Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Over 16 million Britons voted to leave the EU, and more than 13 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. Despite this vote of confidence for sovereignty, a more populist democracy, and nationalism Establishment elites on both sides of the Atlantic in churlish, snide, and dismissive remarks have branded a large percentage of their countries as rubes, ignoramuses, and weak-willed, manipulated political sheep.
In the United States race, gender, and ethnicity have been the most common distinguishing markers of social division in both countries, but class has rarely been cited. Socio-economic status has also been a commonly-applied indicator of political preference. By and large those who are less well-educated, hold low-level jobs, live in rural areas, and who see few benefits from the economic system tend to vote Republican. Those who live in metropolitan areas, have college degrees and professional or managerial positions vote Democratic.
Although the terms ‘'upper- middle- and lower class" are useful indicators to suggest levels of opportunity, need, mobility, and wealth, few commentators talk about class in the British sense. Upper class in Britain is defined as an aristocratic, selectively bred and schooled population of inherited wealth, distinguished pedigree, and disproportionate power and influence.
Working class defined those who labored in industry, mining, public transport, agriculture, and low-end civil service employment. Those in the middle – with neither breeding, family, or inherited wealth nor legatees of feudalism – are an amorphous lot, important to Britain, essential to its economy and productivity, but neither fish nor fowl. Up until recently reference to traditional class categories was common, accepted, and understood as a part of Britain’s social history. Now, a much more polyglot culture, such easy classification is rare.
In the United States class has been a dirty word since Eugene Victor Debs, Samuel Gompers, the Socialist and Workers’ Parties, and McCarthy. There was no such thing in America most citizens claimed, and the attempts of Socialists and Communists to deny our independent, individualist, and ambitious roots and to classify us only within the context of the means of production, labor and capital, and the dictates of economic determinism was beaten down roundly.
Now however, class in its most classic sense has returned. Not that a workers’ revolt is at hand, nor a return to Marie Antoinette, the Romanovs, and Henry VIII; but a a new populist class arrayed against one of intellectuals, academics, and highly-educated professionals.
During the primaries in the United States, seldom had such classist criticism been directed at Trump voters. According to the Eastern Establishment, such voters ipso facto were retrograde, racist, xenophobes. Although liberal commentators focused their attacks on Trump, there was no doubt that it was meant for his electorate.
Many on the progressive Left have condemned Trump as a demagogue with Hitlerian powers of manipulation and wizardry; but in so doing they were heaping even more scorn and opprobrium on his supporters. He was the Devil, they were the Devil’s advocates, and together they spelled doom for America.
Although the United States is a country divided in many ways – rural-urban, white-black, gay-straight, male-female – perhaps the most significant division is between those who value logic, rationality, and considered opinions and those who believe that life begins and ends with faith.
For people of faith, the Bible is the received Word of God, and everything is derived from it. Opinions and beliefs about Creation; the nature of man, woman, family, and sexuality; principles of law, civil behavior, punishment, and forgiveness all come from the Bible. Once one has made this ‘leap of faith’, abandoning logic for belief and received Biblical wisdom, then one cannot be expected to use logic in the same analytical way of the intellectual class.
Is this a reason to dismiss their deeply-felt and –held convictions? Listening to Establishment commentators, the answer is an unequivocal ‘Yes’. Such ignorance is a threat to Enlightenment, social progress, and progressive ideals. Anyone who holds conservative views on marriage, sexuality, abortion, prayer, Creation, guns, government, and civil rights is a threat to American democracy.
This dismissiveness, of course, is the far more ignorant position. Every one of the so-called ‘belief’ convictions of fundamentalist conservatives has a legitimate basis. On any one of the issues suggested above, there are at least two sides. There is no such thing as settled science or settled social policy when it comes to any of them. More importantly, in a democracy such as ours, respect for differing opinions is – or should be – the bedrock of society.
The Trump candidacy has finally given lie to the progressive vision of ‘inclusivity’ and pluralism. People of color, alternate sexuality, varying ethnicities and religions all have a place in the big tent; but conservative, fundamentalist, traditional white Americans do not.
Most liberal intellectuals will claim that they are indeed tolerant. I may not agree with what you say, they claim, but I defend your right to say it. This is not enough. Real tolerance is saying, “You may be right”.
Tens of millions of Americans did not vote for Trump because of his economic or foreign policy. They voted because he stood for something intangible but fundamentally important – personal and national sovereignty. Many in the populist class have felt increasingly marginalized by the arrogated centers of power in Washington and Wall Street. They have become increasingly angry as the juggernaut of progressive programs have disrupted that natural order of things. They have felt powerless as decisions which should be left to the electorate have remained in the offices of the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Trump does not have to be accurate, factual, and careful. He represents an indefinable resentment and anger that goes beyond intellectual parsing.
The same is true in Great Britain. Most economists, senior politicians, and academics have come down on the side of Remain. To leave, they contended, would amount to a social and political Armageddon. As importantly, Britons would be worse off economically, at least in the short run.
Millions of Britons were having none of it. They were so frustrated and resentful of European bureaucrats and British politicians that they – like their American counterparts – said that they were willing to take the risk.
The Establishment in Britain and in the EU didn’t get it. They were so far from getting it that they were shocked. They were blindered by their own classist arrogance.
Class is back. Not in the old-style traditional style of chateaux, manors, and top hats, but the arrogation of intellectual authority. The new intellectual class is as arrogantly dismissive of the populist class as their aristocratic forebears were when it came to working men and women.
This is only the beginning. Populism is finally out of the bag and is the force to be reckoned with.
Monday, June 27, 2016
Tennessee Williams was obsessed by dishonesty, betrayal, and deliberate cruelty. As Blanche Dubois says in Streetcar:
Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the most unforgiveable thing in my opinion, and the one thing in which I have never, ever been guilty.In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth he is particularly eloquent about this obsession and both plays are so brutally honest that they were significantly altered when produced for Broadway and Hollywood. Although both Cat and Sweet Bird were finely nuanced and left room for redemption, they looked so unflinchingly at ambition, self-interest, and moral indifference that they could never have been written with an entirely happy ending.
Both Elia Kazan’s rewrite for the Broadway production of Cat and Richard Brooks’ and James Poe’s Hollywood screenplay are far more hopeful and romantic than Williams’ vision ever was. Brook’s screenplay of Sweet Bird of Youth similarly distorted the playwright’s intent.
Hollywood, of course, is in the business of happy endings. In The Player, Robert Altman’s satire on Hollywood, Griffin Mill and June Gudmunsdottir have this exchange. Mill, a producer is explaining why he turned down June’s lover’s script:
Griffin Mill: It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully.Yet what is it about these two plays which required such alteration? Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello are produced for both stage and screen with few major edits. While Hamlet is always edited for time (if unedited it would be a four-hour play), it is rarely altered to change the intent of Shakespeare. Othello murdered out of jealousy, ignorance, and misogyny and was unrepentant about his murder of Desdemona, explaining to his judges that he did the world a favor by eliminating another duplicitous, deceiving woman. Macbeth was cruel and morally indifferent and one of the playwright’s least sympathetic characters. Hamlet was a tangle of sexual frustrations, moral confusion, and a lack of will. Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Albany, and Cornwall have no redeeming features and display the worst of human nature.
June: What elements?
Griffin Mill: Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.
June: What about reality?
Shakespeare’s vision is far more disturbing than anything Williams ever devised; and yet he is the playwright that producers tamper with.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick is obsessed by ‘mendacity’, and although he criticizes others for their refusal to face the truth, he knows that he is the most dishonest of all. While others lie to fool others, Brick lies to fool himself; and because he cannot face his own truth, he drinks to forget it.
Gooper and his wife keep the truth about his cancer to give them more time to ingratiate themselves to be the principal beneficiaries of his will; and Big Daddy’s wife is complicit in this mendacious and self-serving silence.
Big Daddy has lied to his wife for years; but neither leaves her nor confronts her with his distaste for her ignorant loyalty and lack of spirit and will.
Maggie believes she is honest, but she lies, deceives, and manipulates more than anyone else. She justifies her duplicity by saying:
Always I had to suck up to people I couldn’t stand because they had money and I was as poor as Job’s turkey. You don’t know what that’s like….how it feels to be as poor as Job’s turkey and have to suck up to relatives you hated because they had money and all you had was a bunch of hand-me-down clothes and a few old moldy three percent government bonds…Later she makes very clear what she wants out of Brick – to make him not into the Adonis she loved at Ole Miss but into the respectable burgher who can responsibly inherit Big Daddy’s wealth and manage his vast holdings:
You’re a perfect candidate for Rainbow Hill (drug rehab clinic for the rich), Baby, and that’s where they aim to ship you – over my dead body! Then Brother Man (Brick’s brother) could get a-hold of the purse strings and dole out remittances to us, maybe get the power of attorney and sign checks for us and cut off our credit wherever, whenever he wanted…Well, you’ve been doin’ just about everything in our power to bring it about, to aid and abet them in this scheme of theirs…Maggie does everything she can to discredit Gooper and Mae. She ingratiates herself with Big Daddy, knowing that he is sexually attracted to her. She is solicitous to Big Momma and plays the role of dutiful daughter-in-law.
In a world of mendacity Maggie believes she is the only one capable of dealing with the complexity of truth. In one way she is right, for she can indeed see through appearance and recognize the truth about others and herself. She is the first to acknowledge Big Daddy's cancer and the illusions the family creates. "Nobody says, 'You're dying.' You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves."
She feel that by confessing her motivations, she will bring Brick out of his self-absorbed funk and join her in her ambitions:
I'm not good. I don't know why people have to pretend to be good, nobody's good. The rich or the well-to-do can afford to respect moral patterns, conventional moral patterns, but I could never afford to, yeah, but--I'm honest! Give me credit for just that, will you please?She indeed is not good. She deliberately destroys Brick’s close friend, Skipper, by exposing his homosexuality, humiliating his ineptness with her and all women, and encouraging his suicide. She lies about her pregnancy and is as manipulative and scheming of any character in the play.
In the final lines of the play, Maggie tells Brick that she really loves him, and he responds, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”
In Kazan’s Broadway edition, the play ends instead with this soliloquy by Maggie:
Oh you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I’m determined to do it – and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof – is there? Is there, baby?In the original version Williams’ offers a conditional hope that Brick might have been wrong in his dismissal of Maggie as another mendacious member of the family; and that Maggie might indeed be more than the selfish, manipulative woman she clearly seemed to be. Yet it is clear that the hope is far less than conditional. It is manufactured and a familiar expression of Maggie’s will and Brick’s weakness.
The Broadway version dismisses the idea of hope and personal redemption and replaces it with a can-do optimism. Maggie is a benign Hedda Gabler, a woman of will and purpose; but far from the malicious and amoral designs of Ibsen’s character, one who can act in both her interest and that of someone else.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a play about ambition and deceit. Chance Wayne is a gigolo with Hollywood ambitions, and when he meets and preys on Alexandra del Lago, an aging Hollywood star who feels weak, vulnerable, and hopeless after what she believes is a disastrous screen performance – one which shows her as an old woman with faded talent.
Chance services and uses her in the hopes of getting a Hollywood screen test. When he meets her he is as wounded as she is – both aging performers of their profession; and she begins to love him for his weak misunderstanding of mortality. They, at the moment of the play, are one and the same.
At the most critical moment of the play when she is feeling most needy, most dependent, most human, and most generous, he rejects her for the young lover he was forced to abandon a number of years before. When she receives a call from Walter Winchell, an influential Hollywood columnist, telling her that her movie was not the disaster she fled from, but an unequivocal success, she reverts to her old, arrogant, mean, and selfish self and rejects Chance.
The movie version has a Hollywood ending. Alexandra del Lago returns to Hollywood to acclaim, and Chance although beaten up by Boss Finley’s thugs, goes off with Heavenly, his young former lover.
The original Williams version ends with Chance getting castrated by Finley’s son; but before he is, he and Alexandra talk philosophically about time, age, and death.
CHANCE: Princess, the age of some people can only be calculated by the level of – level of – rot in them. And by that measure, I’m ancient.Is Tennessee Williams’ vision distorted for Hollywood when Shakespeare’s is not because his characters are modern and therefore more recognizable? Is it because with a few tweaks and edits his plays can easily be transformed into Hollywood?
PRINCESS: What am I? – I know, dead, as old as Egypt…Isn’t it funny? We’re sitting side by side in this room, like we were occupying the same bench on a train – going on together…
CHANCE: No, listen. I didn’t know there was a clock in this room.
PRINCESS: I guess there’s a clock in every room people live in…
CHANCE: It goes tick-tick, it’s quieter than your heart-beat, but it’s slow dynamiter, a gradual explosion, blasting the world we lived in to burnt-out pieces….
PRINCESS: Yes, time…
CHANCE: Gnaws away like a rat gnaws off its own foot caught in a trap; and then with its foot gnawed off, and the rat set free, couldn’t run, couldn’t go, bled and died…
Williams’s plays are very close to melodrama. His lyrical language, his delicate, vulnerable characters, undercurrents of sexuality, vaguely disguised themes of incest are saved only by the persistence of his belief. Dishonesty, deceit, mendacity, and especially human cruelty are unforgivable.
There is something very melodramatic if not campy about Blanche Dubois and her ‘kindness of strangers’, something very close to caricature about Stanley. Suddenly Last Summer is very much grand guignol with murder, cannibalism, and incest the themes.
The plays of Williams like those of Arthur Miller, O’Neill, and Albee make good Hollywood because of their inherent melodrama. Mourning Becomes Electra is almost laughingly soap opera. All My Sons although a powerful morality play, is pretentious and very easily caricatured. Albee is the least melodramatic of his colleagues, but American Dream is no less grand guignol than O’Neill’s early plays.
Tweaking any of these plays to make them Hollywood-ready is no surprise. They were meant for the movies and are great American entertainment.
Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekov are uncompromisingly honest and very pessimistic about the human condition. although their plays have been adapted for the screen, they are period pieces, part of a classical theatre archive rather than real movies.
The screen adaptations of Williams have all been big box-office hits, with good reason. Important themes – life, death, struggle, etc. – are there, but massaged into happy endings and redemption.
He may be America’s greatest playwright, but for many he skates too close to afternoon television.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
Few people like poetry and find its short metaphorical references difficult. Why parse meter and verse when prose speaks more plainly and simply? Why struggle through the abstractions of Blake or the classical references embedded in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter when Dickens will do?
Why? Because poetry like Cubism disassembles what we are used to seeing, and reassembles it through the lens of the artist who may distort, realign, or even invert reality; but who explores essentials, foundations, principles.
In this poem Not Ideas About The Thing But The Thing Itself Wallace Stevens reconfigures the image of a day at the end of winter into an existential view of a new reality.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquismIn This Consciousness That Is Aware Emily Dickinson similarly juxtaposes daily life with the reality that we experience at the edge of consciousness.
Of sleep's faded papier mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry-it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality
This Consciousness that is aware Of Neighbors and the Sun Will be the one aware of Death And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval Experience between And most profound experiment Appointed unto Men --
How adequate unto itself Its properties shall be Itself unto itself and none Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself The Soul condemned to be -- Attended by a single Hound Its own identity.
Hart Crane in Forgetfulness writes of the liberating nature of forgetfulness, disputing Nabokov’s premise that memory is everything, that the past is the only tangible evidence of being, that present and future are either momentary or only probable.
Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, --
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.
Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, -- or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, -- white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the Sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.
I can remember much forgetfulness.T.S. Eliot cynically wrote about the very nature of existence.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion…
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler and which as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of old dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them.
There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came no and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away; and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet, inattentive, and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.Faulkner went on to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen who left the West Virginia hollers for fame and fortune in the Mississippi Delta, but in his very American ambition and desire overlooked human nature and how it hobbles the most able and willful.
Absalom, Absalom is a story of America. How Thomas Sutpen sought fame and fortune, defied all odds by developing ‘Sutpen’s One Hundred’ – 100 square miles of rich bottomland but land overgrown with cypress and tangled undergrowth, infested with snakes and malarial mosquitos. Sutpen had vision, ambition, will, ingenuity, purpose, and absolute conviction. His story is told poetically through the eyes of Miss Coldfield, his legitimate and illegitimate children, his wider family, and those living near him.
The novel, along with Joyce’s Ulysses were dramatic departures from 19th century narrative fiction. Dickens, Hardy, the Brontes, George Eliot, Du Maurier, Flaubert, and Hugo all wrote about chance, circumstance, class, opportunity, fate, and fortune. The novels of such authors never altered reality. If anything they accentuated it, for their heroes and heroines, for all their will and character, were subjects to and victims of fate.
Poetry of the same era, however, was far more introspective and complex. Longfellow, for example, in his Psalm of Life wrote:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,There can be a no more venal and intellectually dismissive age than this one. In the ages of Shakespeare and Moliere, the peasantry could never have been expected access to art and literature; but there is no excuse today. We could if we wished put politics, Hollywood, Wall Street, and Things That Matter aside; but we don’t. Few of us have the interest let alone the patience to read Blake, Wordsworth, or Shakespeare; and yet it is these poets who can help us navigate our way.
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave…
The most serious poets like Rimbaud and Mallarme wrote of essences – the nature of love and accommodation. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets about love and marriage. He was less interested in the nature of existence than he was in the complexity of ordinary human life. No one concerned about gender and sexuality could do better than read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, one of the most complex and allusive of any.
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
And thinking referentially is what poetry is all about. Extracting meaning from a few lines of verse and using it to put trillions of bytes of information into some perspective.
Perhaps it is disingenuous to write about poetry in an election year, a time when there is a greater volume of words, images, and references in the media than at any other time
On the other hand, perhaps it is exactly the right time to cite verse. There is no better moment to read allegorical and metaphorical verse than now when rhetoric and fantasy rule. Poetry can give grounding, pause, and intellectual reflection.
Then again there’s Ogden Nash:
One way to be very happy is to be very rich
For then you can buy orchids by the quire and bacon by the flitch.And yet at the same time People don't mind if you only tip them a dime,
Because it's very funny
But somehow if you're rich enough you can get away with spending
water like money
While if you're not rich you can spend in one evening your salary for
the year And everybody will just stand around and jeer.
If you are rich you don't have to think twice about buying a judge or a
horse, Or a lower instead of an upper, or a new suit, or a divorce,
And you never have to say When, And you can sleep every morning until nine or ten, All of which Explains why I should like very, very much to be very, very rich.
Friday, June 24, 2016
The geopolitical world is being reconfigured. Vladimir Putin challenged the idea of the nation-state, stating that it was a Western construct, designed and applied to promote Western interests. Greater Russia, he went on, had a historical legitimacy assembling Russian-speaking peoples within a resurgent Orthodox, Slavic state. Crimea and Eastern Ukraine had only temporarily resided outside the Russian Empire. Ukraine was a a puppet of the United States and NATO, ruled by corrupt leaders with no historical or contemporary vision. It was a state that was neither here nor there, inchoate, powerless, and meaningless.
The non-Russian speaking Republics were indeed part of Russia but their sovereignty was only conditional, and they were subject if not indentured to the laws, culture, and social ethic of the Slavic majority. Putin has never conceived of a pluralistic, inclusive, diverse Russia. His empire, like the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia before it covers a vast territory including many small minority cultures. Despite their militancy and rebellious defiance of Putin and ruling Russia, they have been subjugated and are allowed to express their ethnic and religious identity within very strictly controlled limits.
In other words Putin has rejected the idea of Western pluralism and democracy – the foundational pillars of the liberal European state. He has no intention of joining Europe, NATO, or any other alliance which insists on electoral representation, political, social, and ethnic diversity. His reach will extend as far as his hegemonic vision, will, and popular support will take him. It is with such a clear historical vision, a suppression of dissent, and a reward of a uniformly loyal populace that Russia will become great again.
There is no question that under his rule Muslim minorities will be marginalized and remain barely tolerated populations rather than full members of the polity. There is no moral imperative, says Putin, to inclusivity; but there is one in preserving, promoting, and defending the Slavic, Russian-speaking majority whose cultural and ethnic roots extend to the early medieval Rus.
China’s nationalism is similar that that of Russia. The Han Chinese politburo has the same sense of historical determinism, the same intent to preserve classical Chinese culture and tradition, and the same defiant rejection of Western liberalism. While the Uighur and other ethnic minorities are indeed targets of Han Chinese cultural imperialism, they can do little against the overwhelming political, social, and military power of the ruling party. Unlike the Russians who continue to tolerate ethnic minorities while subjugating them, Chinese leaders want to expunge all traces of minority culture and influence and encourage, by any means necessary, the progressive integration of these minorities into the majority culture.
Unlike Western critics who insist that diversity is an absolute good and most representative of the higher ethics of democracy which ensure pluralism and civil rights, the Chinese value the integrity of a traditional, millennia-old Han culture which remains the ideal not only for China but for the world.
France is a country with a fabled history. It was Roland and Charlemagne who held off the Muslim armies at Roncesvalles and saved Europe. For that feat alone France considers itself la fille aînée de l'Eglise; but through the Middle Ages and especially the Renaissance and the Enlightenment French culture, literature, philosophy, science, and art were supreme. Today’s ethnic French are heirs to more than a thousand years of cultural achievement, political and military power.
It is no surprise that such ethnic French are angry, hostile, and aggressively protective of their culture which they see as threatened by Muslim immigrants and residents who defiantly reject it. We are not all French, they say, obverting the classic French statement of laïcité.
Nationalism in France today is not the xenophobic racism depicted in the progressive press. It is a reaction to what is seen as the erosion if not destruction of the legacy of a storied past. French neo-nationalism is most definitely and unapologetically French, European, and Christian.
ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban share this same vision of cultural, ethnic, and religious hegemony. Nothing less than an Islamic Caliphate – a theocratic kingdom extending throughout the Middle East and beyond – will do; and, like Russia, they have rejected Western liberalism, secular democracy, and the civil rule of law. Such a Caliphate would not, unlike Russia, tolerate difference. Their belief in the absolute rightness of a Muslim Empire is such that it would only be their duty to oblige compliance to its rules.
The exit of Great Britain (Brexit) from the European Union has less to do with anger at a ponderous bureaucracy run by non-elected commissioners who set insufferable pan-European rules and regulations than it does with nationalism. There is a feeling in Britain that its sovereignty is being threatened by a supra-national authority and that its culture is being eroded by the massive influx of foreigners and refugees.
Great Britain, like France, China, and Russia has an imperial history which has influenced art, culture, politics, and civil society for over a thousand years. It was unmatched in global reach, military power, maritime supremacy, and universally admired for the intellectual achievements of philosophers, scientists, and poets. There is a cultural ethos to Great Britain as there is in other historically powerful countries. There are certain traditions – independence, sovereignty, justice, fair play, and enterprise – which continue in modern Britain. It is not simply a country defined as all others by a pluralistic mix of ethnicities, races, and religions; certainly not a European country with distinct historical and cultural roots, but a unique country, one with a shared ethos.
While it is certainly true that the Leave voters were predominantly older ethnic Britons with a clear recent memory of Britain’s heralded past; and that those who voted Remain were Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Jamaicans; such divisions cannot change the momentous vote for nationalism.
The United States has become more overtly nationalistic than ever. Donald Trump speaks for tens of millions of Americans who feel their traditional culture – Christian, fundamentalist, socially conservative, patriotic, entrepreneurial, and English-speaking – is being taken over by unwelcome newcomers. Despite our long history of immigration and polyglot society, there is something ‘American’ about the country. As a relatively young country none of us are far removed from Western expansionism, virile industrialism, frontier justice, and farm family values. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are living documents – often distorted and misinterpreted, but still revered as statements of national identity, purpose, and character.
The current angry nationalism has more to do with the aggressiveness of advocates of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’. It is not that Americans do not welcome foreigners or reject any but white bread culture. It is just that diversity, separatism, and ethnic, racial and gender identity have been militantly forced on a conservative, traditional base. Suddenly the Danes and the Dutch, traditionally the most tolerant and welcoming countries of Europe, are shocked by the cultural disruption provoked by massive refugee immigration, Muslim terrorism and Islamic militancy. Enough is enough, they say. We are all for pluralism but at a pace which ensures full assimilation into traditional culture.
The Trump and Brexit phenomena are not one-off events. Resurgent nationalism is here to stay. There must be years if not decades of social and political realignment before any resolution can come about. The EU is sure to disband and reorganize by nation, each of which will be more demanding and insistent on cultural hegemony and full social integration of all residents and newcomers. The nationalism sparked by Donald Trump will not go away if Hillary Clinton is elected. Her presidency will only be a bump in the road; but if she is not careful, her progressive policies will harden the resolve of those who opposed her and ensure a conservative victory in four years.
The world is now very, very different than it was five years ago before Russian imperialism, the Arab Spring, ISIS, the rise of the Far Right and Brexit. Nationalism is back, and the next president better get in step quickly and surely.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Blue skies looking at me
Nothing but blue skies do I seeBluebirds singing a songBlue days, all of them gone
Nothing but bluebirds from now on…
Nothing but blue skies
Nothing but blue skies
Blue skies, blue, blue skies
Nothing but blue skies from now on (Blue Skies, Irving Berlin)
The National Spelling Bee is a good example. In principle an event showing off children’s enthusiasm, hard work, intelligence, and remarkable ability should have no downsides; yet under the glare of bad news spotlights, it does. African Americans are very poorly represented if at all. Although the remarkable success of South Asian children at the Bee should be a cause for celebration, showpiece as it is for the quick assimilation into mainstream culture that proudly defines America, it is questioned. The Asian Tiger culture of success is dehumanizes and deprives children of innocence. It perpetuates an ethos of individual superiority, thus demeaning the achievements of those with lesser abilities.
In other words, the Spelling Bee is bad news with a happy face.
Scientific achievement, supposedly the most objective of enterprises, is also relative to bad news. The remarkable advances in genetic engineering, promising greater agricultural yields, a pesticide-free solution to insect-borne diseases, the excision of abnormal genes from the human sequence, assuring fewer babies borne with genetic defects, the extension of human life, and the gradual perfection of the human organism should be universally applauded.
Advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality offer the promise of freeing the human mind from the confines of the body, enabling it to exist within an infinite world of time, space, and information.
Yet to many, this all is bad news.
GMO crops sow the seeds of environmental destruction. Tinkering with human DNA will inevitably result in a new Hitlerian era of eugenics. Artificial intelligence will not be liberating but enslaving, as the world’s working class will end up like the Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ distant future – deformed laborers exiled underground to maintain the machines that power the upper world. Virtual reality will make religion obsolete. Traditional morality, ethics, and worship will have no meaning in a virtual world.
Bad News is an industry, owned, operated, marketed, and promoted by progressives who believe that the world – with a little help from committed citizens – can become a better place.
The focus on war, crime, abortion, social dislocation, inequality is there for a purpose. The more we confront the world’s ills and set our minds to curing them, the quicker we will enter a social Elysium. If one were to focus only on good news, progress, and hope, then attention would turn away from the issues. Interest, and energy for finding solutions would flag. We would traipse ahead.
This is not to say that we should ignore world events. Far from it. Human nature dictates that we act out of protective self-interest, reject territorial claims, and expand our perimeters.
The problem is worrying about these events, labeling them ‘bad news’ rather than accepting them as normal, predictable, and quite understandable given the historical record. Equanimity in the face of normal human behavior is liberating.
Voltaire satirizes idealistic optimism in Candide. The world is not such a benign place as Pangloss perceives it; but his satire is in fact a very logical philosophical exposition. The world is neither good nor bad, says Pangloss; ‘bad’ events enable ‘good’ ones, the life is no more than circumstantial events without any particular meaning. Understanding this, man can be truly happy.
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…
And Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide: —All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t traveled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios (Voltaire, Candide)Tolstoy wrote of randomness and the insignificance of any one human act given the millions of purposeful and accidental events which condition it. Napoleon did not lose the Battle of Borodino because of bad strategic decisions, but because he had a cold. His valet had forgotten to bring the Emperor’s waterproof gumboots to the battlefield and as a result he caught cold, was miserably stuffed and sneezy on the day of the battle, and couldn’t think straight.
The valet, normally a very attentive and responsible aide, forgot the gumboots because the night before he was very distracted by thoughts of his unfaithful wife who took advantage – or so he imagined – of his military adventures to have liaisons with the carter and the blacksmith. His wife was indeed unfaithful and hid her infidelities badly; but she was also an aggrieved party, suffering because her husband the valet spent all his military pay on drink.
As Tolstoy envisaged the story, the connecting web extended infinitely back in time, across continents, families, and generations. No act was unique because it was predicated on all those which preceded it. It had no particular meaning or importance.
Nietzsche expanded on this theory adding that if life were nothing more than the result of the random banging of billiard balls, then not only individual events but life itself had no meaning. The exuberant expression of individual will was the only validation of individual existence.
The world is made up of progressive idealists who believe that human society is troubled, ignorant, and destructive but can evolve if only we paid more attention and investment to resolution. It is made up of optimists like Pangloss who see only the good news. Everything happens for the good. Finally it is made up of historical realists who have concluded that if human nature has not changed in a million years, it is not about to. Human beings will continue to bang about pursuing venal, limited ends with neither good nor evil results.
It is this last group which defies bad news and is never worried, depressed, or overly-concerned about world events. No matter what initiatives are made in the interests of world peace, a more equitable distribution of resources, or a more harmonious and inclusive society, the ends will always be the same.
Scientific discoveries do not happen for a reason. They are a product of human intelligence, ambition, and self-protective interest. Wars and civil strife happen because of unequal distribution of wealth, resources, and political influence. Disease and pestilence happen because of a wholly understandable complex of factors. Buildings are built, green space is paved over, urban landscapes become more green, virtual reality limits travel and greenhouse gases, meteors strike, orbits realign, Alpha Centauri has life. Nothing happens for a reason. It just happens.
So, why worry?
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Civility, Dignity, And Good Taste Are Passé–Donald Trump, Human Nature, And Real American Exceptionalism
Many observers have commented on the lack of civility in the current (2016) Presidential election. The primaries, they say, were gutter politics at their worst – slime, muck-raking, ad hominem attacks, smarmy references to looks, stature, and dress; sly innuendoes; half-truths, suggestiveness, and downright mudslinging. Nothing seemed to be off-limits, no slight to trivial, and certainly no kid gloves, patience or civility.
American politics have never been genteel affairs. The campaigns of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were notorious.
Adams’ supporters hurled accusations at Jackson’s wife, Rachel, and questioned their marriage. Critics claimed the couple’s marriage some 40 years earlier had occurred while Rachel was still married to her first husband. Opponents labeled Jackson an “adulterer,” and called his wife a “bigamist.” It marked the first time a first lady’s moral character had been scrutinized so publicly. The Jacksons said Rachel’s divorce had already been finalized before they married...Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine went at it in the same vein:
Jackson countered by claiming that Adams, while working as the Russian ambassador, had procured an American girl for the Russian czar — a baseless allegation, but calling the sitting president a “pimp” was certainly a bold move (listosaur.com)
Democrat Grover Cleveland seemed to have the advantage in the months before this presidential election, but in July 1884, allegations arose that Cleveland, a bachelor, had years earlier fathered a child out of wedlock. Republican James G. Blaine’s supporters gleefully took advantage of the scandal, chanting, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” at campaign rallies.
Cleveland admitted he had paid child support to a widow, Maria Halpin, even though he alleged she had been involved with several other men at the time. However, Halpin told newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, that Cleveland had sexually assaulted her, and that after she gave birth to a son, Cleveland had it forcibly removed from her custody and placed in an orphanage. Halpin was then committed to an insane asylum, although she was later released (op.cit.)
[The Presidential] race was full of mudslinging accusations and character assassination. Adam’s supporters accused Jefferson of sympathizing with the Southern slaves whom he wished to emancipate — going so far as to say he maintained a “Congo Harem” at Monticello. In one over-the-top condemnation, Yale President Timothy Dwight said that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
The accusations continued right up until the election. One Jefferson supporter likened Adams to a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ supporters countered with a leaflet calling Jefferson, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson’s camp claimed the president reportedly planned to smuggle London prostitutes across the Atlantic to satiate his sinful tastes.If our Founding Fathers behaved this way, why should we be upset by the excesses of Donald Trump?
There is nothing more American than a bare-knuckled contest, one without rounds, bells, or referees. There is no room in the American arena for fair play; and there are only winners and losers. The Wild West is worth nothing if not a display of raw territorialism, frontier justice, and exuberant expansionism.
Jefferson had nary a second thought when sent Lewis and Clark out to chart and plot the new Louisiana Territory, gifted to the United States by Napoleon for a song. It was Manifest Destiny – the God-given right of Americans to tame, claim, and develop the lands west of the Mississippi as they had those east of it. Andrew Jackson won the ‘real’ American Revolution when, thanks to a successful naval battle at New Orleans, he defeated the British once and for all. He thanked his Choctaw and Chickasaw allies, gave them whisky and wampum, and exiled them to native reservations west of the Mississippi.
The Robber Barons of the turn of the century were a logical extension of this territorial determinism. Making money with no holds barred was as much a part of Wall Street as it was Missouri, Nebraska, or Montana. The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Mellons, Astors, Goulds, and Fricks amassed millions in an era of robust capitalism.
Puck, 1901 cartoon
The recent troubles on Wall Street – Enron, the sub-prime real estate investment market, and various derivative shenanigans – are testaments to the fact that American rough-rider capitalism is alive and well.
Given all this – our expulsion of the Indians; the implantation of slavery in the South and the 150 years of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial animus thereafter; our historical difficulties with immigration (viz. the ethnic violence between ‘Natives’ and the Irish in the mid-19th century); and our exceptionalism – it is not surprising that we have acquired no European courtly manners and diplomacy; and that we still behave as rubes and pugilists.
This, of course, is to our credit. Only recently have we Americans been made to feel guilty about our political virility, challenged on the civilizing territorialism which has enabled the growth of the world’s most powerful economy and potent military and provided the foundation for innovation, enterprise, and dynamic creativity.
Proponents and advocates of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ have tried to clip America’s wings. We are not a proud nation deserving of the world’s admiration for our political foundations; nor one which has been the engine for world economic development; nor one which, in its championing of individual enterprise has set a high bar for productivity and personal reward. We are to be excoriated, marginalized, and dismissed as retrograde and ignorant.
It should also not be surprising that Donald Trump has so shaken the foundations of American electoral politics. For the first time in decades if not generations, a Presidential candidate has challenged the status quo, progressive sanctimony and flaccid belief in togetherness, social harmony, and idealism.
“Crass…bourgeois…antediluvian….retrograde…” Yet despite these reactionary criticisms, Donald Trump refuses to back away from his expression of Wild West individualism, raw capitalism, and Hollywood fantasy.
Trump’s critics attack his nativism, white male patriarchy, and profoundly primitive and anti-social roots. He revels in this criticism. He is unapologetic because he feels there is nothing to apologize for. Revisionism – the awkward progressive attempt to rewrite history and to cast all issues within a contemporary race-gender-ethnicity bias – is, has been, and always will be wrong and ignorant of the nature of permanent, valueless change.
Trump is a champion of human nature – aggressive, self-protective, territorial, and fundamentally Darwinian. He has no use for liberal ‘tolerance’ because history has always been the tale of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the advantaged over the disadvantaged.
“This is not the Middle Ages”, shout Trump’s critics. The days of racial, ethnic, and social superiority and cultural imperialism are over.
“Wrong”, say Trump supporters who insist that given the ineluctability of human nature, nothing has changed. Enforced solidarity and communality, prescribed ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘diversity’ are statist arrogations.
Progressives and Europeanists in their refusal to accept history’s unavoidable conflict and violence criticize Trump for his lack of One World Harmony and what they see is his re-imposition of laissez-faire capitalism, Wild West individualism, and corrosive contentious politics.
Concurrent to the American Presidential election campaign is the British referendum on Brexit – whether or not Britain should remain within the European Union. Those who favor staying are old-line Europeans who, damaged by the experience of WWII, insist on a union which will promote and preserve European harmony and dignity. Those who want out are like Trump -champions of nationalism, national sovereignty, and cultural integrity.
The Stay arguments are traditionally economic. The Leave position is more fundamental and rests on English history, tradition, and civilization. Practicality vs Visceral Emotion.
Both campaigns have boiled down to a rejection of civility and a bare-knuckled, gloves-off, down-and-dirty fight to the finish. Fair play has gone out the window in Britain as gentility has left the premises in America. Both nations are back to basics and more power to them.
The experiences of the Balkan wars, the Arab Spring, Iraq and Syria is telling. Compromise, civil negotiations and civility have no place in a geopolitical arena where life-and-death issues of cultural survival are at stake.
I had always been taught that good manners was at the foundation of civility. Eating properly is done out of respect for fellow diners. Avoiding contentious, often nasty discussions about politics and religion at table was not anti-intellectual, but annealing – one small step to reducing instinctive tensions and hostilities.
The right fork might matter little in the larger scope of world events; but it is an indicator of respect for propriety and convention – the glue of society.
It was always assumed that such manners and gentility would carry over to the world of politics and finance. Manners were only a minor expression of noblesse oblige.
Wrong. We are all hardwired for conflict, competition, territorial expansion, and venal self-interest. Which is why it is hard to accommodate the intemperate criticisms of Donald Trump’s native patriotism and laissez-faire social philosophy.
This election is not one between Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals, but one between dramatically different and essential political philosophies
Sunday, June 19, 2016
In the movie Still Alice, a brilliant linguist and professor at Columbia discovers at 50 that she has early onset Alzheimer’s. Although at first she does her best to ignore the symptoms of a failing memory, it soon becomes clear to her that it is not forgetfulness or distraction that are behind her cognitive issues but something far more serious.
In the early stages of the disorder, she still functions well, manages socially, and even – with a few aide-memoirs and mnemonic aids – continues teaching. Soon, however, family, friends, colleagues and supervisors see that she is no longer the sharp, perceptive, and lively intellect that she was only a few months ago. Neurological tests and clinical diagnosis reveal what she had suspected – Alzheimer’s.
As she becomes more and more disoriented – she can’t find her way back from campus, can’t remember where the bathroom is nor the names of her colleagues – she makes a video of herself. She speaks into the camera and tells herself that if she cannot answer the three questions on the screen (questions a child could answer), she is to go to the bathroom, take all the pills in bottle marked ‘Take these’, lie down on the bed, and go to sleep.
She has understood that memory is the only thing that defines her; and without it, she is nothing. Her academic career, her prizes, her status and influence in the professional community; her life as a child, a young adult, a mother and a wife will all disappear as her brain disassembles and functions only as a limbic organ.
Whether her brain has lost the ability to recall events and people from her past or whether the memories of them have dissipated somewhere or throughout the cerebral cortex, she feels that slowly but progressively she ceases to exist. Before this can happen and while she still has enough memory to realize, understand, and appreciate who she is and what she was, she decides to end her life. She will die a whole person, intact, and with all the memories which define her. If she clings to life and slowly disintegrates into nothingness, she will negate everything she was.
The arguments over the nature of self, being, and nothingness have been debated for hundreds of years. Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”, placing cognition squarely at the center of being. The fact that one can think – remember, observe and process, categorize, analyze, and describe – one can prove one’s existence.
Descartes did not consider the obverse but equally true – if one cannot think, reason, reflect, and synthesize, one does not exist.
Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described ‘memorist’. He understood the importance of memory as the defining essence of human life, and developed techniques to fix events in his memory and devised ways to recall them from his mental archives and replay them like a movie. The more he could remember, he said, the more complete he was as a human being.
The present, Nabokov observed is nothing more than a millisecond of existence before becoming the past. The Higgs boson once produced has a lifetime of less than one sextillionth of a second; and this is slow compared to the passage of the present to the past.
The future is only possibility. Only the past has provides definition, integrity, and above all meaning.
Yes doesn’t Nabokov devalue the present? Even though in philosophical terms it barely exists, its temporal parameters are much broader. The ‘present’ for most of us is breakfast, a board meeting, or shaving. Even though such events are accretive – one fractional moment displacing another – we don’t see it that way. The ‘present’ is more real and substantial than Nabokov suggests.
Be that as it may and however one chooses to define the present, it quickly becomes the past, archived in our memory, and without curation can disappear. If we cannot remember the beach at Deauville - the umbrellas, the silhouette of the cliffs of Dover on the English side of the Channel, the seagulls, the chill, and the dresses of young girls – then it never happened. Even if the events of that day had subliminal effects – our preference for colored dresses or our dislike of the chill – if we cannot remember them, they have lost their meaning, integrity, and substance.
An aunt of a close friend of mine had Alzheimer’s and a few years before her death, she had lost her grip on ‘reality’. She could not remember her past nor her children, nor even who she was, but she substituted bits and pieces of dreams, television shows, and movies. One day she told my friend that she had met the Pope who had come to her convalescent home, that he danced well even though his cassock got in the way and his miter kept falling on the floor, and he forgave all her sins. Another day she quilted reruns of Star Trek, American idol, and As The World Turns and told fantastical stories of travelling in outer space with her talented shipmates and how she had to mediate their romances.
While neither her sister nor her children could face her – it was too depressing to be with a woman they didn’t know and who had become someone else – for her nephew, my friend, it was easy. He entered her world, he told me, never challenged her version of reality and in this strange fantastical world found that his aunt was still his aunt. The same humor, puckishness, and impatience.
So perhaps the woman in Still Alice was very selfish in considering suicide. Although she might no longer know who she was, her family – with a little patience and willingness to leave logic aside – might still be able to enjoy her as much as they did before her debility. As importantly, wasn’t the woman taking a far too narrow view of being? Why, despite Descartes, was cognition the only reality? What about the soul? And how might it express itself? In other words, why should she – or any of us – need Nabokov’s vaunted ‘past’?
This reasoning, of course, is not so easy. Cognition, logic, rationality, insight, and intellectual rigor were what defined her. She was neither a poetic nor a spiritual person. The thought of a life after cognition and memory never occurred to her, nor could it have.
Despite all these caveats, conditions, and speculations, Nabokov was right. The past is what defines us, and the more memories we have, the more complete and substantial we become.
Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is an autobiography which was written not as a historical record of the author’s life, but as a pastiche of those memories which define him. There was no reason to order them chronologically, to link them to future events citing cause and effect, only to celebrate them for what they were – integral and indispensable parts of him.
There can be no consignment worse than Alzheimer’s. No physical disease, no misfortune, no disaster can match the erasure of a personality. It is not surprising that the woman in Still Alice considered ending his life, and I would not be surprised if Nabokov thought the same way.
Few of us have the determination, the philosophical certitude, and the willpower to commit suicide deliberately – i.e. not in a moment of depression or agony – but the onset of Alzheimer’s should give us all pause.
Friday, June 17, 2016
There is a great deal of purposefulness in America today. Everyone not only has an opinion but a cause. Feminists, environmentalists, civil and animal rights advocates, locavores, fundamentalists, community boosters, and cyclists all vie for public investment and private donations to enable the attainment of their goals. The world will be a better place, they insist, with dedication and commitment.
Not only is social progress possible but imminently attainable. Whether it is cleaner environment, a less violent, gun-free society, a world without war or civil conflict, or a society annealed by respect, tolerance, and sharing, it only takes collective, purposeful action.
Children can be brought up an educated within this progressive worldview. They can be taught to reject gender distinction, to condemn bullying and antisocial behavior, to see all men and women as absolutely indistinguishable equals. There are no fat people, nor gawky, ungainly ones. There are no slow learners, dwarves, or wall flowers. Problems are all to be solved by temperate resolution, selfishness to be punished, untoward ambition to be discouraged.
All goes for naught, of course. Children will always fight to defend their corner of the sandbox, grab toys, make guns out of carrot sticks, and defy all attempts to corral, break, and harness them. Adults, regardless of their commitment to social integrity and progress, will never give an inch when unfairly challenged. They will fight against injustice, greed, intemperance, and reactionary conservatism.
A colleague and his wife, Jane, have both been in the vanguard of progressive causes – world peace, nuclear disarmament, feminism, civil rights, and environmentalism. They have been unfailing in their support for what they consider right movements – those that help propel America towards a better and more just world. They have led academic protests against sexual violence, argued for affirmative action, and shown solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.
Jane was a relatively high-ranking executive in a professional association whose charter was to promote the cause of women – especially women of color – within academia. The association was of course diverse. Although there were no men, there were women of all races, sexual preference, and national origin. The board of directors and senior management wanted the association to look exactly like the universities of the future. It was meant to be diverse and tolerant of difference and individuality within the context of race, gender, and ethnicity. It was to be a model not only for academia but for society as a whole.
To Jane’s surprise, chagrin, disappointment, and great disillusionment, a black woman challenged her for an important position within the association – one that Jane had been the presumptive nominee for years. The position was much sought after, for whoever was chosen for it would have final say in the association’s planning and future directions. Jane was experienced, competent, and intelligent; and fully expected to get the post.
Her challenger was less qualified less experienced than Jane, but far more ambitious and savvy. She saw advantage in her color, understood the sensitivities of older white women who had come up through the Sixties’ civil rights movement and their old-fashioned commitment to diversity and integration, and knew that she could push them around. How, she rightly surmised, could any one of these women possibly challenger her without exposing themselves to charges of racism, perhaps the worst criticism and condemnation that they could possibly imagine.
The challenger pulled out all stops, insinuated herself into the ruling cabal of the association, curried favor with the board of directors, and felt that she was unstoppable.
Once Jane had gotten over her shock, picked herself up, and saw the dream of her professional lifetime disappear, she was angry, resentful, and determined. Despite all her training, all the inculcation of progressive ideals, all her determination to do good in the right way, she picked herself off the mat and prepared a very aggressive, militant offensive strategy. She would have to negotiate the minefield of race very carefully, but she knew that if she played her cards right, her challenger would be left swinging in the breeze without knowing who hanged her.
There were skirmishes, firefights, moves to recruit allies and consolidate their support, feints, end-runs, frontal assaults, and strategic retreats. The two enemies were well suited. Jane was intellectually smart. Her challenger had street smarts; and they both had will, determination, and purpose.
The board of directors were not sure what to make of the battle, but as long as it was fought within respectful bounds, far be it from them to intervene.
Jane eventually won but without many wounds and battlefield scars. Worst of all was her disillusionment. If this raw aggression could occur within the most progressive sanctuary in Washington, then what could be expected of society as a whole?
Bitterly disappointed and now seeing the world in a very different way, Jane not only left the organization but gave up her membership and active support of all her previous causes. She had seen the light. Human nature was, is, and always will be territorial, self-protective, and aggressive; and countervailing force was the only operational theory to guide human conflict.
Far more intelligent men and women had concluded the same. Nietzsche, for example, is the best-known of all the determinist philosophers who postulated that in a random, meaningless universe, the expression of individual will was the only validation of human experience.
Tolstoy in both the body of and epilogues to War and Peace set forth his own deterministic theories which rejected Nietzsche’s valuation of the individual. In Tolstoy’s view, there was no value whatsoever in so-called individual achievement, conditioned as it is by the millions of random events which precede any action. Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was not the result of a surprisingly myopic military strategy, but because of a cold which clogged his sinuses and clouded his brain. A cold which was brought on by cold, wet feet which in turn were the result of a forgetful valet who, obsessed over his wife’s infidelities, brought the Emperor leather shoes instead of gum boots.
The valet’s wife was unfaithful because….and here Tolstoy didn’t need to go on. The web of random events which preceded Napoleon at Borodino extended in all directions in to the distant past, across continents, time, and history.
Jane’s epiphany came independently of Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Sartre. She simply understood how if in a perfectly constructed social environment, one built on accommodation, respect, harmony, and tolerance, all hell could break loose, then there was no point in conceived purpose.
The variables affecting the office fracas – the black woman’s tarpaper shack North Carolina upbringing, affirmative action scholarships, progressive idealism, and narrow political agendas, the woman’s own DNA – were all understandable, predictable, and unavoidable. Each one of them, however, was not initiated with any purpose. The black woman could have just as easily been born white on the Upper East Side. She could have had genetic traits of complaisance and shyness. Her willful and determined aunt could have left for Chicago and not stayed in Parker’s Point.
Jane herself could have gone into science as her father had urged instead of political science. She could have married Longworth Harris, scion of a Boston industrialist family and not Bobby Bilder, son of activist Quakers.
When one finally comes to these conclusions, there are only two paths forward. The first is to ignore the stochastic nature of history, and conclude that if everyone is propelled by chance and not purpose, then free will, purpose, and mission are real. The second is to accept randomness and purposelessness, ignore idealism, play the hand of cards you are dealt, and enjoy the game as best you can. Epictetus was right. Since all events are beyond are control, it is better to stay calm and accept them dispassionately. Epicurus was even more right. In the face of a random world beyond individual control, he said, hedonism is the only logical choice.
Jane’s life after the fracas was a combination of the two. She accepted that her every action was determined by millions of precedent random ones, but that she had only the hand of cards she was dealt to play; and she resolved to live without the compunction of purpose and commitment. Epictetus did not deny the idea of responsibility, but, he said, “We have no power over external things and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.
Freed from such moral purpose and judgment, she found that she was far happier than she ever had been, a hedonist at heart, realized before it was too late.