old notions of exceptionalism and rights.   We dismiss the leadership of Iran as a backward cabal of religious clerics still living in the Dark Ages rather than a canny, smart, bunch of men who can out-dance Obama any day of the year.


In short we live in an age of mediocrity.  We dismiss and demean the concept of greatness; reconfigure our educational institutions to favor ordinariness, empathy, and consideration at the cost of losing ambition and attainment; continue to dumb down our electoral process; and refuse – out of concern for the civilian populations of our enemies – to win battles at any cost.

The days of great American visionary men and women may be over, leaving genius to the predators.  Media, social media, information technology, virtual reality, and gaming further erode genius and reward commonness. 

It is not to late to turn the tide and to reject the corrosive insistence on ‘diversity, inclusivity, compassion, and empathy’; but almost since the infection of progressive idealism seems to have met no firewalls.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Intolerance–The Key To Social Progress

Tolerance is ‘in’; or so it would seem, for the tattoo of inclusivity, race, gender, and ethnicity is heard everywhere.  The  drumbeat of inclusivity is insistent, and those who march to it step rarely out of line. 

Yet tolerance has never been a hallmark of successful civilizations. The Punic Wars, the War of the Roses, the Napoleonic Wars, and more civil wars than one can count were not about tolerance, but about victory over an enemy who had different values, different intentions, and different culture. 

                             The Roman Punic Wars

There was no desire for inclusivity when Genghis Khan swept out of the steppes to conquer most of the known world.  He wanted only domination, annihilation, or complete and abject submission.  The Crusaders were not sent out by the French king to convince Muslims to leave Jerusalem and to think seriously about Christianity.  Roland and Charlemagne at Roncesvalles fought against the Saracen invaders because they wanted to preserve Christian Europe from Islamic barbarism.  They were interested in preserving their territory, their culture, and their dominion.  Inclusivity was the farthest thing from their minds.

The animal kingdom is no different.  Dog packs snap, snarl, and bite at those who probe the perimeter.  Wolves, lions, bees, ants, and viruses all fight the invader to keep their ground unsullied and pure.  War is common in the ant kingdom and society is organized around the principle of empire – queens, workers, soldiers, drones all have but one purpose, to protect, preserve, and expand.

Primitive human societies, scarcely removed from their animal past, were organized around the principle of survival, and inclusivity risked death and removal.  Fear and suspicion of The Other was part of the innate sense of self-preservation encoded in human DNA corroborated by brutal experience, and passed down from generation to generation.  Aggression was normal and necessary for survival.  If communities were organized only to defend, they would be destroyed quickly and summarily.  Territorial expansion through war and intimidation was equally justified in early human societies.  Life was not easy in the Pleistocene.

Competition within species is common in both the animal and human kingdoms; and if Darwin is to be believed, such competition is necessary for the survival of both.   The survival of the fittest has been a fundamental organic law since the first paramecia. 

Attempts have been made by some anthropologists to debunk the theory of Social Darwinism – the application of the laws of survival from animal to man – but even the most amateur observer of human nature and events can only conclude that we are very little different from the apes.  We organize ourselves in homogeneous societies and we defend them with tooth and claw.  We are territorial, expansionist, and tenacious.  There is nothing we would not do to preserve family, tribe, or country.  The hydrogen bomb, poison gas, defoliants, terrifyingly powerful cannons, warplanes, and rockets are all part of our armory.  Not only have attempts to disarm proven fruitless;  most countries are desperate to arm themselves with ever increasingly powerful weapons.

It is, therefore, perfectly natural for formerly homogeneous societies or communities to be suspicious of the outsider, The Other.   Such communities have developed, applied, respected, and enforced amoral, ethical, and civic codes; and anyone who looks different, acts differently, and/or subscribes to unfamiliar codes is automatically repulsed and excluded.

However, once those interlopers have adopted the normative behavior of the majority, they are welcomed.   In the modern context, when African Americans can demonstrate to their white neighbors that they have rejected the ghetto, the street, and the dysfunctional behavior of the inner cities from which they have come, they are accepted.

When gay men demonstrate to their straight neighbors that they have put aside extravagant behavior and sexual libertinage, they are welcomed.  As much as conservatives criticize gay marriage, it is just that acceptance of the majority norm which furthers gender integration.

It is intolerance of anti-social behavior which is the driving force of integration and racial and gender harmony.

Once again, many progressives have condemned what they call enforced conformity to majority norms; and have insisted that diversity means acceptance of all culturally different behavior, regardless of its intent or outcome.   This, however, begs the question.  What civilization in recorded history has not valued honesty, integrity, courage, respect, honor, discipline, work, and faith?  Since the homogenizing process tends towards this historically successful norm, what could be bad?

Inclusivity and diversity have  been extended to other aspects of human society which were never tolerated before.  A woman of distinct beauty, for example, is likely a product of well-educated, wealthy, attractive parents.  Her beauty is a marker, a signifier of the more important attributes of health and well-being.  If all such distinctions are removed – that is if all levels of intelligence, physical ability, beauty (i.e. health, wealth) are considered equal – then normal, natural, and desirable social competition is removed. 

Positive discrimination – favoring the most talented, the most gifted, the most physically fit, and the most intelligent – is the logical outcome of such a conclusion.   Care, compassion, and acceptance of those less socially able should always be a feature of  evolved societies; but dismissal of the crucial social relevance of high achievement, physical and mental prominence, and social status is self-defeating at best.

By setting such high standards, true social, racial, and ethnic integration can be accelerated.  Minorities will no longer be satisfied with a culturally low status quo enforced by multiculturalists.  Gay men and women will retain the most positive aspects of their subculture, but will reject claims to the ‘cultural exclusivity’ of the Castro or Bay-to-Breakers.  Overweight women will, like their French counterparts, aspire to an elegant, svelte norm and will thereby improve their health and social status.

Diversity per se has no value; but universal adherence to social and cultural norms does.  Joining the majority does not necessarily mean leaving all cultural identity behind.  It simply means accepting the same universal moral principles, high social standards, and competition necessary for excellence that have been prevalent since the formation of the first human communities.  The purpose of this type of majority rule is not only survival but preeminence.

Tolerance is a good thing when it comes to accepting those who cannot change.  It is a bad thing when it rejects the historical concept of social competition. It is in society’s interest to adhere to high intellectual, physical, moral, and social standards and to be ‘intolerant’ of those who refuse to adhere to them.  All successful civilizations from Greece, Rome, China, India, and Persia to the present have valued the same standards.  Ancient sculpture, painting, and literature have displayed nothing but a celebration of beauty, physical talent, and achievement.  Ancient Greek amphora, Roman frescoes, and Indian relief sculptures all attest to the fact.