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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Our Loss Of Nobility And The Demise Of Moral Grace

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Image result for image olivier hamlet to be or not to be

Invoking nobility Shakespeare elevated the question of morality – to accept one’s fate with dignity no matter how great or outrageous the insult; or to rise up against this outrage, this ‘sea of troubles’ – to its highest human expression.  Nobility requires more than choosing between philosophical alternatives and taking right action.  The decision to remain stoic in the face of the worst that the world has to offer is less a conclusion than a moral conviction.  To assess the world as a meaningless, purposeless, and amoral place and to accept it with equanimity and grace requires intelligence, principle, logic, and profound understanding.  To fight the worst that this random, insulting, demeaning world has to offer requires more than political or personal conviction.  To take up arms against venality, greed, hostility, and indifference knowing that these expressions of human nature will  recur infinitely in perpetual cycles requires moral stature.  Although these slings and arrows are predictable and familiar and nothing of one’s own doing in a necessarily narrow universe, there is still moral cause.  Standing by, regardless of cosmology, is immoral.

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Nobility – the state or quality of being morally or spiritually good; having dignity – was a commonly accepted quality in ancient Rome.  It was rare, endowed, and admired as the best of humanity.  The moral philosopher Cato the Elder instilled principles of nobility in the future leaders of the Empire.  Not only were they instructed in the practical affairs of governance, international relations, and warfare but in the essential components of proper leadership – courage, duty, respect, honor, and compassion.  While Cato knew that only a few of his students would ever attain such nobility, they would be among the very select.

Nobility, Cato knew, was hard to achieve even among those who were born with a certain moral sensibility.  Fortune was indeed outrageous and the temptation to succumb to the worst instincts of the human soul was irresistible.  Many a leader found ways to circumvent the principles and values he knew to be permanently valid, justifying his actions by layer upon layer of expediency and limited objectives.  Only the most enlightened, the most noble, would find the courage to act morally within an amoral world.

Two plays about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and friend and foe of Henry II illustrate this nobility.  In the Jean Anouilh version, Becket has left behind his whoring student days and macho camaraderie with the King and become a man of principle and rectitude. No bond of friendship, no patriotic duty to King and country, no sense of duty or responsibility of office could sway him from his moral principles.  The Church, as the true representative of Christ on earth, would always have primacy despite the divine right of kings, and it would never buckle under to the secular demands of the monarch.   There was a certain nobility in Becket’s objection to the King , one based on moral principle, expressed with courage in the face of assassination, and stated with God’s very authority.

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At the same time, Anouilh suggests that arrogance if not megalomania was behind his militancy.  There certainly were many avenues of compromise that Becket could have taken and still remain faithful to the principle of separation of Church and State; and yet he obstinately refused.  Perhaps he was not so noble after all suggests Anouilh.

In T.S. Eliot’s play four Tempters appear, one after the other, to tempt Becket. The First Tempter says that Becket should return to the secular life of pleasure that he led as a young man. The Second Tempter tells Becket that he should become Chancellor of England again, saying that he can do more to help the poor in a political position than in a purely religious one. The Third Tempter suggests that Becket form a new government composed of the nation’s barons, allowing him to effectively rule England. Becket finds these temptations easy to resist because they are things which he has already experienced.

The Fourth Tempter’s proposition is quite different. He suggests that Becket should seek to become a martyr. In death, his cause would be recognized as just and his enemies would be condemned. His name would long outlast those of the men that killed him. Becket recognizes this as the worst temptation of all, that of “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”. He says that he will not try to become a martyr but will accept his fate, whatever it is (N. Mabrol, Literary Theory and Criticism).

Eliot is much more explicit about the conditions of nobility.  Whereas Anouilh only suggested Becket’s ambitions, Eliot lets Becket speak for himself.  Yet the moral issue cannot be ignored.  Can Becket be believed in his demurral and acceptance of fate? Doubtful, for as Cato the Elder knew, most men will fall prey either to temptation or to the weakness of their character.  In any case Eliot’s Becket not only expresses no doubt about the rightness of his action, but couches it in the most powerful spiritual terms.

Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at one, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

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Today nobility is thought of only as a function of past kings, courtiers and empire.  European nobility included only a select group of families whose titles were a function of ancestry, heredity, and patrimony; and because of that patently anti-democratic, anti-progressive origin and justification, should be discredited and ignored.  The growth of Western civilization and the encouragement of art, culture, science, language, and thought is irrelevant.  Only the aggression, oppression, and hegemonic violence of this malevolently entitled class should be remembered if at all.  

The aggression and expansionism of modern societies may have changed little from that of Medieval and Renaissance empire, but they are without any overarching purpose.  Ambition remains personal, venal, and narrowly political.  

There was something grand, enviable, and noble about the ambitions of Louis XIV, the Sun King, Queen Elizabeth I,  Emperor Caesar Augustus, or Han Guangwudi. While the first ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty cannot be credited as his predecessors were for uniting China or doubling its territory, Han Guangwudi was renowned for being consultative and merciful, qualities rare among Chinese emperors. Guangwudi revitalized the dying Han Dynasty and assured its rule for another two centuries. His subsequent reforms and military successes enabled another golden age in China.  Without Guangwudi’s accomplishments, China could have reverted to being a collection of warring states.

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The idea of personal nobility -  grace of spirit, essential morality and rectitude, courage, and higher purpose – is all but gone today.   FDR is considered by many to be the savior of Depression-era America and the architect of progressive, liberal democracy, but others see his establishment of a government megalith as the force destroying the American values of individualism, enterprise, and freedom.  Winston Churchill, the British leader who was the heart and soul of the nation during WWII and the Battle of Britain, the brilliant political philosopher and historian, military strategist and warrior, is as close as the modern era has come to nobility.  Churchill was a man of breeding, principle, patriotism, and higher values, and never accused of venality or personal ambition.  Yet he too is vilified by today’s Left for his persistent defense of Empire.

Both men’s rectitude, moral grace, and nobility if even recognized, are dismissed by political partisans.  Moral worth and probity – the essence of leadership – have seemingly no place in the fearsome democratic politics of today.  Alexander Hamilton warned Jefferson about trusting the mob – majority rule – and insisted on some form of aristocratic oversight, men of the aforesaid moral principle and rectitude able to see beyond petty disputes and venal interests.  Hamilton would be appalled at the state of American democracy today, mob rule at its worst under the guise of ‘diversity. Identity politics has assured the interment of any higher value.  Identification with a racial, ethnic, or sexual grouping is all that is needed in terms of moral verification; and given that generalization, there are no moral brakes.

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The literature of the day reflects this moral dissimilitude.  The Golden Age of American Theatre – Williams, Miller, and O’Neill – an age where moral principle was tested and retested is gone.  The greatest work of Faulkner – Absalom, Absalom – a complex story of the Sutpen family, its racial divisions, family jealousies, ambitions, and deceptions could never be written today in a literature dominated by temporal, social issues of race, gender, and ethnicity and political issues of inequality, injustice, or oppression.  More than anything today's works are confessional, stories of growing up poor, disadvantaged, or abused.  There is no nobility in these stories, only a melodramatic dime-store peep into ordinary lives.

Of course there are exceptions – men of personal dignity, integrity, compassion, and excellence.  Spiritual devotion without evangelism; professionalism without award or accolade; duty and responsibility with no public acknowledgement.  Men of dignity, moral grace, and sincerity.  They are often lost in mergers, acquisitions, joint practices, and the commercialization of most enterprise.  The species is endangered.  If we are lucky, we know one.  We never read about them in alumni notes or in press releases.  Their obituaries sum up the visible pieces of their lives without mention of their real worth; and family lore keeps their memories alive with anecdotes and ‘remember when’ stories of years past.

Yet, although the species is endangered, it is not yet extinct, and thank God for that.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Without Trump To Hate, What Will The Haters Do With Themselves?

Danny Billups had been on the frontline of the Hate Trump vendetta for the four years since the President’s election.  Although he had a job – a quite respectable one in progressive circles, and one far removed from any taint of opportunism, unearned wealth, or possible exploitation of others – he spent most of his time at the barricades, online, at the podium, lectern, and pulpit.  He was a deacon at the most important and influential Presbyterian church in Washington, one which prided itself on social engagement and activism, and every other Sunday at the church’s second service, congregants could hear his thundering condemnation of the President, his greed, misogyny, homophobia, and racism.  

Of course Danny had to be somewhat careful to couch his calumny in Christian terms  Although the congregation was as progressive as any in the Capital and boasted privately of its liberal solidarity, it was a place of worship after all, and as hateful as the President was, the injunction of Christ’s teachings about loving thy neighbor could not be overlooked.

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Danny’s posts on social media, his op-ed pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times, and his participation in televised roundtables were legion and renowned.  He was a progressive’s progressive, never without a harsh word for Trump and his dwarfish coterie, never a screed unpublished about the President’s abuse of women, gays, and minorities or his xenophobic, fascist positions against the international poor, and his regressive ideas about the importance of religion in society.  

Like most of his colleagues, he was not only unremitting in his personal crusade to dun Trump out of office and to discredit the entire conservative establishment, but he was passionate about it.  Trump indeed represented the forces of Evil and electing him for a second term would surely usher in the darkest years before the Second Coming.

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So when the Old Man was defeated by Joe Biden, Danny Billups was at sixes and sevens.  His side had won, and now what?  During the past four years he had not formulated any alternate policies on foreign affairs, energy, social welfare, equity, distribution of wealth, and affirmative action.  He had only spewed animus and bilious hatred.  Neither he nor any one of his colleagues really cared about policy.  

His campaign would be a religious one – the casting out of the Devil and the exorcism of the evil of capitalist conservatism.  No details, no position papers, no data, no historical references.  Nothing in fact except for venom, bile, hellfire, and brimstone.  It worked – the progressive faithful were as single-minded and fundamentalist as he was and voted Trump out of office not because of his policies or his attitude, but because he was a bad person, a blighted one, and a profoundly sinful one.

So Danny and his fellow members of his Washington liberal cabal sat around the table in mid-November after the final votes were counted and lawsuits dismissed and Biden was all but declared President-Elect, and looked blankly at each other.  Now what?

Of course most of them before Donald Trump had been engaged in a variety of social causes – civil rights, Global Warming, affirmative action,  the gender spectrum, and immigration – and could always go back to them; but after the halcyon hate years, engagement seemed rather tepid.  Trump not only stood for dismissal of environmental issues, rejection of please for black justice, indifference to gay rights and sexual agenda, he ridiculed those who promoted them.  

Progressives were namby-pamby wusses.  They were hopelessly idealistic, childish, given to tantrums, offended without provocation, thin-skinned retro-bigots.  Now this was a man progressives could hate, a man who embodied the virulent ignorance of the conservative electorate.  

Without Trump to hate there would be no one else - no one single embodiment of evil, just fragmented ills.  No allegation of police brutality, racial discrimination, subverted gay rights, or private sector exploitation of workers will ever get the same defamatory press as when Trump was in office.  He was the one behind all of America’s ills and cared nothing about him.  He was the sinkhole of all conservative evil, the huckster for it, the facilitator of it, and its eternal defender.  

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So the blank looks were not surprising.  Without someone to hate, their job would be dull,, boring, and unfulfilling.  These progressives lived for their hatred of Donald Trump.  It animated them, energized them, and defined them.  Now they were little more than ciphers – like their man, Biden, if they were to speak honestly.

A few months after the 2020 election a COVID vaccine became universally available, and in person events were permitted.  Special consideration was given by the Biden Administration to those organizing groups which had supported him and had been instrumental in defeating Donald Trump and Danny was able to attend the National Women’s Alliance annual meeting in Washington.  

It was a tepid affair.  The jubilation over Biden’s victory had passed, and the hatred for Donald Trump was mitigated by time and the need to focus on the future, and the air was out of the balloon.  Speaker after speaker spoke about transgender discrimination, the still unbreakable glass ceiling, the sexual abuse on college campuses, and the shameful resurgence of girly-girl-ism but to muted applause.  More women were checking their phones than paying attention,  The fun of hatred had irretrievably gone.  There was no misogynist like Donald Trump and there never could be.  Picking on little guys was no fight.  Without the main event, the whole idea seemed a bit frivolous.

Environmental groups shut down and locked down by COVID once again emerged, and their own shills again began to peddle their wares; but without The Great Denier, the man for whom climate change was a liberal fiction, for whom a few higher tides meant nothing more than fishing closer to shore, and whose blind trust investments in Canadian golf courses were already paying off, the spirit was gone.  Without Trump to hate, climate change just didn’t seem all that important. The wind was out of their sails as well. 

Worst of all without Trump to hate, the solidarity of the progressive movement began to weaken.  Each activist stuck with his own .  When Trump was around to hate, they all – environmentalists, civil rights activists, socialists, sexual revolutionaries – partied in one big tent.  Now they were in their own little pup tents.

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They scanned the horizon for Trump successors but found none.  There was a handful of right-wing politicians from the Far West who had made some noise in their own states but who had stumbled on the national stage.  A few televangelist bigots who attracted large crowds and donations but who were known by relatively few.  It was a desert out there.

In any case Danny, near the end of his career, found it easy to hang up his spurs and retire to Florida.  He could do so knowing he had won the gunfight, had always been on the side of the right and righteous, and was recognized for it.  He felt sorry for the young radicals of his party’s Left wing.  They would miss the hand-to-hand combat, the absolute exhilaration of political hatred, and the ecstatic moment of victory.  Where would they go?  What would they do?  Become conservative as they got older as most liberals do? Or live in secure enclaves like New York’s Upper West Side where old Jewish liberals still remember Samuel Gompers, revere Noam Chomsky, and rant and rave about Marx, Lenin, and Engels whose genius was distorted and ruined by the Soviet Union.

Danny spent the rest of his life fishing for bonito, playing golf, lying on the beach, and enjoying sundowners with his friends on the balcony of his condominium. There is a time and a place for everything, he said, time to hold it and time to fold it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Liberal Without A Cause, An Oxymoron–There Is Always Something Wrong With America

Randy Bobbin had never met a liberal cause that he did not embrace. He cut his teeth on the peace movement during the Vietnam War and moved easily to the anti-nuclear movement.  The conflict in Southeast Asia had done little to settle regional differences and geopolitical interests; and if anything it heightened geopolitical tensions. The American defeat in Vietnam had emboldened Russia and China. 

Far worse for America, however, was that Russia had a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems – a resurgent Soviet Union, expanding throughout its growing sphere of influence and maintaining an arsenal of deadly nuclear bombs was indeed a threat not just to America but to the world.

Image result for images last day in vietnam helicopter on roof of embassy

Of course as Randy saw it, the United States was entirely at fault.  It had dropped the first nuclear weapons on the defenseless populations of Hiroshima to show the world what America had in store for any country that defied its sovereignty.  The message was directed to the Soviet Union, and Politburo leaders wasted no time in beginning their own ambitious nuclear program.  As Randy and his progressive friends saw it, the nuclear threat was all the United States’ doing, and they had a moral imperative to insist on disarmament. 

Nothing doing, said the Politburo.  If you want to draw down on your nuclear arsenal, go ahead; but we are not only standing pat but investing billions in new, more advanced weapons and sophisticated logistics.  The Cold War was begun with a vengeance, all because of Harry Truman’s immoral, indefensible, destruction of Japanese cities.

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‘Immoral’ is the key word here.  Liberals like Randy Bobbin were never content to see conflict only  in Machiavellian terms. Medieval and Renaissance wars had their own issues of immorality – indiscriminate slaughter, torture, rape, and wanton destruction were common in every war since Genghis Khan – but nuclear war was another thing altogether.  Hydrogen bombs raised conflict out of petty marauding and changed it into Armageddon.  A nuclear war had the potential for destroying the world long before the Second Coming. There was a moral imperative to act for nuclear disarmament, said Randy and his colleagues.  We are not only political activists in a geopolitical conflict but agents of God.  

Of course they never admitted such a thing, touching as it did on blasphemy at worst and presumptuousness at best; but behind closed doors they admitted their moral mission.  As much as they dismissed Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as The Evil Empire, they understood that such a godless, immoral country would never be the first to do the right thing.  To engage the Soviet Union was to meet them on the field of righteous battle.

When the Wall came down and the Soviet Union was no more, Francis Fukuyama wrote about ‘the end of history’.  The world would no longer be a contentious, dangerous place; democracy and liberal economics would spread throughout the world, and Utopia was within reach.  Of course he was as wrong as anyone could be.  The world may have been spared nuclear Armageddon, but it was beset by pesky little, destabilizing wars that could lead to outright war.  The politics of the Middle East became so complicated, that few analysts could say with confidence what Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Russia would do.

Yet because the moral imperative had been removed from conflict and wars returned to their Medieval roots, Randy was no longer interested in them.  He needed something more consequential from a spiritual point of view.    He had lost the fire that he had had in Cold War days. He had given heart and soul to the Movement for so many years and was just reaching his full potential and influence. 

For months he moped and made excuses for his indifferent performance ; but soon the banked embers of moral outrage flared, and he knew that there were other causes for him to fight.  Global Warming, he saw, was the moral equivalent of nuclear disaster.  The pollution of the nation’s lakes and rivers would soon kill of all animal and plant life.  The befouling of the air would choke America’s cities and accelerate the warming of the climate.  If nothing was done to stop it, the United States would become a new Dust Bowl – a dying, desiccated, miserable place.

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Although the nuclear issue had not gone away – Iran was certainly close to nuclear capability as was North Korea, rogue states capable of anything – it simply was no longer as compelling as that between the US and the former Soviet Union.  There was little probability that these two insignificant states with crazed autocrats and the helm would actually pull the trigger.  Rounds of endless negotiating, bargaining, and compromise were in the offing – boring to Randy and his co-activists who saw none of the same existential crisis they had in earlier years.,

So Global Warming became Randy’s new thing.  He was a whirlwind of activity on all fronts.  He was on the front lines to defend species in danger of extinction because of the greed of rainforest loggers and developers.  He spoke at colleges and universities about the imminent danger of a progressively warming climate.  Son of Methodist preacher, but long co-opted by the secularism of the Sixties, he had nevertheless never given up on God or salvation.  From lecterns across the country, he became at times incensed, at others inspired, and at still others possessed.  Before large audiences of young people all of whom had come to hear his sermons out of faith and hope, Randy was in his element.  He felt himself ordained and righteous.

As much as Randy believed in the coming Global Apocalypse, it was hard for most Americans to take it as seriously.  Yes, the climate might be warming, but agriculture would simply move north, and American ingenuity and enterprise would adapt to rising waters and temperatures. Cities like New York and Miami were already hosting experts from the Netherlands, Venice, and the Comoros.   Let high tides come, they said, we’ll be ready.  What were a few snail darters or monarch butterflies in the scope of things, especially where jobs and economic security were involved.

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This growing indifference only made Randy work harder – more colloquies, more lectures, more books and television appearances.  The world simply had to understand before it was too late.

As things would have it in America, fads pass quickly; and before you knew it, the issue of racial injustice had edged climate aside.  The country was once again in flames because of race.   A child of the Sixties, Randy understood this well.  He had been in Newark when the riots had broken out, and saved his neck only be hightailing it to Princeton, taken in by a former classmate.

The issue of race had never gone away.  It had been permanent, insidious cancer on the body politic for 250 years; and the destructive, damaging riots throughout the country were only normal, completely justified, and expected.  Black Lives Matter was Randy’s new home.  Although the radical leftist leaders of the organization at first wanted nothing to do with this aging white man, they were persuaded that he could be an important conduit to the liberal white establishment.  He would be their liaison, their go-between.

Randy was in Seventh Heaven.  His days of liberal causes were not over.  Although he questioned BLM’s resort to aggressive, violent confrontation (he had been a Martin Luther King peaceful marcher to Selma, Montgomery, and the Pettis Bridge), he quickly subscribed to their methods.  The country had changed in sixty years.

Not surprisingly BLM grew quickly tired of Randy and his philosophical hectoring.  He could never quite leave his PhD behind, and the ghetto chieftains in Baltimore wanted no part of this doddering old man.  Sorry, they said, but it was a Black thing.

Randy’s wife had for years been active in the Women’s Movement, and she had been as committed to the cause as Randy had ever been to his.  Although this new generation of women were more self-assured and rebellious than she and her friends had ever been, they still needed guidance and support from a well-known, respected luminary of the movement.  It was time for men to be more engaged than they ever had been, Randy’s wife said to him, and wouldn’t this be the right thing to do? 

So Randy invited himself to women’s marches, conferences, seminars, and demonstrations.  Just as America had been the insidious force that enabled nuclear weapons and had contributed a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases to the environment, so had it encouraged patriarchy, sexism, and male elitism.   

Randy had found what might be his last hurrah.  In fact, all things came together like never before.  It was capitalism which enabled all these ills, and his screeds in all venues – Global Warming, Peace, Civil Rights, and Gender Equality – became virulent attacks on American greed. 

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Nearing eighty, the age at when most men are hanging up their spurs and retiring to Florida, Randy felt more full of piss and vinegar than he ever had.  But somehow his dense, overpopulated resume had done him in.  He had become a parody of what he had intended.  A man with such weighty unmatched luggage was of little interest or use. Even his alumni magazine started trimming his class notes.

So he finally gave in – or sort of.  He and his wife moved to Boca Raton, but it wasn’t long before Randy was involved in groups concerned about the manatees and the ebbing of the waters of the Everglades.  The chaise longue was simply not in his future, and he would rather die in his traces than drift off in his back yard.   They had chosen carefully – Florida retirement communities are filled with rednecks, and particularly at this point in his life Randy wanted homogeneity, people who thought alike.  He had long jettisoned staunchly conservative friends from college and his youthful days in Connecticut.   Life was too short to be bothered with anyone who was not wedded to the cause – or in his case, causes. Political philosophy was everything, all inclusive, all defining. Women, marriage, children, grandchildren, friends meant nothing unless they were part of this template.

Unfortunately those retirees in his community, as liberal and progressive as they had been before they came down to Florida, had quickly become indifferent.  A day out on the ocean fishing for bonito was enough, or a round of golf, or sailing in the Bay.  Randy was unmoored.  He had intended his final days to be committed, meaningful, and serious; and all he got was tuna?

He died in his sleep as we all hope to go, so was unable to share with his wife the final words he had prepared long ago, words he hoped she would repeat to the press about meaning and purpose.  He was buried in Florida so only a very few former colleagues made the trip down, particularly since poor Randy had died in August.  It was a simple ceremony.  His wife read from Ephesians and an excerpt from a paper Randy had written about climate change, and the funeral, and his life were over.