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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Happy Indifference–The Irrelevance Of Purpose, Mission, And Meaning

International Development is a serious business for its mission is to reduce poverty, alleviate suffering, improve health, and increase well-being.  This moral imperative adds an additional level of responsibility to work.  Improving the lot of the less fortunate millions is qualitatively different from selling tires, advertising clothes, or trading shares on Wall Street.  While these occupations may have indirect benefits to the public good – safety, comfort and appeal, and financial investment all contribute to the economy and those who prosper from it – none has the direct, person-to-person, affective act of meaningful charity.  Those who choose to work in development must have compassion and empathy as well as management or technical skills.  No moment should be a wasted moment, rest not a pleasure but a recuperative necessity. 

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Development through participatory, community-based, collaborative effort with local beneficiaries has a value-added that no other profession can match – a sense of personal endeavor, an intimate engagement with clients unmatched in any other field, and moral and emotional laurels that contribute to self-esteem and give the development worker an image if not a cachet of making a difference.

Of course not everyone sees it that way.  Critics of foreign assistance cite this very personal attachment and feeling of higher-order service among development workers as part of the problem.  They are so blindered by a sense of mission and goodness that they have lost any objective sense of quality, result, and impact. The improvement of the lot of the poor has nothing whatsoever to do with compassion, community, and service but with trade, market liberalization, and economic opportunity.  Adam Smith, writing in The Invisible Hand of the Market – The Theory of Moral Sentiments, said:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

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This notion of individual responsibility and the morally indifferent but successful operation of the marketplace where thousands of individual enterprises compete for personal gain and ultimately general benefit is either unknown or ignored by passionate development workers who have chosen their profession as much for their own personal satisfaction as for the intelligence of their enterprise.  

In other words true belief, passion, and a priori belief get in the way of progress for they stop leagues short of objective analysis and proceed on the basis of faith and principle alone.

A well-known private, voluntary development agency in Washington received a number of years ago a generous grant from a major foundation to reduce neonatal mortality.  No strings attached, no preconditions, and no assumptions.  Only results would tell the tale.  Yet despite the evidence that major investments in malaria and tetanus control would substantially reduce both infant and maternal mortality; and that with the funds made available by the foundation a large swath of East Africa could see drastic reductions in disease, the agency demurred.  Such ‘top-down’, ‘mechanistic’ approaches were counter to its philosophy of community engagement and personal interaction.  The means are as important as the ends, said the agency’s spokespersons, and by working with and and through local communities to strengthen more traditional and culturally appropriate means of child care, one could both achieve numerical targets and assure the longevity of age-old practices.

The project was a failure.  The millions granted by the foundation were dribbled away in community efforts facilitated by international workers committed more to the process of saving and promoting traditional cultural values than they were in saving lives.  Yet the disappointing outcome could have been predicted by even a casual observer.  It is the ends that count, especially when lives and valuable resources are at stake, not questionable means and more questionable commitment to questionable first principles.

Adam Smith knew that commitment simply gets in the way of market mechanisms.  Purpose, mission, and meaning foul the works.  Yet 250 years later, these idealistic notions still persist.

International development is by no means the only discipline where idealism consistently trumps rationalism.  Environmentalism and social justice are but two of the current movements towards a better world.  Compassion and identification with the poor and marginalized;  a spiritual sense of identity with all living things and a responsibility to protect and preserve them; and a passionate sense of justice and civil rights are all given to irrational aspirations.  Appeals to historical determinism – the endless and repetitive cycles of creation and destruction, expansion and contraction – mean nothing; nor does the record of involuntary servitude; nor do the chronicles of empire, caste, social hierarchy, unequal distribution of wealth and influence.  A better world means personal, direct, committed engagement.  The amoral universe of Adam Smith’s market has no place in social evolution.

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Harry Phelps was an International Development Consultant who understood all this – his profession’s idealism, Adam Smith, and history’s concurrence – but who paid all no mind.  Even the most desperate parts of the Third World – despite their unfortunate public image - offered adventure, romance, and pleasure.  After three decades of working in the likes of Haiti, Bangladesh, Chad, Angola, the Congo, Romania, post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and other pitiful socio-political and economic wrecks, he never looked back.  He would do it all over again without a doubt and without question.

How could he ever forget four course civilized lunches on the lawns of a Belgian estate turned restaurant on the shores of Lake Tanganyika? The coquilles St Jacques at the market restaurant in Dakar, the pate de fruits de mer and lobster a la crème poolside in Abidjan?

For Harry development was a delight, an excursion, a guilt- and responsibility-free happenstance of a profession.  He knew that what he did made no difference whatsoever, but he did it well; not to cover his tracks but because he was properly brought up.  One had the duty to carry out the expectations of an employer once employed regardless of personal commitment.  He had an obligation to return success on his company’s investment regardless of how temporary or insignificant its results might be.

Most of the women he met in his travels shared his indifference – otherwise they would not have been looking for romance, pleasure, and avoidance of home-bound responsibility.  The bars of Bujumbura, Kigali, and Bamako were filled with young women just as indifferent to principle as Harry was, although they could never take off their cloaks of belonging.  Sex in the Third World always takes on an additional, especially illicit and attractive character for all comers, the great philosophical equalizer.

Dark-eyed beauty

A colleague of Harry’s, one who believed in progressivism and social change, once asked him how he could be so indifferent and unresponsive to the needs of his Third World clients, so dismissive of the purpose and principles of ‘development’ but still happily and gainfully employed in its service.  Was this not hypocrisy at its worst?

No, replied Harry, for why should motive and principle count more than results?  Between civilized lunches, cinq-a-septs, and rendezvous he executed the terms and conditions of his contract with excellence.  What did it matter whether or not he believed in his work, its importance, or its value?  Why should anyone care that his work was a means to an end – an entrée to romance and ragged adventure – as long as he performed his duties?

Of course his colleague cared and so did the thousands of development workers in the ranks.  Without believing in the cause of their employment – the rightness of good works and personal sacrifice – they would be selling tires or advertising clothes and Bahaman resorts.  Principle, belief, and commitment did make a difference.

Harry retired with nothing but good memories.  Yes, there was the unpleasantness in Luanda and the disappointment in Lahore, but all in all a very good ride indeed.

It all goes to show that purpose, mission, and meaning simply get in the way of the good life; and the true human survivor is the one who can navigate through moral straits and cultural demands skillfully and without incident.

Colonialism, Ethos, And Cultural Purpose–The Importance Of Universal Values

The great hotels of the world – the Raffles, the Grand, the Taj Mahal, and the Oriental – were all built in colonial times; and, like the English clubs throughout the Empire, were cultural safe havens, islands of civility amidst the heat and dust, squalor, and crowds of Asia.  The British had a mission to govern, but no rule written or otherwise suggested that they live like the ruled.  Not only would that be unpleasant but such familiarity would unnecessarily complicate their mission.  There was simply no room for the messiness of love or anything more than casual friendship.  Better gin pahits, polo, and cricket at the Tollygunge Club than anything more immediate and local. 

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Of course there were many cracks in the armor.  Forster who understood India far better than Kipling who wrote of boys and tigers and the romance of the subcontinent, understood that relationships between English and Indians would always complicate matters.  Indian women were, after all, quite beautiful; and young men sent out to India for years at a time were far less interested in the pale lot of English women who followed them and much more in the fair beauties of Kashmir and Bengal.  Yet there was more to British cultural distinctiveness than clubs, snooker, and grand hotels.  There was an ethos – a code of behavior, purpose, and mission that prevailed; that kept men and women in line and within bounds; and that assured allegiance to something more than rule itself – the greatness and rightness of Empire.

Graham Greene wrote of Empire in Africa, a far cry from the sumptuousness and elegance of the Raj; little more than outposts in the White Man’s Grave, an administrator, a few policemen, unhappy women, and an inevitable mix of cultures. In The Heart of the Matter Greene wrote of Scobie, a policeman caught in this dangerous mix, who compromises himself to the Syrians for the chance to do right by his wife and arrange passage for her to England, freeing himself to live with his lover.  Scobie broke all the rules of culture, morality, and religion but could never be free from the guilt of such disregard.  There was no good, easy, and safe way to become less English.

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Joseph Conrad wrote as compellingly about British expatriates who could never square the allure of the jungle and the desire to be free from England with its unknowability and primitivism.  Kurtz, the Englishman who ran an interior outpost far up the Congo River thought he could manage both – the civilizing missionary he was set out to Africa to be; the primitive ruler of his own jungle tribe; and a Nietzschean man of universal, dark principles.  His last words were ‘The horror…..The horror’, a final recognition that he was never the master either of others nor his own fate, that savagery was universal, and that no attempts to accommodate or tame it would every be successful.  Conrad’s other expatriates are less driven and willful and are trapped by their Englishness.  Kayerts and Carlier, characters in An Outpost of Progress, are fearful, weak, and cowardly – afraid of the jungle but inept at dealing with it, they turn on each other.

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All these stories take place in an earlier time when such cultural ethos meant something more than civil service or allegiance to the King.  While many expatriates bridled at the imposition of a morality that seemed far removed from India or Africa, most understood that it was an element of rule and sanity.  If one believed in the purpose of rule, then one should abide by its authority.

In fact the colonial era was a time of British greatness.  The British Empire with its solidly Western, Christian, and English values covered much of the world.  There was much to be proud of and much to be sacrificed in its name.  It was an age of exploration and courage in the name of Empire.  Adventurers from Mungo Park to Burton risked their lives to map the world and to stake it out for England.

Such Victorian certainty seems quaint today not so much because colonialism has been discredited and ethnic identity and national sovereignty revalued; but because the whole idea of ethos has become outmoded.  International capitalism, as responsible as it has been for the remarkable economic progress of hundreds of millions of people, has been an equalizer, threatening the idea of cultural integrity.  Economic progress and liberal democracy – procedural not cultural signifiers – assure that stubborn cultural values do not get in the way.  The free flow of goods and services requires parity and level ground. 

Yet ethos is not dead.  Traditional Hinduism, its highly disciplined and organized social system, and sophisticated religious realism remains in place  Chinese Confucianism still assures the internal stability and mutual respect that foster collaborative enterprise; but the West has given up on any pretense of a priori foundational values. Russia, in its attempt to revive the values of its own Empire and the principles of empire itself is turning from the West and to the East.    Muslim fundamentalism while still only a relatively small proportion of Islam, still expresses the idea of ethos.  Territorialism, expansionism, and hegemony are both political issues and religious ones.

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Western multiculturalism is a far cry from Empire and serves to erode the universal moral principles of Europe rather than refresh its cultural values. There can be no universal values or principles in a nation of ethnic and racial enclaves.  Multiculturalism – the abandonment of cultural ethos – is at its worst in America.  Europe, despite the revolutionary changes in national configuration and open borders, still remembers a much more stable and recognizable cultural past.  France was not only a beacon of intellectual liberalism but la fille aînée de l'Eglise.  Roland and Charlemagne saved Europe from the Saracen hordes.  The victory was not just one of armies but of civilization.  France protected, defended, and preserved the Christian cultural, religion, and moral values of Europe.  America has no such historical brakes.  We have always been a frontier, individualist, entrepreneurial, capitalist country.  While religion and the philosophy of the Enlightenment provided the foundation for our nation, these inter-related and essential organizing principles have weakened over time.  We have become entirely procedural.

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No great civilization has been without ethos – core cultural, philosophical, and moral principles to which everyone subscribes.  While every lasting society has had its dissidents and its revolutions, its cultural values have remained in place.  The French Revolution did away with the monarchy and the court but the  aristocracy showed itself to be resilient and defiant.  The Revolution changed only the political order not the historical class divisions common throughout Europe.  More importantly, the Revolution did not affect France’s fundamental culture – a respect for a canon of art, literature, beauty, and ideas.  Only now has the canon been displaced.   The Russian Revolution had the same profound political and social changes; but after 70 years the culture of the Tsars, Orthodoxy, and Russian civilization has begun to return.

Where does this leave America, a nation with military and economic might but unsure how to use it.  There is no real purpose for America’s might – no desire for Empire or a civilizing mission but only a desultory wish to promote ‘democracy’ in the name of economic stability and partnership.  Democracy alone means nothing.  Popular representation and expression must have a purpose.  In the mind of our Founding Fathers, there was such a purpose.  Only in a free, democratic society was one able to fulfill one’s spiritual promise.  The Enlightenment after all was rational but in the name of discovering God.  Economic and social well-being would necessarily follow grace and good works.   Jefferson understood that individual and community were two necessary and inextricable parts of the same whole; and only if everyone subscribed to the same universal principles could the country prosper.  He had no idea how modern capitalism would erode this core ethos.

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The days of – or even thoughts of – a new American empire are long gone.  We  have transferred our religious and philosophical principles to one idea – progress.  Progress has such an inherent value that everything is done in its name without reflection, disaggregation, or consideration of consequences.  Socialism – an idealistic concept of universal progress – failed completely because of its indifference and antagonism to individual enterprise and spirituality.  Capitalism – an equally idealistic notion of equality based on market forces – ignores the cultural havoc it has wrought.  A truly equal socio-economic society without ethos – cultural or spiritual values which transcend or supersede procedural ones – is no society at all.

Such political momentum has gained tremendous inertia; and it is unlikely that even the most grandiose schemes of the Russian autocracy or the Islamic jihad can possibly reverse it.  The authoritarianism required to re-establish centrality is a thing of the past.  No more British kings, European emperors, popes, Russian tsars, or Chinese mandarins.  Only wars – even more inevitable in an unstable world – and reconstruction after them will sort things out. 

In other words, it was perhaps better to have a clash of civilizations than a conflict between secular, indifferent, socio-political regimes. At least in former days there was such a thing as civilization to promote, defend, and expand.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These spiteful episodes were the rule and not the exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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                   New York Times

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

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

Thursday, July 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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