Friday, September 30, 2016
We all want to know where we come from, who are our ancestors, whether we are descended from princes or madmen, and if there might be some trace of nobility or respect. Most of us are disappointed when we discover that our family history has neither high birth nor romance but just plain folk - farmers, woodsmen, peasants, and serfs who never rose much beyond their station.
Yet there are enough stories of strange genealogical finds that we continue to pursue our histories. There might well be a bit of lineage traced back to the First Families of Virginia or the Mayflower. A document buried in the vault of an Anglican Church on the Northern Neck might show a definite, although remote relationship to King Carter and from him back to England and the finest registries of London and Wiltshire. The purity of this ancestry might be diluted by interbreeding with the wives of tenant farmers or slaves, but there could be no denying the legitimacy of its origins. Most importantly, family history would not be featureless or without importance.
Wife of Lewis Burwell of Virginia
Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the taverns of Elizabethan England can claim a more significant lineage than those who were born, lived, and died in the mud of the West Country. Ancestral links to the Boar’s Head Tavern are worth something. Forbears at least consorted with the likes of Falstaff and Prince Hal.
Tracing ancestry in Old Europe is no pastime. A Frenchman who can pursue his family history back to the Third Crusade or even the First is worth more than any contemporary of wealth and importance in the Third Republic. An Englishman whose forbears were counts and courtiers of Henry II or King John have more standing than those with bloodlines of minor viscounts or third cousins of doubtful royalty.
Aristocratic, noble, and royal Italians, Germans, Spanish, Serbs, and Poles all intermarried and created a pan-European elite. Claims to this lineage are not simply tracings on an elaborate family tree but essential to social status and privilege. Despite the French Revolution, the beheading of the King, and the execution of thousands of aristocrats, the aristocracy is alive and well. Not every noble went to the guillotine, and although many of the best families were dismembered, enough survived to continue the aristocratic line. Despite marriages to commoners and the loss of land, wealth, and property, those with a storied ancestral past still rely on it for social legitimacy and status.
On the contrary, it is of little consequence whether an American can trace his roots to the Mayflower, to John Smith, John Adams, George Washington, the Duke of Norfolk, or Lord Fairfax. America is fast becoming a classless society where family roots have less and less pertinence; where the social prestige of the Main Line, Beacon Hill, and Park Avenue has all but disappeared. There are a few clubs - The Society of the Cincinnati, the Cosmos Club, and a dozen more like them in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York - which safeguard an Old World gentility ; but in our diverse, pluralistic, and competitive society, they are increasingly irrelevant. One is more hard-pressed than ever to find a socially prominent niche.
For most people fame and popular currency are enough. Few ask about the social and family origins of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Mark Zuckerberg. They are the new classless Americans with no ascribed, historical value; only that derived from their current worth. They have only one perspective - forward - and in that they are quintessentially American.
Yet, genealogy will not die; and although many inquirers are simply interested in completing the family tree, just as many are looking for a legitimacy which can only come from bloodlines. An ordinary daughter of mixed-nationality parents, an indistinct member of the upper middle class, laboring successfully if not uniquely, will always be, inevitably, undistinguished unless she can find a link to an illustrious past.
This search for social legitimacy, however, cannot explain the genealogy phenomenon. Too few Americans have any hope of finding a link to anyone of significance in American history let alone the Mayflower or the First Families of Virginia to be motivated by social status. It has to do more with a sense of personal worth and legitimacy in a contemporary world which confers little of it.
It is difficult to be satisfied with the cards one is dealt. Few of us are satisfied with the looks, intelligence, physical abilities, or talent programmed in our DNA. The past can afford much more; and in a society where few have a traceable connection to an illustrious history, all the more reason to go prospecting. If one has been born poor, of questionable legitimacy, and of little social, economic, or financial value to the community, where does self-worth come from? If not from ancestral history nor contemporary success, nor any civic recognition, then from where? No one can live without some pride of identity.
Yet when all is said and done, and when we are forced to reflect on a life led, such attributive values should matter little. We all die alone, said the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Yet like Ivan, until we are faced with the eternity of death, we insist on fabricating meaning. In the final accounting who we were counts for nothing; who we are, everything.
Genealogy now means very little, especially in America. There are no rewards to proving a noble ancestry in a populist democracy. Not so in the days of kings and courtiers, it was deadly serious. How many wives did Henry VIII have to marry and dispatch to assure a male heir? The drama is still played out in Europe where the grandchildren of old, titled families fight over wills, primogeniture, and the right of legitimate descendants; but it is if only glancing relevance in America today. If we can uncover some royal or aristocratic bits in our past, all well and good. If we can claim some purchase on past talent, intelligence, initiative, or enterprise, the history is even more valuable.
Few of us are content with what we are, regardless of the hand dealt; and creating identities above and beyond that which God, Nature, or Chance have bestowed is normal, natural, and human. Which is why America is so unique. Few are satisfied with what is but with what could be and what might have been. Tradable personal worth is our currency,
The coming virtual world in which each individual will be able to explore his own personal dimensions will drastically devalue this currency. A world defined by individual fantasy, imagined relationships, and invented personae has no meaning for anyone other than the dreamer.
Until then we will have to be satisfied with ancestry and image - making the best out of bad hands and bad genes, trumping up our credentials, and looking good.
There are many Central American black bean recipes, but this one is simple and delicious. The combination of bacon, onion, and cilantro is unbeatable.
Either cilantro seeds or fresh leaves will do fine. I have always made with the fresh leaves, but last night tried with seeds, and there is very little difference. Both have pungent-sweet high flavor.
I prefer using dried beans, but you can substitute canned beans (1 can). Be careful not to overcook, for the cooked beans can become overly soft quickly.
Black Beans with Bacon and Cilantro
* 1 cup dried black beans soaked overnight* 1 lg. onion coarsely chopped* 5 lg. cloves garlic, coarsely chopped* 2 tbsp. pounded coriander seeds or 1 lg. handful fresh coriander leaves* 1/4 pkg. hickory-smoked bacon* 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- Drain the beans
- Add all the above ingredients with enough water to cover with about 3” above
- Simmer for approximately 4 hours or until beans are tender
- Raise heat to reduce liquid to a semi-thick consistency
- Taste, and add salt and ground pepper.
- Serve in soup bowls garnished with fresh cilantro (optional)
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Few of Donald Trump’s supporters really care whether he is telling the truth or even whether his entire campaign is one of confabulation. They cheer his vaudevillian trickery and love every minute of being suckered rubes. Who wants the way things really are while inside big tent there are trapezes, magicians who saw women in half, lion-tamers, clowns, and rings of fire.
Why listen to half-truths when no-truths are far more exciting. Bearded ladies, babies with two heads, midgets, conjoined goats; armless, legless dwarfs, deformed giants, and cats with fish gills are worth triple the price of admission. The freak show is fires, crashes, horrible deformities and disease, misfortune, and God’s irony all rolled up into one. Life without it would be intolerable.
Every city has its own toned-down version of the weird and unexplainable – its hermits, its morbidly obese; its dumb, clueless, and ugly; and its flashers. They are nothing, however, compared to those imaginary deformed, those ordinary neighbors transformed by gossip, innuendo, rumor, and one unfortunate miscue into fantastical freaks. Emma Sandstrom’s suicide which had only been rumored had become a ghoulish affair where she had hanged herself with lamp cord in the basement or turned a mottled reddish blue from asphyxiation in her gas range or cut her wrists in the bathtub which she had filled with bubbles and lavender scent or eaten rat poison, and consumed with thirst was found head first in the toilet bowl.
The ‘truth’ never came out. None of the suspicions had any real merit or foundation. She could have died peacefully in her bed or felled by a stroke; but the rumors of suicide persisted because of her eccentric behavior. No one in New Brighton ever dressed in funereal veils and Victorian shoes when shopping downtown or drove like she did around the block three times before pulling the car into the driveway.
Her bedroom lights were often on at 3am, shouts and cries could be heard after dinner coming from the basement well, and no one ever came to visit.
Put all together her untimely death at age 45 could only add up to suicide, a combination of a deranged mind, a wayward husband, and a ne’er-do-well son.
The obituary in the New Brighton Examiner provided no clues.
Emma Sandstrom, beloved wife of Herbert R. Sandstrom, Chief Accountant and Deputy Financial Officer of New Brighton Savings and Loan, mother of Bertrand S. Sandstrom, and daughter of Mrs. and Mrs. Per Carlson of Bayonne, New Jersey, died yesterday peaceful at home. Flowers and condolences may be sent to Pederson Funeral Home in New Brighton.Poor Mr. Barnes, Headmaster of the Lefferts School where most of the well-to-do children of the West End attended, was rumored to have a dog’s jaw. The story was that he had been badly wounded in the war by a mortar shell that had torn off the lower half of his face; and quick-thinking field medical officers had fitted him with the jaw of a German Shepherd guard dog which miraculously was not rejected by the immune system of the Headmaster.
Nonsense of course, but no one in New Brighton who attended school functions or met the Headmaster at social functions in Farmington and West Hartford could ever look at him without thinking of his dog’s jaw. Had anyone looked at his ancestral photographs, they would have seen that the under-slung, weak jaw had persisted through over five generations.
The residents of New Brighton, no different from those in any other town, imagined the most unlikely paramours. There was no way that the local haberdasher could possibly fallen for the X-Ray technician at the clinic, but the many innocent but tell-tale signs were too much to ignore. Too much idle time together, too many shared rides, standing too close in the elevator – it all had to mean something.
A guest at any dinner party on Lincoln Street would have heard the most improbable stories of doctors gone bad, lawyers covering up malfeasance, questionable sexuality, terminal disease, unreliable war record, and premature dismissal from service.
None of this is surprising, for life on the straight-and-narrow, especially one of fact, truth, and objectivity would be very tedious indeed.
In The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare Dostoevsky’s Devil says as much:
For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.
Logic is not our strong suit nor ever has been. The irony of history is that each generation tries to get purchase on the truth, but is proven wrong by each successive one. Every individual is convinced that what he sees is the absolute truth, and yet both scientists and poets know that this is impossible. Eyewitness testimony is routinely discredited, and artists like Browning, Kurosawa, and Durrell (The Ring and the Book; Rashomon; The Alexandria Quartet) all write of multiple perceptions of the same event.
The rigorous, disciplined, airtight logic of Aristotle, Plato, Kant or any of the Fathers of the Early Church is far beyond most of us; and before we get very far in trying to apply reason to matters of life, death, suffering, or the existence of God, our minds wander. Taking stories at face value is so much easier.
The history of the Early Church is a good example. While Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Clement, and Aquinas parsed every line of the New Testament to extract an explanation of Scripture, those attending the first home-church services were concerned only with miracles, mystery, ritual, ceremony, and liturgy. We may have hard-headed intellectuals in our midst, but we choose to ignore them at every turn.
Americans are especially given to the third race of the Trifecta – image. Not only are our perceptions already distorted by an inability to see what is right there in front of us; and not only are we unable to make sense out of observable pattern or rationally assess risk and probability, we are children of fantasy. We prefer to believe Hollywood, Las Vegas, reality and daytime television than Harvard scholars.
The current election (2016) is particularly noteworthy because one candidate – Donald Trump – exemplifies if not embodies this fantastical side of American culture. He plays fast and loose with the ‘truth’, inventing as he goes, raising speculation to the level of fact, positioning everything within his own vaudevillian circus tent. He is one of us; and yet there are many critics who don’t get it. They demand facts, issue papers, detailed programs, thoughtful analysis; and fear that the Republic has been turned on its head by a buffoon.
Trump supporters on the other hand dismiss these critics out of hand. They are neither stupid nor ignorant, but joyfully riding a political circus train where the distorted, the absurd, the eccentric, and the ridiculous are the only reality. Finally a candidate and the American populace have come together as one.
We pretend to make sense, but we are happiest reading People and E! We want gossip, innuendo, and suggestion. Once the truth is out, we stop reading.
All this is for the good. The purposeful, determined, committed, and devout have far less fun than the rest of us. Progressives are perhaps the least happy of all because not only do they have a belief in progress – the world can indeed be a better place if only we try harder – but a conviction that the world is tangle of problems. There is no room nor no time to be devil-may-care.
So, stop worrying about the truth, the facts, issues, or insoluble problems. They are only relative, made-up, or at best transitory concerns which will be of no consequence in 100 years. Vegas and Hollywood are no accidents. They are us.
Monday, September 26, 2016
Much has been made of Colin Kaepernick, a professional quarterback who has chosen to sit out the National Anthem. It is his Constitutional right say supporters, since freedom of speech should not be curtailed in any way. If he feels that black Americans have suffered unfairly and unjustly and that the United States as a corporate, political entity is responsible, then he should have the occasion to protest the greatest symbol of the Union, the national hymn.
While this Constitutional principle may be true, and while Kaepernick does have a juridical right to voice his protests however and in whatever venue he sees fit, his action has consequences which he has not foreseen.
‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, said Samuel Johnson; and appealing to national pride, honor, and integrity can seem, especially in these days of moral relativism and and post-modern reappraisal of institutions and republics, naïve and hopelessly déclassé.
It smacks of Babbitry, boosterism, America-first nativism, and antiquated notions of national h0nor. Cultures, societies, and nations are of equal value, say progressive advocates of multi-culturalism. Even less reason to be patriotic and xenophobic. National borders have been artificially-drawn, politically inspired, and irrelevant given the gross regional inequities of income and social class.
There are only fictive, artificial borders between the United States and Mexico, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, or Europe with Turkey. Human beings were never meant to be corralled and penned within limits determined by elites. Nationhood, the nation-state, the very concept of the sanctity of national borders are meaningless in today’s dynamically changing pluralistic world. Patriotism under these conditions, is indeed a refuge of the ignorant.
The culture of any nation is never a fixed, determined quantity. There is no more reasons for the Netherlands to remain a land of Hans Brinker, dikes, windmills, and tulips than there are for France to be perpetually a nation of berets, baguettes, and Camembert. The culture and social norms which define and describe a nation in one decade will sure to be outdated and irrelevant the next.
Of course few Dutch, French, or residents of any other country go complaisantly to this new, changed, and strange world. The most tolerant countries of Europe – Denmark and Holland especially – are turning far right because of what citizens see as an assault on their ‘traditional culture’. France is outraged that the principles of the Revolution are being challenged. We are not all French say Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and older French are not at all happy at this erosion of moral and political values.
This is all well and good; but there is no such thing as one, permanent, unshakable culture of any country. The world is too small, borders too impermeable, and social and economic divisions too great for the Old Guard to remain in place. For traditional bourgeois values to remain intact. For assumptions about racial and ethnic superiority to remain unchallenged.
What, then, defines a nation? As long as borders do exist, then what defines La France, Britain, India, or the United States? More importantly, if a clear definition of national culture no longer exists and has been so diluted by the influx of non-nationals that its parameters, core values, and principles are indistinct, then do nationalism and patriotism also disappear?
The case of the United States is particularly problematic. We are a country of process rather than substance. We represent freedom, liberty, economic liberalism, and capitalism – not a multi-century history of great art, literature, architecture, and political thought. We have never had a culture to defend, for we have always been the willing and welcoming hosts to all comers. We have no Roncesvalles where Roland and Charlemagne held off the Saracen hordes. We have never been Athens, Imperial Rome, Persepolis, the Mauryan Empire or the Hand or Meiji dynasties. We are nothing but politically philosophical principles.
Yet we are still a nation. We may have few empirical markers or cultural points de repère, but we still feel – understand – a national integrity. If we were to go t0 war with the Iranians, North Koreans, Russians, or Chinese, we would know why. We would be defending our core Enlightenment principles – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Despite the fact that Western, American-style liberal democracy is increasingly questioned – English may be the international lingua franca, but corrupt, secular, ill-defined capitalistic entrepreneurialism most definitely is not – we are confident that our God-based, proven principles of universal suffrage, respect, and tolerance will always prevail.
So what to make of the protests against the National Anthem? Harmless expressions of frustration for the perceived insults of the white majority? Disingenuous but legitimate cries for recognition of the dispossessed? O r a more serious step towards the disintegration of the Union?
If the United States were to enter a war of consequence; i.e. not a war of easy victory like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria but one of existential possibilities with a nuclear power – what then? Would all of those who now kneel on the sidelines refuse to take part? To serve their country? To stand with their confreres against the enemy?
Standing with locked arms against a police line, marching on the Capitol, joining a Million Man March are all clear, distinct, demonstrations of dissatisfaction and anger against a particular antagonist. Kneeling against the National Anthem, the symbol of America – protesting against the entire country and all for which it stands – is quite another matter. Does such protest mean that young men and women of the draft age of Colin Kaepernick would refuse military service? Would anything but refusal and acceptance of prison time be hypocritical?
Protest against the National Anthem is tantamount to protest against the United States; and Kaepernick and his followers have said as much. Despite the benefits and rewards that American has given them, the country as a whole is corrupt, elitist, racist, and destructive. The country, not white Southerners, illiberal Philadelphians, or hypocritical liberal East Siders is responsible for and behind the oppression of black people.
Choosing such a revered national symbol – the National Anthem – to protest means casting one’s lot against the cultural, political, and social integrity of the nation. Protesting, objecting, and defying the country and the principles on which it is based is corrosive at best and destructive at worst.
Yes, Kaepernick and his colleagues had a Constitutional right to kneel during the National Anthem; but should they have? Should they not have chosen a means of protest more appropriate to their cause – one which would not have the same collateral national damage as this one?
Kneeling or sitting during the Anthem has little to do with patriotism, xenophobia, or naïve nativism. As an act of disrespect it serves to unravel hard-won social integrity and erode national integrity. We cannot face an implacable enemy so divided.
Demonstrate if you will, but pick your grievances, your venue, and your purpose very, very carefully.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
It is no surprise that this election (2016) is filled with invective, scurrilous charges, and challenges to personal integrity. Politics in America has never been for the timid, and a quick glance at American electoral history shows that a lot worse came before. In 1828 Andrew Jackson's divorced wife was called all sorts of lewd names by his opponents. In retaliation, Jackson claimed that incumbent John Quincy Adams had once tried to offer his maid as a concubine to Russian Czar Alexander I.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the "pioneers" of political slandering in the United States. Kerwin Stint’s (CNN) (8/22/08) wrote in his article "Founding Fathers' Dirty Campaign":
Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.
Of course, the peccadilloes and grosser behavior did not stop, but now became fodder for the tabloid press. Sexual Lotharios, deviants, adulterers, and pornography addicts were now fair game. Smarmy politicians were now outed in games lf catch-me-if-you-can. Gary Hart, once a presidential contender, dared the press to catch him in an adulterous like, seriously misread their umbrage and the mood of the people, and was dunned out of public life. The media have had a field day with lying, deceitful, duplicitous politicians, their tearful apologies, and the melodrama of stand-by-me wives.
In this era of mini-surveillance, cameras and IPhones fewer politicians are willing to take the absurd risks they did in the past, and Americans have surprisingly become even more moralistic and morally superior. Although every President in recent memory – with the unsurprising exception of Richard Nixon – has had his paramours, mistresses, and cinq-a-septs we have come to demand and expect sexual probity and good behavior. Both George W Bush were apparently good, loyal devoted husbands.
It is now is harder than ever to uncover sexual dalliances, and as hard as Republicans may try it is very hard to pin financial misfeasance and tricky dealings on any candidate. Accountants are simply too good, paper trails can wind maddeningly around back on themselves, and deniability in a smart politician is easy.
What is left? Lying is now the cause celebre of American politics. Just like sexual straying, lying in America is pervasive and seemingly innate not only in politicians but in all of us. This shared imperfection does nothing to quiet the demand for truth, honesty, and forthrightness. No matter how we may lie, deceive, cheat, and meander in our personal lives, we insist on a higher moral standard.
The issue in this campaign is that the political establishment has never met a man like Donald Trump who distorts, invents, or twists the facts deliberately, knowingly, and convincingly. He knows that his followers could care less about facts, ledgers, balance sheets, and traceable quotes; and care only for what he means. In fact they are better deconstructionists than the best Duke University academics. It’s not what Trump says. It’s what he means.
This obvious fact does not stay the baying hounds of the Left who keep insisting on holding him to the facts. Liberal newspapers and think tanks have mobilized thousands of researchers to track Trump’s every word, to publish inaccuracies, deceptions, and out-and-out lies.
No one pays attention and Trump’s poll numbers keep rising. Despite the increasing frustration and exasperation of the Left, he may well win the election.
The only response liberals can muster is sanctimony – a righteous indignation against what they see is a lying, deceitful, untrustworthy demon. A holy, moral, and very sanctimonious campaign against Donald Trump is being waged in the mainstream media, at Georgetown dinner parties, and on Facebook.
It is as though a little duplicity here and there was never in liberals’ electoral armory. Hillary Clinton should no better than to attack The Donald for his lack of transparency when her own husband drove the country crazy with his “It depends on what is is”, and “I did not have sex with that woman”. Or her own waffling and evasiveness on every scandal from Whitewater to Benghazi to emails and her health.
There is no crime in lying in America, and although some perjury carries penalties, everyone does it. Workers like to their bosses, corporate executives lie to their staffs and their shareholders, husbands and wives lie to each other, children lie to their parents.
Lying as become so common, tolerated, and accepted, that there is only a level playing field in America if everyone lies, and everyone seems to at every opportunity.
Yale Medical School professor Dr. Diane Komp in her book Anatomy of a Lie raises an interesting explanation to the now common phenomenon of lying in America. Perhaps it is not the lying star figures who influence us, but we who influence them:
"I began to wonder about the possibility that my own seemingly harmless white lies had an impact on the world, that maybe, instead of there being a trickle-down effect when people in exalted positions or in public life lie, there is a trickle-up effect," Komp explained in a recent interview. "In other words, maybe the cultural trend in lying begins with those of us who are not in positions of power, rather than the other way around. Maybe the 'trivial' lies that most of us tell without any real pricks on our conscience do matter." (Yale News, 1998)
This makes a lot of sense because all of us know liars. Our parents have lied to us. We have lied to our children, and they to us. We do our best to hide our errors and misdemeanors at work. We lie to our wives and husbands about our indiscretions. We cheat on our income tax, have no qualms about defending our rights dishonestly, bend or even invent the facts when it comes to resumes, job interviews, and performance reviews.
She goes on to suggest why people tell lies:
To protect themselves from punishment or embarrassment, to protect their own fantasies about themselves, and to protect the feelings -- or, in extreme cases, the lives -- of others, she says. Regardless of the purpose, "the desire to assume control over another human heart is the basis of most human lies”.Every thinker from Augustine to Immanuel Kant to Sisela Bok have considered the morality of lying and/or its social dynamics. Lying is nothing new. Which is why sanctimony is so surprising. Why, given the fact that lying is endemic and common to us all, are we so quick to judge others and worse, hold some to a higher standard?
It is quite right to call out Donald Trump on those factual statements which are untrue or misleading – a matter of correcting the record and setting it straight. Pinning truth down, however, is a very tricky business indeed; and it would seem far better to craft one’s own version of the truth than try to call out the lies of an opponent.
Be that as it may, there is no place for sanctimony, a ‘those who live in glass houses’ casuistry. Given our human inclination for deception, wouldn’t it be more seemly to grant politicians a little leeway? Challenge the facts by all means, but call your opponent a liar? Hardly, and certainly not a bald-faced, unrepentant, arrogant, destructive one.
Literature, perceptual psychology, cognitive science all have recorded the inability of people to agree on what they see. Rashomon, The Ring and the Book, and The Alexandria Quartet are but a few books about the impossibility of concluding fact. Everyone’s perception varies, is subjective and untrustworthy. Add that to our all-to-human penchant for lying, then one should quite reasonably give a little slack to others when it comes to the ‘truth’.
Perhaps the political Left is given more to sanctimony because of pride in logical analysis, rationality, and reason. ‘On the one hand, on the other’ is not a sign of muddle for progressives but sound reasonable judgment. The Right understand human nature, what is innate and what is not, how we are hardwired and not, and that we are likely to behave just as we have always done. Ironically a bit more rational and less idealistic than the Left, certainly.
Sanctimony is unseemly, off-putting, distasteful and, given all the above, quite ignorant and unnecessary. It is worse than lying, for it celebrates something which is not innate or hardwired. We don’t have to be so sniffy and angry.
Friday, September 23, 2016
Democracy is looking a bit frayed these days. Winston Churchill noted that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others which have been tried from time to time”, but only 70 years have passed since his confidently optimistic statement; and more and more people in the United States and abroad are wondering whether we are stubbornly holding on to a political philosophy which has had its day.
It certainly looks like democracy is broken. Violent protest – without the fundamental core values that animated civil disobedience during the War in Vietnam and the Civil Rights era – has taken over many metropolitan areas. In previous years there was a distinct moral point to protest. Vietnam was an unjust war based on a shaky understanding of history, a cavalier brutality which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Rolling Thunder was a vengeful, spiteful, and frustrated attempt to bring a small nation with legitimate political aspirations, to its knees. There was a point to the protests against it.
A hundred years had passed since the end of the Civil War, and yet by the late 1960s, Jim Crow was a pervasive as it ever was. The South was still a militantly segregationist land, and few in either the North or South were disposed to true black liberation. The freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and assemblies made sense because, although they disrupted the status quo and provoked violence, they were well within the acceptable limits of the democratic process.
The race riots of the 60s in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Washington, DC are back with a vengeance. The 14th Street Corridor in the District, the epicenter of the violence in 1968 is just now fully recovered but the memories of the firebombs, shooting, and mass destruction of whole neighborhoods not only still remain but are returning with a vengeance.
The temperate democratic process seems ill-suited to violent protests whose legitimate starting point – questionable police action within minority communities – has been lost in a wash of anti-white and anti-police hatred. Worse, these riots have been reflexive, based not on the facts (police departments and individual officers have been exonerated by the courts in Baltimore and other cities), but on emotional presumption. The white cops had to be wrong given the decades of police abuse in black neighborhoods. Hysteria built on emotion built on frustration and anger, built on a hundred years of seemingly insoluble problems has caused chaos, a disregard for law, social probity, and community integrity.
Race relations, despite a black President in the Oval Office are – or at least seem to be - worse than ever.
Much has been made of income inequality in America with the top percentiles holding a disproportionate share of the wealth. While incomes have been rising, particularly among the middle- and lower-middle class, there is a perception that the United States, if not quite an economic oligarchy, is close to it. Wall Street scandals and complicity in the near ruinous downfall of the financial system, have all added to the view that the American economy is top-heavy, ruled by insiders with cozy relationships to government, and insulated from the needs of working Americans.
The credibility of Congress is at its lowest level for decades and for good reason. Political obstructionism is the go-to tactic in partisan war, compromise a thing of the distant past, and decisions influenced by wealthy donors and powerful lobbyists.
The current (2016) presidential campaign – one of the most divisive campaigns in recent memory – is not a one-off but a spawn of this democratic dysfunctionality. Donald Trump has tapped into the frustrations of the white middle class which feels besieged by government interventionism. Deeply-held social, moral, and religious values are being swept aside by the progressive juggernaut. Not only do these voters feel economically and socially marginalized, but feel increasingly put upon by arrogant secularists who dismiss their concerns out of hand.
It may be that this period of divisiveness and social resentment will pass; that troubling problems of race, income inequality, and failing public education, and a general dumbing down of the electorate will be resolved. It may also be, however, that the entire democratic system needs structural reform.
There are some who feel that American-style democracy will never recover from this political chaos. Redesigning the architecture, rejiggering the laws of the land, adjusting capitalism will never be enough. Bring back the monarchy!
Dostoevsky wrote in The Grand Inquisitor chapters of The Brothers Karamazov that people don’t want the free will that Jesus offered in his defiant rejection of the Devil’s offers. Men want only ‘mystery, miracles, and authority’ and will willingly give up free choice and individual expression for them. This, Dostoevsky went, enabled the institution of a venal, manipulative, and authoritarian Church and denied humanity of the divine promises made by Christ.
He was right, of course; and he was not the first nor the last to consider the banal, uneducated aspirations of most men. Our own Alexander Hamilton fought Jefferson in heated arguments about the rights of man. Jefferson wanted a populist democracy in which the majority was not only right but wise. Hamilton knew that the opposite was true; and that unless America was led by aristocratic, highly-educated, wealthy men, it would fall into chaos. The Senate was the weak compromise made between the two.
Democracy of course is a very new idea, and for millennia societies were ruled by kings, queens, emperors, and popes. Regal courts were always the centers of learning, art, architecture, and science. It was understood well before the statistical concept of the bell curve, that only a small percentage of any given population would be born with the intellectual gifts to create and lead; the strong will and desire to defend and expand territory; and the social savvy to maneuver the treacherous waters of palace politics.
The rest of society would produce according to its abilities. There would always be a warrior class, a merchant class, and a working class. There was no point to increased access to society’s lower echelons, for there were very few from them would ever make the grade. The result of such a concentration of ability, talent, will, ambition, and strength has produced Athens, Rome, Persepolis, Constantinople, the great dynasties of Egypt, India, and China.
India’s much reviled caste system is an excellent example of this rational realism. Hindu society was always divided. The priestly caste ruled, the warrior caste defended, the merchant class facilitated trade and commerce, and the lower castes labored. Not only was this system similar to those of Western empires, it was codified and justified by it. Remaining in one’s caste with no mobility was not an unjust penalty but an opportunity. The road to spiritual enlightenment is far easier to travel if it is unencumbered by meaningless, illusory ambitions.
It is not surprising to see the world reconfiguring along ethnic and religious lines. China has insisted on ethnic homogeneity or at least absolute integration of minorities within the majority Han culture. It has equally insisted on maintaining strong central authority. A country of over a billion-and-a-half people, many of whom are still low-income and low-status cannot afford the time or energy to manage a pluralistic democracy – especially when it looks like that in the United States.
Perhaps most importantly, Chinese culture is still Confucian – highly ordered, organized, respectful of order and authority, and following millennia-old moral and ethical principles. By comparison, the United States
Russia’s President Putin has made no bones about his designs to restore Russia to the glories and power of its imperial past. The ethnic Russian-speaking majority must be consolidated, strengthened, and reassembled. Democracy is a non-issue for a strong leader for whom endless debate – American-style – over narrow parochial ambitions is irrelevant and disruptive.
ISIS, whatever its fortunes, simply gave a militant posture to long-held pan-Islamist sentiments. The idea of a religious caliphate ruled according to sharia law and traditional Muslim principles is not new. Many traditional, conservative Muslims espouse the idea of religious uniformity if not hegemony. The division of church and state is an irrelevant issue, since God’s law will always be supreme. Iran is not an anomaly.
Europe, already fractured by Islamic separatism, is becoming destabilized by waves of Muslim refugees from the Middle East. While many may be religiously moderate, there is little doubt that the demands for cultural separatism already seen in France, will increase. Assimilation may be the hope of secular Germans, but the social reality will be far from it.
A democracy in which significant numbers of citizens and residents refuse to abide by democratic, secular rules is no longer a liberal democracy. France seems entirely befuddled by recent events. It is proud of and wishes to retain its policy of laicism – We are All French – but its chances of so doing seem unlikely if not remote.
Either the new configuration of Europe is drawn along religious federal lines – states within states to accommodate the new separatism – or government regimes become more and more authoritarian, demanding as Russia and China have done absolute compliance to national majority norms. The latter is the more likely.
Many years ago, long before the Afghan wars but at a time of ethnic rivalry and warfare, many thought that the best political option would be to restore the monarchy – bring back the King. Monarchs have impeccable national pedigrees, with family lines going back a thousand years. They represent the people in a cultural historical way – i.e. with far more legitimacy than a government elected under suspect circumstances, by an uneducated electorate, and for only a few years at a time. National unity has always had a cultural cast.
The United States of course has no monarch to bring back; but we are no different from any other people who only want mystery, miracles, and authority to help orient and guide our lives. Liberal democracy and market economics are procedural values. They lack the deep moral authority of Confucius or radical Islam. America has no underlying cultural principles. We have no storied imperial or dynastic past like Russia or China. We are a Christian country but irregularly so, unlike Indians for whom Hinduism guides every aspect of religious and secular life, or Islam guides Iranians.
‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’ are abstract terms – means to an end in a country without any real ends; and now in this end-game period of democracy, this lack of a moral, philosophical, cultural, or imperial anchor is very evident.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
In an otherwise ordinary course at a well-known American Protestant seminary the professor, discussing the influence of Greek thought on the work of Origen, Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and other early church thinkers, advised the class to remember whose these Greeks were. Both Aristotle and Plato were white, slave-holding members of the aristocracy, and their intellectual contributions to the origins of Christianity must be discounted, for they deprive Jesus Christ of his Mosaic roots, his Judaism, his poverty, and his ethnic identity.
There is no doubt that culture influences thought, and the products of one age necessarily differ from those of another. Copernicus changed an entire worldview. Once the earth was no longer the center of the universe, neither were the men who lived on it. Philosophers, theologians, and dramatists all wrote differently after Copernicus. Darwin influenced far more than evolutionary biology; and after his discoveries it was much harder to dismiss the concept of an innate, ineluctable human nature, programmed to survive at all costs. Before Darwin, nature was capricious. If anything it was influenced by the will of God and certainly not as random and mechanistic as he later claimed.
Shakespeare was clearly influenced by Machiavelli. There are some direct references to ‘Machiavel’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”. Many characters in his plays – Iago, Richard III, and Edmund are very Machiavellian in their amoral, willful pursuit of power. Characters like Macbeth, not innately Machiavellian, becomes one after his fortunes turn; and his political ambitions are unbounded by any moral considerations.
Shakespeare certainly knew of Thomas Digges and Giordano Bruno, scientists and philosophers who were early advocates of Copernicus and heliocentrism but who took his theories even farther to suggest an infinitely expanding universe.
Thomas Digges escaped persecution from the time of the publication of his revolutionary ideas to the end of his life in 1595. This was an extraordinary feat in an age of political and religious intolerance, when the House of Tudor was in constant dread of Catholicism and war with Spain, when Sir Walter Raleigh and his cohorts in the so-called "School of Night" fell under suspicion of atheism, and when one of England's leading mathematicians, Thomas Harriot, was imprisoned simply because his work was sponsored by Raleigh.
It would not have gone unnoticed in England in the final years of the writing of Hamlet that the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who had lectured extensively there and on the Continent and had been captured by the Inquisition, was consigned to the flames for assorted impieties, including his advocacy in 1584 of an Infinite Universe (Peter Usher, The Oxfordian, 2002)Usher goes on to suggest that Shakespeare’s reference to astronomy in Hamlet could only have come from the kind of observations made by Copernicus, Digges, and Bruno.
Shakespeare, who may have adopted an allegorical pen name to protect his own identity, may have acted in a similar fashion to protect the Digges family by using the allegory to disguise the empirical evidence for the New Astronomy. Indeed when Hamlet is viewed in the light of this cosmic cosmic allegory, we may see him withholding information on the New Astronomy even from his best friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
At the same time culture defines scientific discovery. Newton’s discovery were brilliant but they came necessarily out of the early Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational discipline it embodied.
Given the fact that culture does indeed influence thought – even the most brilliant – does this in any way alter the critical assessment of the individual insights of a work of literature, philosophy, or art? Aristotle was influenced by Plato who in turn was influenced by Socrates, but each of these philosophers created unique insights – as did Shakespeare, Nietzsche, or the Existentialists. They were products of their environment, but intelligent, versatile, and creative enough to either translate it in unique ways, illustrate its significance and impact, perceive its future implications, or see far beyond its limitations.
To the point of the theology professor’s argument – what difference does it make to Aristotle’s philosophy that he was a member of the educated aristocracy, that he was a white male, and that he was a slave owner? None whatsoever. While it is obvious that neither he nor any other thinker has ever created independent of cultural context, this context is characterized by major intellectual influences – Machiavelli, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, Nietzsche, Christianity, Imperialism – not by ordinary, routine, unremarkable aspects of historical life.
Of course Aristotle was privileged, otherwise he would have been a slave, not an educated aristocrat. Of course he was male and white because for centuries before and after Greece, this sexual and racial pre-eminence was the norm. In other words, his social position, status, and relationship to the rest of society is irrelevant to the evolution of his philosophical thought.
Aristotle’s cultural milieu affected non-academic aspects of his life as it would any man. Aristotle encouraged Alexander toward eastern conquest and his attitude towards Persia. At one point he counsels Alexander to be "a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants".
Aristotle not surprisingly is ‘ethnocentric’, a product both of his age and his social class; but one would be hard put to find traces of this ethnocentricity in Metaphysics. While personality, character, family, and experience can never be discounted in Aristotle’s thinking, his genius was in his ability to look at the world in terms of abstract, universal principles.
Nietzsche and his mentor Schopenhauer were both from privileged backgrounds and immersed in a rich social and academic milieu; but there was nothing surprisingly different about their views of social class or status. Such configurations were given in the 19th century, and their thinking of the nature of will and human determination was necessarily based on their observations of life, but more an exercise in abstraction.
While Nietzsche may have harbored class sentiments which led him to classify most people as simple members of The Herd, his insights about the indomitability of Will as the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world were unique abstract creations. He was influenced by both Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner as well as by his own life, but his unique take on the world – as dramatically contrary as was that of Machiavelli three hundred years earlier – was his own.
In other words it makes no point to parse the personal history and social milieu of either Nietzsche or Aristotle. It is enough to understand and appreciate their philosophies and their any applications.
The approach of the theology professor is classically post-modern and deconstructionist. Since all ideas emerge from within a social, economic, and cultural milieu, these are the elements which define them. One cannot look at the products of philosophers and judge them only for what they are but how they were derived. The milieu becomes more important that the ideas themselves.
This narrow lens necessarily and deliberately devalues the individuality of ideas and their genius. Suggesting that because early Christianity was influenced by the works of slave-owning (racist), white (elitist), males (gender-dominant) and that one should turn instead to the pre-eminent importance of the Mosaic tradition, Judaism, the the realities of daily life Palestine to understand the true significance of Jesus Christ, is intellectual revisionism and political myopia at its worst.
The seminary professor is not alone in his revisionism. In the first class on the Old Testament, the instructor made it clear that students were to ignore critic writing before the Twentieth Century, for their criticism would necessarily ignore race, gender, and ethnicity as determining factors in Biblical interpretation. Only with a modern and more enlightened perspective could one possibly understand the Bible and its continuing relevance to today. In one fiat the instructor swept away any notion of historical relevance.
Post-modern scholars apply the same criteria to Shakespeare. There is no reason, they say, to read the literary criticism of Samuel Johnson who was shaped by 18th century intellectualism and far removed from the social and cultural imperatives of today.
There is a place for studying the cultural milieu in which a writer or philosopher produced his works; but less for evaluating the importance or relevance of his ideas – the essence of criticism – that providing an interesting but peripheral commentary on his working life.
By raising biography and cultural and social history to a status equal to the essential ideas of a work diminishes and denies their universality. Although deconstructionists do not admit any such thing, only the most doctrinaire can dismiss Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Bach as derivative and their works no different from any other ‘texts’.
It is disturbing to see how such post-modernist thought has infected both theology and Biblical exegesis, for it denies the philosophical importance of early church theologians, and puts an asterisk beside the names of the greatest.
Once the theology professor and the instructor of the Old Testament went on record in their first classes, endorsing facile deconstructionism, an asterisk automatically was put next to their courses. Meaning? Stay away.
Monday, September 19, 2016
In the remake of The Fly Geena Davis asks Jeff Goldblum why he never changes his clothes. “I change them every day”, he says. “Look in my closet”; and there neatly racked are three suits, shirts, ties, and shoes – all exactly the same.
Einstein apparently had the same habit. Why should he be distracted, he said, from understanding the universe ?
Hindus adhere to the same philosophy. Since the world is only illusion, then any attempt to dress it up would be vain and purposeless. The goal is to understand the mirage for what it is and expand one’s consciousness beyond it.
Of course only true ascetics can keep trivia and mind clutter at a distance. The Carthusian monks documented in the film Into Great Silence live a spare, meditative life high in the French Alps. Everything is simple, practical, and essential. Homespun robes and shawls for the cold, bread and plain but nutritious food, usable but far from accommodating chairs and beds, light suitable for reading but not display.
Hindu sadhus who have renounced the world live in caves in the high Himalayas. There rejection of maya is absolute and irrevocable. They have rid themselves of all earthly encumbrances and maintain a bare existence only to extend their prayerful search for God.
The rest of us, however, seem quite happy in a world of trivia. Clothes make the man. Fashion is a statement of quality, creativity, and personal style. Food should be an art form not simply sustenance. Plated food should have color, design, composition, and architecture. Ingredients should be combined to accentuate unusual, stimulating pairings and to invoke culture and ambience. They should be relevant to source and producer so that the meal is a balanced combination of the most artistic with the most down-to-earth.
Rene Redzepi is a world-class chef whose restaurant Noma is consistently given four stars. Redzepi’s creations are all foraged from the shoals, marshes, eddies, and grasslands of his native Denmark and put together as a visual hymn to nature.
An Indian friend once called American expatriate homes in Bombay as ‘cargo boats’, filled with items of little value, little relationship to each other nor to the residents. There was an Indian theme to it all of course, but with only decorative purpose. Statues of Siva, Madhubani folkloric paintings, calligraphic depictions of the word Om, brass pots, wooden sarangis, Kashmiri prayer rugs, and clay incense-holders were arrayed in no particular order or according to any internal logic.
What surprised my friend was not the cluttered collection, ,but the purposeless of it all. Each of the items in a traditional Hindu home would have a reason for being. The incense for worship, the statues of the gods for adoration, the musical instruments to be played, the rugs to be knelt upon, the pots to be drunk from.
While some expatriates collected with taste and the artifacts and art they collected had intrinsic artistic value, my friend had a point. Was a living room appointed with taste and culture any different from a cargo boat?
There is a thread of connectivity that runs through traditional Hindu culture – the religion itself. The music, the icons, the prayers, the daily ablutions and family rituals; human interactions or solitude; animals, the prescribed hours for practical and spiritual affairs, arranged marriages, caste, and attitude are all organized around spiritual principles.
There is no connectivity in Western life, my friend observed. Not only are we awash in things; not only did the things have no inherent spiritual relevance; but they have no thematic reference to one another. No matter how well-chosen or cultured the choice of items in a house might be, they would always be pieces on a cargo boat.
There can be nothing farther from this spiritual, ascetic Hindu view of life than that of America. Even the oldest families from Philadelphia, New York, or Boston have their own clutter. It may be in the form of Chippendale chairs, Townsend cabinets, Victorian silver, English crystal, and Persian carpets but it is still a collection of unrelated things which more than anything is intended to reflect not only good taste but a respect for early English ancestors who founded and built this country. It provides a comfortable in-dwelling of a particular regional patriotism. The outside world may be turning pluralistic and plastic, but inside these walls, it is not.
From a Hindu or even Christian perspective, such collectiveness has no real benefit or reward. It celebrates the past, idolizes social status and propriety, displays wealth, and encourages insularity. Things, no matter what their value, provenance, or workmanship are still things.
No segment of American society is exempt from things. From the cottages at Newport to Mississippi trailers, homes are decorated. Whether plastic flowers, calendars, family photographs, souvenirs, fancy lampshades; or Christofle, Turner, or Revere they are decorative. At the high end they are symbols of wealth, taste, and status; at the low end a statement of basic worth – we are not yet at the bottom of the ladder.
Yes, America is a consumer-driven, materialist culture promoted by corporate interests and sold by Madison Avenue; but we have to buy what they sell. At every rung of the ladder there seems to be a good reason to accumulate things. Things that we do not need, that we will never need, that are irrelevant to our lives.
There is a new phenomenon among millennials to exchange things for experience. They prefer to spend their disposable income on exotic vacations, adventure travel, or food instead on the stock-in-trade of American commercialism. Yet, this is no more than transference – palpable, concrete things, for less tangible but no less valid ones which are recorded and displayed on social media no differently than tea in a Beacon Hill drawing room.
There are those who dismiss these ascetic, moralistic arguments. Trivia is what make an otherwise ‘solitary, brutish, nasty, poor and short’ life bearable if not pleasurable. Hollywood, Las Vegas, tchotchkes, a rack full of dresses, potted palms, Indian turquoise, trinkets and odd toys are fun. They are necessary distractions in a life in which even religion doesn’t completely satisfy. Days and years are too long to be consumed only by prayer.
And then there is simply taking the sting out of Tuesdays, making the daily grind just a little more chipper and upbeat. Not to mention assuagement, making one simply feel better. Retail therapy.
Finally where would we be without life’s real trivia – raking, getting the car inspected, watering the plants, going shopping, grouting the tub, paying the bills. Normal human beings – i.e. those who have not bought into monasticism or maya – need to fill the day somehow. The little things are the bits and pieces that keep the ship afloat, but also keep us busy. These things – the wood fence, the ceramic tile; deeds, shares, and notices – fill up the void.
Nietzsche is famous for his understanding of Will as the ultimate and only valid expression of the individual in an otherwise meaningless life. His Supermen rode above the herd and proclaimed their humanity.
Alas, for the rest of us in the herd, we simply have to get through life with as little pain and disruption as possible but try not to be surprised at death as Ivan Ilyich was.