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

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.

Image result for images walled cities of middle east  Image result for Old Walled City of Shibam Yemen

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.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Things Holy And Profane–Donald Trump And The Importance Of Offending In A Sanctimonious Age

Elizabeth Warren, a United States Senator, announced during the 2016 presidential election that she was of American Indian heritage, a gesture of solidarity with the country’s indigenous population, an affirmation of the importance of cultural diversity, and a demand for reparations for the country’s genocide. To her progressive supporters it was an important statement to the American people that we are all Americans; that race, gender, and ethnicity must always frame our collective experience; and that she would continue her fight for inclusivity, right, and justice.

To Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren was a caricature of an overwrought liberal – a woman who would dredge up suspicious DNA for political credentials, flaunt them with progressive sanctimony, and engage in shameless auto-hagiography.   She deserved the sarcastic caricature Pocahontas, a swipe at her own self-importance and at the Left’s endless moralizing and self-righteousness. 

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Warren supporters were quick to brand Trump as a racist – an incompetent, ignorant, deeply prejudiced man unworthy of the Presidency.  His remarks, they said, were offensive to Native Americans and to all sensitive, progressive citizens.  They were humorless and indefensible, crude and vulgar, and an insult to a woman who had become one of the Senate’s most important members.

In response Trump supporters cheered; for it was about time that the holier-than-thou Left was called out for its historical revisionism and political cant.  More importantly, Trumpists cheered for their hero’s outrageousness and refusal to calm down, to ‘act presidential’, to keep his own counsel, and to shut up.  Finally they had a president who not only spoke his mind, but did so in the true American way – as insulting and bare-knuckled as any bar fighter.  America has never been diplomatic, temperate, and considerate.  We have always felt exceptional and entitled. American politics have never been genteel affairs.  The campaigns of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams were notorious.
Adams’ supporters hurled accusations at Jackson’s wife, Rachel, and questioned their marriage. Critics claimed the couple’s marriage some 40 years earlier had occurred while Rachel was still married to her first husband. Opponents labeled Jackson an “adulterer,” and called his wife a “bigamist.” It marked the first time a first lady’s moral character had been scrutinized so publicly. The Jacksons said Rachel’s divorce had already been finalized before they married...
Jackson countered by claiming that Adams, while working as the Russian ambassador, had procured an American girl for the Russian czar — a baseless allegation, but calling the sitting president a “pimp” was certainly a bold move (listosaur.com)
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Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine went at it in the same vein:
Democrat Grover Cleveland seemed to have the advantage in the months before this presidential election, but in July 1884, allegations arose that Cleveland, a bachelor, had years earlier fathered a child out of wedlock. Republican James G. Blaine’s supporters gleefully took advantage of the scandal, chanting, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” at campaign rallies.
Cleveland admitted he had paid child support to a widow, Maria Halpin, even though he alleged she had been involved with several other men at the time. However, Halpin told newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, that Cleveland had sexually assaulted her, and that after she gave birth to a son, Cleveland had it forcibly removed from her custody and placed in an orphanage. Halpin was then committed to an insane asylum, although she was later released (op.cit.)
The campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set new lows.
[The Presidential] race was full of mudslinging accusations and character assassination. Adam’s supporters accused Jefferson of sympathizing with the Southern slaves whom he wished to emancipate — going so far as to say he maintained a “Congo Harem” at Monticello. In one over-the-top condemnation, Yale President Timothy Dwight said that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
The accusations continued right up until the election. One Jefferson supporter likened Adams to a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ supporters countered with a leaflet calling Jefferson, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson’s camp claimed the president reportedly planned to smuggle London prostitutes across the Atlantic to satiate his sinful tastes.
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There is nothing new about gross humor at the expense of others.  The ‘joke books’ of the supposedly enlightened 18th century took advantage of every disability, misfortune, and bad luck. The jestbooks and their sexual humor and rape jokes were popular with men and women alike.
Women not only consumed but energetically produced jokes about victims enjoying rape or being humiliated in court. Jestbook assumptions are central to works like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘Virtue in Danger’, a sarcastic ballad on a real-life society case of 1721, and to the startling premise of Eliza Haywood’s novel of 1727, The Lucky Rape. Decades later more decorous women writers were still using the basic tropes of misogynist humour. Comic scenarios about scheming maidservants and bogus chastity were routine in the novels of Charlotte Lennox, who once acted on her feeling that hussies were there to be beaten, and had to defend herself at the Middlesex Sessions.
Finally, even disabled writers enjoyed writing humorously about their deformities or disabilities:
Some of the most hostile mockery of disability came from writers who struggled with it themselves. Fresh from a stage lampoon of Swift’s one-legged bookseller George Faulkner, the actor-playwright Samuel Foote fell from his horse and lost a leg, provoking sly jokes from Johnson about ‘depeditation’ and ironic consolation poems with missing (metrical) feet.
Foote replied with a new comedy, The Lame Lover, and took the title role, Sir Luke Limp, himself. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, disfigured by smallpox, traded insults in print with Pope, whose body – or, as she put it, ‘wretched little Carcass’ – had been stunted and twisted in infancy by Pott’s Disease. Christopher Smart, whose Jubilate Agno memorably deplores the vilification he received as a supposed lunatic – ‘For silly fellow! silly fellow! is against me’ – was an indefatigable collector and disseminator of deformity jokes.
There are at least 1000 citations on humor theory, but a sampling of them show that there is general consensus of the obvious – we laugh at deformity because we are glad we do not look that way, find deformity a caricature of normal life and therefore funny, and have a natural tendency to marginalize ‘the other’. A simpler theory is that some things are simply funny:
“It seems surprising that people laugh at the misfortune of others. For instance, a man is walking down a winter street, slips, wildly flails his arms, and finally falls. The reaction of the spectators is varied, but after the victim stands up and sheepishly brushes the snow off his clothes, the majority of the on-lookers smiles or laughs – the incident turned out to not be serious. The fall itself turned into a comical event, breaking the monotony of the rhythm of everyday life.”
If any of these theories are accurate, then we are no different from the citizens of the 18th Century.  We moderns all laugh at the same deformities, differences, and distortions of life as our ancestors.  We just do it internally instead of externally.  Most of us tell the ‘racial, ethnic, and dumb jokes’ referred to above, but save them for friends.  Given the times, we are less likely to tell the longer joke (“A woman and a dwarf walked into a bar….”) and give offhanded one-liners; but they are still jokes ‘at the expense’ of someone else.  Most of us will have to admit that it feels good, in the current atmosphere of Political Correctness to tell these jokes, make these cracks, and laugh at them.

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Ah, say progressives, this may be true but it is right?  Have we not moved beyond such ignorance and insensitivity?  Are we not on a positive trajectory a route to a better society without discrimination, insult, and mockery?

Of course not.  Human nature and the psychological constructs which preserve it are hardwired and permanent.  Igor Krichtofovitch (Humor Theory 2005) observed:
Don’t most of us experience intense euphoria when a well-placed joke puts our opponent in a funny, unfavorable, frequently demeaning position? Moreover, to do this it’s not at all necessary to demonstrate your real mental superiority. The power of the joke is that it does not necessarily have to be well-argued. Its purpose is to psychologically elevate the joker over his rival, and to place the latter in a foolish position. An important and irrefutable observation to which we will refer many times is the fact that the joker and his target perceive the joke, especially a particularly offensive one, entirely differently. The victim, as a rule, is not up to laughing. And this once more speaks to humor being a type of a weapon in the battle for social status.
According to the theory of psychoanalysis, in certain situations, humor and its derivative laughter play to the aggressive behavior of groups. S. Freud noted that for the tendentious humor, three persons are needed: first, someone who uses laughter (wit); second, a target for aggression; and third, someone who receives the goal of laughter (wit) - the extraction of pleasure (‘I’ and ‘It’).
Donald Trump is popular because he is unreconstructed.  His background is human nature personified – aggressive, territorial, punitive, and self-interested.  His character is that of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the streets of New York.  His personality is that of Freaks, High Noon, and The Devil Wears Prada. He says what we think - not the unwashed ignoramuses ridiculed by the progressive Left but uncowed American brutalists who are no different than our Enlightenment ancestors and their great, great ancestors.

Finally, and about time, America has an American president who represents us.  Culture is always more important than politics – one is permanent, the other passing; and Donald Trump is as crude, gross, and insensitive as the rest of us.  We have created a fantasy of propriety and good taste.  We only think that Pablo Casals and Robert Frost and Camelot represent us; or that the grace and Hollywood glamour of the Reagan White House reflect our sentiments; or that the patrimony and WASP heritage of the Bushes are in our historical interest. 

What we now realize is that Donald Trump is one of us; and no matter how much the European Left complains or how many American progressive cavils become headlines, we are like him.  We want his yachts, his runway wife, his beauty queen escorts, his mansions, jets, and getaways.  More than anything we want to be freed from the newly-imposed yoke of political sanctimony, political correctness, and a corralling of our basic, although rough and unschooled, instincts.

Image result for images trump with miss america

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit–Hectoring Wives And Moral Men

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a 1956 film starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, and Frederic March, tells the story of a WWII combat officer who, returning to New York after the war, takes a steady, secure, undemanding job with a foundation.  It pays poorly but is a perfect fit for a man who wants to forget the war, his moral indiscretions, his compromises, and his irresponsibility.  His wife is ambitious and intolerant of his seeming professional lassitude.  How could a man with talent, charm, and ability be so willing to languish in a non-profit backwater?  She wants and feels she deserves a better life for her and her children; but this ambition is necessarily tied to her husband, a man who only wants security and simplicity after four years of the savagery and brutality of war; and for whom the competitive, brutal ways of Madison Avenue and Wall Street are nothing more than civilian versions of the conflict he left behind.

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He keeps the war and his affair with a young Italian woman to himself.  She was a product of the war – his moral certainty and fidelity would never have been shaken had it not been for threat and fear of death – and confessing his love for her to his wife would have made no sense nor had no purpose.  The war and the woman were behind him, and although he would never forget either, he was determined to make a new, simpler, and more structured and certain life. 

However Rath is a profoundly moral man troubled by his abandonment of the Italian woman.  Yes, he was transferred from Europe to the Pacific where death was even more a probability than in Italy or Germany; yes, a soldier had a right to some humanity if not love wherever it might be found; and yes, the woman must have understood the necessary uncertainty of a soldier’s love no matter its intensity; but as a man of rectitude and principle, he could only feel guilt.  His life in New York – recommitment to his  wife, a good father to three children, and a serious professional  – might not absolve him or entirely remove his guilt,  but was at least a recommitment to the values he felt he had lost in the war.

His wife suspects nothing of his past and has no interest in hearing about the war.  For her it was four years of a difficult, solitary life; one with as many uncertainties as her husband’s – a suspended life, one with no future, certainly no present, and only an increasingly forgotten past. 

Who then is responsible for the breakdown of the relationship? An overly cautious, emotionally wounded man who refuses to move on, adjust, risk, and prosper? Or an overly ambitious, insensitive, selfish woman who is dismissive of her husband and interested only in how he can provide and provide well?

The script is very clear.  The Gregory Peck character is sensitive, patient, respectful, and honorable despite his moral failings.  He is a good man who has suffered the consequences of war and whose imperfect moral judgment should be forgiven because of circumstance.  His wife on the other hand cannot be forgiven for her emasculating, dismissive remarks.  He is less than a man, she says, an ineffectual coward and emotional weakling.  No matter how much she apologizes at the end of the film and comes to accept her husband, she is never believable, her contrition only self-serving and insincere. 

Image result for images gregory peck man in the gray flannel suit

The film, being a Hollywood product, of course has a happy ending.   Rath finds a way to rise in the Madison Avenue firm which he joined only because of his wife’s hectoring while retaining his newfound, honest, and responsible recommitment to her and his children. He has a well-paying job, has rejected the ambition and hostile competitiveness of the industry, and by so doing  has put the war to rest.  He has been rewarded for his honesty with his wife with her complaisance, and has assuaged his guilt by contributing to the education of his Italian son thanks to his new salary.

Image result for images gregory peck man in the gray flannel suit

All is not well that ends well just as the contrived marriages of Shakespeare’s Comedies were sure to fail after the final curtain fell.  The women in these plays ran rings around the men they were obliged to marry because of their wealth, status, and position; settled for less; and had duped their lovers into what they thought would be a blissful life.  Shakespeare’s female villains – Tamora, Volumnia, Dionyza, and Lady Macbeth – were all man-eaters; and even his heroines were insatiably ambitious using every wile, trick, and maneuver to assure their power behind the throne and security and legacy for their children.  There were few good marriages in his plays.  Kate, despite her harridan-like, man-hating personality comes to love Petruchio for having tamed her and for having respected her as a woman and individual.  Calpurnia and Julius Caesar love each other with respect and fidelity; Romeo and Juliet are innocent, naïve, and ‘star-crossed’ but loving; but all other relationships the women are antagonistic, opportunistic, and cunning.

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One has the same feeling about Rath and his wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  This marriage will soon come apart.  His principled stance to refuse the amoral personality of advertising, to moderate ambition, and to balance professional interests with home and family will soon be challenged by his wife who will be increasingly unhappy as he remains a middle-manager with decreasing prospects.

Rath’s counterpart in the movie is Ralph Hopkins, the CEO of the firm for which Rath works.  Aggressive and ambitious, he has ‘done what it takes’ to rise in the contested world of advertising; but according to his hectoring wife, he has been a moral coward, ignoring his daughter while she loses her way.  He takes the easy way out, his wife says, giving in to his daughter, refusing to discipline her and to correct her course, preferring the illusory calm and simplicity of home as a refuge from the warfare at work. Unless he challenges his daughter, insists on her proper behavior, and demand her respect and duty, she will leave him. 

Rath has a finely attuned moral sense of responsibility and little ambition while Hopkins has nothing but ambition.  He has indeed been an indifferent, absent parent; and the consequences of his indifference are obvious if melodramatically cast. 

Hopkins objects to his wife’s hectoring, but not to her face.  “If it weren’t for men like me”, he says to Rath, “there would be no America.  Leave the 9-5 men to their wives and family.  They are the weaklings”.  Yet he has lost his daughter and his wife.

Once again, who is to blame for this unhappy ending?  Hopkins, American man of enterprise, ambition, and will who sacrifices family and personal life for his work? Or his wife who insists on his male authority within the family and condemns him for his lack of it?  Is she not like any of Shakespeare’s or Ibsen’s women who refuse, in a time of patriarchy, to give in and are destructive and de-manning in the process?  The script provides fewer clues than it does regarding Rath and his wife.  Despite Hopkins’ success on Madison Avenue, he is surprisingly ignorant and dependent.  His wife is right to demand responsibility from her husband.  She cannot or will not understand how he cannot do both.  She is as intolerant of him as Rath’s wife is of her husband.  Both refuse to see how energy is not fungible, nor partitioned, nor subject to absolute responsibility.

Image result for images diana rigg as hedda gabler

The label of the nagging wife is hard to remove.  Too little time has passed since the era of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; too little time for a complete reconfiguration of female expectations.  Women who came of age in the Sixties have had too little time  to forget the authority and influence of their fathers.  They are still laboring to reject male patriarchy without rejecting men. Younger women have no such heavy yoke.  In an age of post-feminism modern men are on the run, questioning their masculinity and sexual potency.  Women are in the clear ascendancy and men are increasingly befuddled.  Women need not hector and ‘harridan’ and ‘succubus’ are long-forgotten characteristics.

The gender wars are far from over.  One suspects that this current period of male sexual indecision, desires for inclusivity, and willingness to play second mate will come to an end.  It will not be replaced by 19th century male autocracy but by something more attuned to natural social biology.  Men and women are fundamentally different, and while the circumstances may change and the struggle between them attenuated or transformed, it will continue with unpredictable but likely results.