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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Importance Of Patriotism–Lessons From Conrad, JFK, And Imperial Rome

For Joseph Conrad solidarity was a virtue – perhaps the essential virtue of humanity, for it promoted and assured the integrity of society and without which human nature – aggressive, self-interested, territorial, and demanding – would rule completely. For whatever reason, Waits’ presence on board the ‘Narcissus’ was disruptive, divisive, and destructive to the solidarity and camaraderie of the crew.
Solidarity, Conrad said, was engendered by hard work and necessity. It did not come naturally, was not a natural element of the human condition, was fragile and subject to rumor, innuendo, and mutiny; but it was essential to muddling through a life without much promise.

Perhaps most importantly it was the key to providing the social focus that diverted Man’s inefficient and depressing obsession with death.  In his Preface to his The Nigger of the Narcissus he said:
The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom: to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring.
He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible, conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn”
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In other words, everyone has dreams, joy, sorrow, aspirations, hope, and fears, and in this collective psychology, men are united. But if this collective solidarity is disrupted, each man becomes an individual with his own dreams, hopes, and fears. The expression of these powerful emotions will always be damaging and destructive.

The critic Ian Watt described solidarity this way:
Solidarity is an intangible and undemonstrable but existent and widespread acceptance of common human obligations which somehow transcend the infinite individual differences of belief and purpose and taste…It is not a conscious motive; and it rarely becomes the dominating motive in human affairs. Its existence seems to depend very largely 0n the mere fact that in the course of their different lives most individuals find them faced with similar circumstances; nevertheless it is solidarity which gives both the individual and the collective life what little pattern of meaning can be discovered in it.
Wait’s derelictions – malingering, evasion of duty, manipulation of others, unmanly fear – are precise inversions of the fidelity and commitment to human community and above all of the courage to face a final darkness that are essential ingredients of Conrad’s ethics
The story of ‘Narcissus’ is about solidarity and its evolution aboard ship. The men arrive unknown to each other and with unknown pasts. They are seamen, workers, signed on and anonymous – all with unknown pasts and characters. Conrad quickly introduces them – the wise Singleton, the suspect, disreputable, ugly Donkin; the powerful, intimidating, African figure of James Wait; the strong, disciplined Captain Allistoun; Baker the mate, Padmore the cook, Belfast, Creighton, and Charley.

Each man represents a point on Conrad’s moral spectrum. They are no longer simply individual crew members but characters in a quickly evolving drama. There can be no easy congeniality between the ugly, sniveling Donkin and the imposing James Waits; or any sympathy for either on the part of the disciplined and uncompromising Captain Allistoun. Nor can there be any real camaraderie or solidarity among a crew with such members.

Yet the ship, the Captain, the sea, and the storm bring these individuals together.  They are disciplined into a solidarity of seamanship of not camaraderie.  There can be no survival, says Conrad, if individuals act as individuals, for themselves, and with only secondary concern for others, the ship, and their duty.

The arrival of James Wait aboard ship disrupts this evolving solidarity.  He is a divisive figure.  To some he is an African totem to be feared.  To others he is the symbol of death.  To others he is a poor dying man in need of salvation.  To the Captain and some of the crew he is only a malingerer faking illness to get free passage with no work.

For a time the men adjust to Wait’s presence, but it is too powerful and too transforming.  They cannot look away.  Captain Allistoun, however, understands the nature of James Wait and his disruptive influence and does everything to sequester him away from the crew; but they know he is there, locked away, either suffering or dying, and they cannot be deceived.

They weather the storm, Jim dies, and the ship is brought home to port.  In the final scene the men go their own ways, individuals once more but no longer so stubbornly so.  James Wait, the Narcissus, and the Captain, have changed them.  Theirs will never again be a solo voyage, but a collective one.

Patriotism is national solidarity.  It has less to do with love of country at any cost to a respect for the integrity of the nation.  Just as the crew aboard the Narcissus was a group of individuals, different in character, personality, belief, and outlook, Americans are equally so divided.  More importantly American society now especially favors and encourages individual rights and tolerates their protests, demonstrations, and violence protests.  Little thought is given to the commonweal, the future of the nation as a whole, and the eventual fate of individuals within it.

The current phenomenon of ‘taking a knee’ where NFL athletes refuse to stand for the National Anthem in protest against racism, white supremacy, and the presidency of Donald Trump, has highlighted this distinction.  The flag and the National Anthem have, in the minds of many, have been disrespected; and by extension so has the country, its military, and its historic traditions.

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Few people love their country as selflessly as they do their children or their families.  Love of country may be abstract and only representative of a type of cultural solidarity; but it is one without which there can be no nation, no national community, no unity.  Only a fragmented, disassembled, fractious, and ungovernable place.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, Samuel Johnson said in 1775; and no one doubts the crimes, adventurism, and international havoc caused by passionate nationalism.  Whether the Crusades, the armies of Genghis Khan, the advances of the Persian and Chinese Empires, or European colonialism – all have been fueled by an exaggerated sense of national importance.  Worse, many military actions have been taken not for patriotic, cultural reasons, but for narrow, venal political ends.

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Patriotism has been the banner flown by kings, queens, and emperors to support their autocracies.  Roman rule could never have been so extensive and so secure without a sense of belief in its character and purpose.

In the film Gladiator, after a decisive victory over the Germanic armies, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asks his general, Maximus, what they have been fighting for.  
MAXIMUS: Six thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.
MARCUS AURELIUS: And what would you believe?
MAXIMUS: They fought for you and for Rome.
MARCUS AURELIUS:  And what is Rome?
MAXIMUS:  I've seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.
Marcus Aurelius is not so sure.  “You have not been there”, he says; “and you have not seen what Rome has become”.  Marcus Aurelius sees Rome as a place, poorly governed, turning to autocracy and corruption.  Maximus sees it as the light, a beacon of enlightenment. 

Both are right, but Maximus expresses the essential nature of national cultural identity, pride at least and perhaps patriotism.  People need more than governance to live together.

John F Kennedy captured the same essential character of national identity or ethos with his Biblical reference to America as ‘that shining city on a hill’ .  It was not so much that he was urging patriotism for a particular purpose, but that national integrity – critical to any enterprise – depended upon it.
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us"...
We are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required ...
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Jefferson understood this well, and said that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was not a call for individualism but individual enterprise within the context of community.  One labored for oneself, for the community, and for the nation.

The objection to ‘taking a knee’ has little to do with the grievances expressed by the athletes and all to do with a public display of disrespect for the country.  There is no way for the country to survive its current fractures and violent antagonisms unless there is common ground.  For centuries that has been nationhood – America – a concept, an ethos, and a virtual place where we reside.  Disrespect for the flag means many things, but most of all it is a rejection of solidarity.  And that is very, very troubling indeed.


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Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur–Can Anyone Really Atone For Anything?

Conrad’s Lord Jim is a tale of tragedy, guilt, and a search for atonement.  Jim abandons ship with eight-hundred pilgrims aboard, leaving them to sink with the Patna, alone, foundering in high seas, and frantic.

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The ship, however, does not sink. The pilgrims are rescued, the ship towed shore, and delivered to its owners. 

From the moment he sets off in a lifeboat with the Captain of the ship and its officers who all have abandoned the ship and its human cargo, Jim feels tormenting guilt and unassailable regret. Facing trial for dereliction of duty, Jim refuses to escape justice, faces the charges against him, and accepts the punishment of the court. 

As soon as judgment has been rendered (only a rescission of his license), he begins his journey of atonement.  At first he only wants to escape notice, and travels from place to place looking for a refuge, never to find it, for news of the Patna incident, the trial, the renegade captain and officers, and the plight of Jim.

All through his long hegira of guilt and recrimination, Jim wants only to expiate his sin, to make up for his cowardly and inexplicable cowardice.  He can never reverse the past but he can surely atone for it.

The island of Patusan in the South China sea offers him the opportunity. He joins with native rebels in their fight against the corrupt, venal regime of the local rajah. In fact he leads them and more importantly gives them the moral and military will to succeed in their struggle.  Jim is more than a military leader or even an inspirational one. He sees himself as an incarnation of righteousness, and the rebellion as a holy, just vindication of his sins.

The tale ends badly.  Jim, for all his heroism, is still a dreamer, a fantasist, and a selfish idealist. He has never dealt with the practical, real affairs of leadership and governance nor has he ever been confronted with the pure evil of Gentleman Brown.  Jim, in an exaggerated act of charity and final expiation of guilt, gives Brown free passage away from Patusan, never expecting him to return and kill all of Jim’s native friends and their families.

In humiliation and disgrace he faces the leader of the rebel tribe and the father of his closest friend and accepts the death sentence he knows he must receive.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra prepared for her death by dressing in the most elegant and expensive silks, adorned with gold and silver, all to meet Antony in the afterlife, but more as her final, and most spectacular scene.

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Jim stood before his executioner not with humility but with the same naïve, boyish, romanticism that he always had.  This, like Cleopatra’s, is his last act, and he goes to his death confident that his battlefield victories were enough to atone for his sin, and that defeat at the hand of an evil adversary was not failure but a righteous and noble outcome.  Failing to see the duplicity of Brown despite his Christian generosity was not a fault or a failing. It was only the eventually of evil.  Jim had done what he was destined to do, and felt himself a righteous, holy man.

Conrad asks the question, ‘Can anyone ever atone for a heinous sin?’.  What is the calculus? How many rights equal a wrong? Was Jim’s guilt-ridden suffering enough? If Christ died for all the sins of all humanity in an act of total redemption and forgiveness, then would not a confession of guilt and a worthy penance be sufficient?  Or are some sins impossible to be forgiven? And that perpetual suffering is the only legitimate human response?

Image result for medieval images christ on the cross

These existential questions are rarely asked in an age of moral relativity.  Guilt is a questionable premise given the many social, economic, and cultural exceptions to any moral rule.  Antisocial behavior can be explained away by invoking past abuse.  Black men, oppressed and abused for centuries by white overlords, have every reason to turn to violence. 

Faithful husbands, left on the curb of social advancement by aggressive, dismissive, feminist wives, have every reason to turn to infidelity.  Politicians who believe in the righteousness of their political mission have every justification for turning to opportunistic lobbyists and wealthy donors.
Children are given every excuse for misbehavior – ADHD, abusive teachers, a lack of opportunity – anything but responsibility. The cult of parental ‘understanding’ is fundamentally detrimental to the establishment of fixed moral principles and a culture of adherence to them.

Every dereliction has an excuse.  Every sin has mitigating circumstances.  Every moral failing can be attributed to external, exogenous factors, and never to the moral cowardice of the individual.

How can this be otherwise in a culture which lionizes individualism and identity? If the individual can do no wrong; if his frustrations, anger, and resentments are considered legitimate a priori and supersede any more general concerns for the commonweal or society at large; and if his identity is sacrosanct no matter how much such self-centeredness damages the community around him, then how can a fixed set of moral principles be even articulated let alone respected?  And how can anyone be judged guilty, required to atone and do penance?

Many of those who have aborted a child years ago, now, upon reflection realize that they have committed an unpardonable sin.  How to atone for it?  The baby is long dead, a collateral victim of feminism and individualism; but it cannot be forgotten by its mother and father who profoundly regret their decision.  How can they expiate their guilt, and more importantly atone for their sin?
A commitment to pro-life causes might be one way; and the more financial, physical, and political support, the more one’s sin might be forgiven; but taking a life and marching for the rights of the unborn seems to be a horribly unbalanced equation.

A special, devoted love of grandchildren or all children might be another way to expiate guilt, but certainly not atone for abortion.  Such love is adoration not forgiving. 
Similarly no amount of contribution to UNICEF or Save the Children can possibly compensate for the death of a potential human being.

Confession may be convenient for Catholics, but those who have committed abortion know that the confessional cannot possibly end their guilt.  The must do much more, but what?

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The issue of forgiveness and atonement has been distorted by today’s culture of apology.  Every day a politician, a general, a preacher, or a teacher apologizes for their behavior.  “I should never have made untoward advances….I should have known better….I crossed the line…I had been drinking…I was in a state of depression…my wife was about to leave me…”

In most cases these ‘apologies’ are nothing of the sort and no more than convenient excuses for reprehensible behavior.  Apology, so goes the common wisdom, is enough to erase the past.  “I am sorry”, so please let’s move on and let me do the job for which I was appointed.

If guilt is not recognized, if facile apologies are all it takes to remove past transgressions, then atonement is never an issue.

The only time atonement is ever addressed concerns ‘retribution and compensation’ for past social wrongs.  The United States should pay all black people a certain sum in acknowledgement of its support of slavery.  Queen Elizabeth should pay Kenyans a fixed sum in recompense for their brutal colonial rule and massacre of the Mau Maus.

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If one were to follow that route then Mongolia certainly should pay compensation to the millions of descendants of Genghis Khan, one of the most murderous leaders in history.  Cambodia has a lot to atone for given the bloody history of Pol Pot, and compensation might rightly be expected by the survivors of his internment camps.   The list goes on.

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In short, atonement is a tricky business. Even for those who accept the gravity of their moral failings and wish to compensate those aggrieved, deciding on how, how much, when, and for how long is complex and almost impossible.

Moreover, given the psychological nature of human guilt and the spectrum on which individual responses fall, it is impossible.

Angola State Penitentiary is a maximum security prison in Louisiana, and only the most hardened criminals – repeat murderers and rapists – serve life sentences there.  Within the prison there is no morality, for the incarcerated have nothing to lose, and additional murders or rapes mean nothing.  Not only did inmates have no sense of traditional morality when the entered Angola, they have less and less as their sentence wears on.

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There are those for whom righteous moral behavior is everything, the most defining feature of their lives.  Alyosha, one of the three Karamazov brothers in Dostoevsky’s epic is profoundly moral, but he is isolated and protected from the real world of moral complexity by the walls of his monastery.  He is pure, simple, and ideal, at the far, righteous end of the spectrum.

The rest of us muddle through, try to avoid morally compromising situations, are genuinely sorry for our transgressions and try to make amends; but fall far short of atonement because we never really believe that we were totally wrong or misguided.  Whether because of moral cowardice or social and cultural influence and pressure, we are unwilling to prostrate ourselves before our victims, beg forgiveness, and commit ourselves to atonement.

Atonement, then, is an idealistic proposition.  At best we understand our sins and are willing to apologize for them; but few of us feel the guilt so profoundly that we are willing to atone for them.
Nothing more can be expected in an increasingly amoral world.