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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Mental Breakdown Of A Very Common Man–Ordinariness Has Its Virtues But Also Its Perils

Barney Field had always thought of himself as an emotionally stable person, well-grounded in moral principle, a solid education, and a clear understanding of himself and the world around him.
His childhood was unremarkable.  Barney played by the rules, colored within the lines, was dutiful and respectful to his parents, served as an altar boy, did well in school. 

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Barney himself was only remarkable for his ordinariness and lack of distinction.  This well-behaved and polite little boy, although admired by teachers and his parents’ friend, was growing up as an emotional and intellectual cipher.  Even Father Brophy hoped to hear a serious sin in the confessional, but Barney only confessed the most venial ones.  In fact, had confession not been indispensable preparation for Holy Communion and a sacrament itself, Father would have told Barney not to bother.

Barney’s teenage years were no different.  He followed every rule in the book, continued to be honorable and deferential, treated girls and women with respect, and never so much as let an elbow rest on the table.  By every standard of the age, he was a model boy, citizen, and member of New Brighton society.

Barney could not remember when the irritability set in; when things did not seem quite right; when everything began to look off-kilter.  Perhaps during the weekend on Cape Cod where the clambake had gone bad.  Nothing he could point to really, just a feeling of displacement.  He had always been taken for granted and never accorded any interest; but on the beach he was excluded, peripheral, and insignificant.

At the same time, he began to feel befuddled and adrift.  Perhaps he did belong on the margins. Why, for example, did the most insolent, arrogant, and posturing boys have such sexual success? Why were rectitude and intelligent counsel dismissed as irrelevant in sexual affairs? Why was volubility so attractive? And sports? Why wasn’t his own serious reflection and consideration of value?

The cracks only widened as he got older.  His suspicions of became more common and more troubling.  Perhaps he was a cipher or a dry well.  Life could have no meaning if he had no meaning.
Yet, what might that be? It is very had to construct a personality let alone character.  The genetic dice had been cast and there was no way to re-roll them until something more advantageous came up.  He had to make do.

He hoped that Descartes was right.  The very fact that Barney had these doubts about himself signified some existential importance. He must have a critical, analytical mind and sensitive spirit for them to have even cropped up.

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Still, there was no intellectual hook to hang his queries on; no emotional rivers to follow; no kaleidoscopes to jog his sensibilities; no Borscht Belt nor no funny bone.  No passion, no ambition, no obsession, no nothing.

Whereas everyone else his age was planning for the future – eyeing a mate, a job opportunity, or an investment offer – he drifted, although not unhappily.  He felt no anxiety about his lack of ambition or vision, only a lassitude which, if he let himself, felt good.

Although he did not know it, Barney Field was in fact quite unique.  He had inherited genes which are more essential to survival than those of his more demanding colleagues.  He was the raccoon of his species.  Not a great hunter or predator, neither ferocious nor intimidated; but perfectly adaptable to his surroundings – to any surroundings in fact.  Prehensile, nocturnal, cunning, and opportunistic, the raccoon would certainly be the mammal to survive nuclear winter.

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At college Barney was never concerned that his first choices were taken.  A course on Melville would be just as good as one on Conrad. There would certainly be plenty of creamed chicken in the cafeteria if he came late.  There was always seating at the polo field.

The cracks sealed themselves once Barney accepted the fact that there was no there there.  Uniqueness was not his specialty, but life under the stream bank was not so bad either.  Life without bother, with no demands for notion or opinion, and outside the sexual fray was not bad at all.

There is a particularly comfortable zone within the intellectual spectrum, one in which the individual is not smart enough to obsess over existential issues but too smart to bungle.  The Three Bears Zone’ it was called by a well-known Czech psychologist.  Not many people fell within it, he noted, but those who did led very content lives.

What Dr. Milos failed to note, however, was the fluidity of the intellectual spectrum. The individual may rest comfortably well within its confines, but at times would regress or advance.  Sail too close to the edge and become suddenly and morbidly anxious about death on the one end, or make foolish decisions on the other.

It was during one of those excursions that Barney first felt angst. For no reason that he could tell, he felt nervous, prickly, unsettled, and very shaky.  His backyard looked spotty.  The trees were twisted and nasty, and the birds flew at him. It was too windy for August.

The feeling passed, and Barney went back to his business slightly unsettled but convinced that it was the ribs or sleeping badly until it happened again, this time more disassembling and insecure than before.  For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was or even who he was.  It wasn’t so much that the garden was shifting planes and that rabbits and voles were coming out but that he was deconstructing and shifting planes.

Of course it was a panic attack, and nothing that Barney felt differed from textbook descriptions.  Every attack is unique, Dr. Milos wrote in a paper written clandestinely in Prague in 1955 – clandestinely because under the Communists all psychological aberrations were due to the incompleteness of the Revolution and nothing whatsoever to do with individual, innate disturbances – and unpredictable in their phenomena.  For one person it might be rabbits and voles, another birds flying backwards, and for a third paralyzing fright.

It is bad enough for a complex person to suffer panic attacks; but far worse for a very stable, settled, and uncomplicated person like Barney Field.  Complex personalities, particularly the artistically gifted, see the world in unusual ways.  Picasso is a good example of a presumably rational and un-psychotic personality who saw the world in a scrambled way. 

Barney, however, had never seen a teapot as anything other than a teapot and a perfectly traditionally shaped one at that. White bone china, Victorian decorations, fluted spout, and slender throat.  So when the garden became a distortion far more radical than Picasso ever saw it, or more weirdly assorted than Breughel’s, Barney knew that something was seriously wrong.

He was ill-equipped to deal with his increasing anxiety.  Such discombobulation never seemed possible or even imaginable, so he didn’t have the first idea of what to make of it.  He of course had read about psychological disturbances, but psychosis and schizophrenia were never more than academic categories; and as far as modern art was concerned, he was ignorant.

All of which is to say that Barney suffered more than those with intimations of craziness.  He was totally, completely, and helplessly unprepared for his devilish visions.

Dr. Milos had offered no insights into this particular type of psychosis – i.e. a person with no known history of mental illness, a well-adjusted, loving childhood, and an adaptable personality which enabled him to cruise the shipping lanes with ease.

In other words, where did this sudden weirdness come from?  Had it been hidden deep in Barney’s subconscious for all these years?  Had the balance among Id, Ego, and Superego been so perfect that his subterranean demons had been kept underground?  Or was it chemical imbalance the result of some leaky endocrine valve or bad limbic plumbing?

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Milos even hinted at the demonic (for which he had been roundly censured by his colleagues and the Communists).  Why not consider possession, he asked?

In any case Barney went from bad to worse, was only partially salvaged by psychoactive drugs, interned in a private hospital in Connecticut for short periods over three years, and then finally committed to an asylum.  His only relatives – an aunt and uncle in Branford – were surprised that such a Victorian institution still existed let alone in Connecticut; but it was they who signed the papers.

It was there that Barney Field spent the rest of the days, interrupted from his daily routines only be squads of research psychologists who wanted to learn more about how such an ordinary, uncomplicated, and very uninteresting man could have gone so far off the rails so quickly.

They had no conclusive answers and were as perplexed as Dr. Milos had been many decades earlier.
There is too little we know of the human genome, suggested one researcher, and for all we know there are bits of DNA which don’t kick in for many years and then, for reasons we cannot understand now, drive the individual completely and irrevocably batty.

“Such cases [like Barney’s] are impossible to explain”, wrote Dr. Milos.  One would hope that ordinariness would have at least one compensation – lack of anxiety – but it clearly does not.  No matter how prosaic and dull one might be, it is no protection against the insidious infection of madness.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Better World–Tax Reform And The Patriarchal Assumption That ‘Father Knows Best’

Congress is currently debating tax reform, and the lines have been already and predictably drawn.  Democrats want to continue progressive taxation – high taxes for the rich to subsidize the poor – and Republicans want individual American citizens to keep as much of their income as possible, for they alone know how it should be spent.

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Tax reform passed in the House with not one vote of Democratic support. They see Republican initiatives as favoring the rich and the expense of the poor and refuse to be complicit.  However the opposition is more philosophical.  It is simply hard for the Left to give up the mantel of moral authority. How, they ask, can anyone grounded in insular, populist sentiments, possibly reason objectively on what is best for them and the nation?  They cannot; and therefore the responsibility lies with those who do.

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How can society ever progress if a majority of its citizens still believe in the inerrant word of the Bible, creationism, and divine fundamentalism? Such beliefs are not only errant but reactionary and counter-revolutionary; and such home-grown, nativist, and na├»ve convictions must be  challenged, dismissed, or completely ignored in the ineluctable path of progress.

While demurring on Marx’s conviction that ‘religion is the opiate of the people’, progressive critics prefer simply to dismiss it as irrelevant and antiquated - an incidental, peripheral aspect of life of little consequence and greater corrosive threat.  Personal religious conviction – about abortion, gay marriage, procreative surrogacy, the sexual roles of men and women – has no place in today’s modern American society.  All such issues must only be considered within the context of social reform, social justice, and social progress.

Public schools, liberals argue, are not for three R’s education but re-education – schooling in progressive social theory.  Teaching templates are simple and designed to provide the race-gender-ethnicity context through which all learning must be encouraged.   Deconstructionism – valuing context, environment, social determinants far more than individual creativity, enterprise, or insight – is the primer.

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It is understandable how, given this a priori belief in progress that the progressive Left would insist on dirigiste economics and interventionist social theory. They and their moderate associates in Congress insist that the electorate has no idea what’s best for them.  Left to their own devices they would vote for and endorse any measure which reflects their social and religious fundamentalism with little regard for the more important social movements which are intended to bring all Americans together towards a better world.

Conservatives and a significant majority of Americans beg to differ.  They know exactly what they want, how it conforms both to an originalist concept of commonweal and  individualism, and why the notion of race-gender-ethnicity not only does injustice to the democratic vision of the Founding Fathers, but is divisive, and antithetical to the concept of nationhood. They are concerned about the persistent intrusion of government into private lives. 

These Americans who reject this social and economic dirigisme are Trump supporters who, without pretense or political ambitions, simply want their due.  An acknowledgment at least that Christianity is the foundation of America; that Biblical heritage is ours , defining and essential; and that the Old and New Testaments are modern, relevant, and essential.

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How divided is America? No less divided than between conservative fundamentalism and progressive secularism.  For every feminist rally, for every Black Lives Matter or Take-a-Knee protest, there are thousand of unexpressed, and defiant Americans who resent the dissolution of common principles, the commonweal, and the Republic.

‘Tax and spend’, the mantra of American which feels right and justified in drawing down on the investments of the wealthy to create, and promote, social programs.  Despite the objection of conservatives who insist that only by leaving individuals to their own choices, freeing private money to find its own productive home, and rejecting paternalistic sentiments and initiatives, the American Left continues to promote its interventionist agenda. Democratic tax reform is only a signifier, a meme, and an arrogation of power, no different from the positions taken by the Party for decades - the redistribution of wealth and programs of social engineering.

Of course given the nature of politics, the charge of Republican cronyism - tax reform is only a cover for structural adjustments to favor the wealthy - has been made loud and clear.  Objections have been made by Democrats in this Congress and in many before that lightening the tax burden on the wealthy has never resulted in advantages to the poor.  Trickle-down theory has never worked. 

At the same time tapping the rich in the interest of the poor has no salience except in discredited socialist principle.  Despite the fact than no data has proven the assumption that for every dollar recruited from the rich a commensurate economic benefit is accrued by the poor, liberal activists continue their efforts at progressive tax reform and radical redistribution of wealth.  There is no easy zero sum in economics.

However Congress rules on the tax bill (2017), the political debate will only sharpen the philosophical divisions between conservative and progressive.  Either government is the solution or the problem.

More and more Americans are wary of government authority, of Beltway elitist arrogation of power, and of progressive intrusion into the affairs  of the common man.  This Republican Congress is not the first to challenge these assumptions but perhaps the first to so decisively throw down the gantlet.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Equality–Political Fiction, Social Idealism, And Historical Illiteracy

John Adams, one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers was dismissive of the idea of social equality.
Regarding the egalitarian’s dream regarding “the natural equality” of all human beings, Adams is dismissive. In a letter to his friend, turned adversary, turned friend again, Thomas Jefferson, Adams is blunt: “Jus cuique, the golden rule, is all the equality that can be supported or defended by reason or common sense.”
In his correspondence with John Taylor, Adams writes: “That all men are born to equal rights is clear. Every being has a right to his own, as moral, as sacred, as any other has. This,” he says, “is as indubitable as a moral government in the universe.” However, as for the egalitarian fiction that was taking his world by storm, “for honor’s sake,” and “for truth and virtue’s sake, let American philosophers and politicians despise it.” 
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Adams remarks: “But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.” (Jack Kerwick, The New American). 
Adams and his colleagues, although they may have differed on human endowments and the relative importance of nature and nurture, all agreed on the principle of equal opportunity.  No matter what God’s gifts, each individual should be able to use them to the fullest. 

The idea of innate inequality has not surprisingly come under attack in recent years.  If one believes, as progressives do, that human nature is not ineluctable nor totally determining of human activity, then social progress is indeed possible.  The environment can be modified in a way to better suit the aspirations of the many, to facilitate a movement towards a more equitable, just, and socially harmonious world, and to provide the favorable context in which humanity’s best instincts can be encouraged.

Conservatives, intellectual inheritors of John Adams’ legacy, content the opposite.  Men have been created unequal, and the only purpose of government is to encourage that social, political, and economic environment within which each individual can prosper and contribute to the commonweal.
An assumption of absolute, innate equality is dangerous and infectious.   A truly just and equal society must be homogeneously inclusive and must in fact erase any reference to relative importance, rank, or status. 

Of course this inclusivity lowers all standards.  If the signal abilities of a dynamic, entrepreneurial society –intelligence, cognitive ability, mental discipline, insight, creativity, and vision –are included only as part of neutral spectrum and not raised to a rank of higher importance, then they cease to be the ideal qualities that all civilizations have valued. 

While not all can be Einstein, Mozart, Kant, or Michelangelo, reaching for their particular and unique brilliance is a good thing.  While they may have been specially endowed and on the high end of human intellectual ability, the individual and collective ambition and effort to be like them is the energy for lesser but by no means less important achievement.

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While it may not be surprising to see the extent to which the philosophy of progressive inclusivity and social equality has gone, it is surprising to see how easily history has been forgotten.

Every civilization – whether Ancient Greece and Rome, Persepolis, China, Imperial Japan, or the British Empire -  has honored and valued the same principles, attributes, traits and abilities.  The intellectual, artistic, architectural, and scientific achievements of these societies were remarkably similar although culturally distinct; and the enterprise which enabled them was even more predictable.  Each civilization had elites, a historically-repeated acknowledgement of the fundamental social and individual inequality that characterizes all human societies.

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It is no surprise that nationalism is re-emerging throughout the world.  China, Japan, Russia, and Turkey are the most openly committed to reviving their imperial pasts – or at least reaffirming their essential values.  While often criticized as xenophobic and reactionary, these countries are nothing of the kind.  They do not see cultural pluralism in the same way as the liberal West.  For them it represents the erosion of millennia-old beliefs, traditions, and values. 

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Countries like the United States without a firm, universally-respected, moral, historical, and philosophical center cannot survive and will split apart under the pressure of factionalism and selfish individualism.

Imperial states were created by aristocratic elites but enabled if not supported by the masses.  They were unabashedly unequal societies.

Alexander Hamilton was very wary of the masses and argued with Jefferson over the danger of populist rule.
All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they will therefore maintain good government.
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Hamilton would be appalled if he were to see 21st century America, a nation riven by sectorial and parochial interests, divided as never before into identity and interest groups; with such a venal and self-serving Congress; a near complete dismantling of those private and public institutions which served as moral anchors for society; and worst of all an abandonment of the idea of the inherent sanctity of a nation. 

His worst fears have been realized.  Pluralistic populism has replaced enlightened, principled leadership.  Aristocratic elites – always the caretakers of the nation’s patrimony – exist no longer, replaced by technocrats, financiers, and entrepreneurs.

There is no way for a country to become or remain strong unless it has a clear cultural and moral center – a purpose which goes beyond procedure (democracy, civil rights, freedom) and is derived from religious tradition and the highest expression of intellectual enterprise.

As long as identity is valued over universal values; as long as individual demands are respected more than compromise; and as long as we remain slavish to an outdated and increasingly ragged notion of ‘democracy’, America will continue to lose ground to those countries which wish to restore their historical legacy.

It is a mistake to look at Russia and Turkey as autocratic, reactionary countries.  While the excesses of their leaders may be eventually trimmed, their intentions to restore the more foundational period of their history should be respected.

America in fact would do well to restore the values and principles of the Founding Fathers.