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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Blood Is Thicker Than Water - The Legitimacy Of Nationalism

Patriotism is an expression of communality, community, and collective pride.  Nationalism is an expression of unreasonable and unfounded belief in the a priori rightness and historical destiny of country, nation, and the principles which underlie them,

Or so post-modern wisdom suggests.  There is nothing wrong with love of country as long as it does not overstep its boundar8es, straying into beliefs of ethnic or racial superiority.  In fact since such love of country is always and invariably expressed not so much as love of one’s place but hatred and suspicion of another’s, it might be better to drop the idea entirely.  Let countries morph and evolve as they will, subject to immigration and the introduction of new ideas without any help – a natural Darwinian process of social and cultural evolution no different from that of the finch or the spotted owl.

If progressives are right, there is no America, no permanent, essential socio-cultural place; only an ever-changing, perpetually indistinct place, still more white than black but soon the reverse; still heterosexual and Christian but within a generation gender-unspecific and a New Age amalgam of the best of all religions.   There may be a conservative vs progressive America, but for that too it is only a matter of time before the ineluctable and ultimate goodness of human nature and society is realized.

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Hardly.  ‘Blood is thicker than water’, said Aunt Leona to anyone who would listen over Easter dinner, reflecting on a family squabble caused by the engagement of Cousin Angie to Bruce Bernstein, son of one of New Brighton’s most distinguished surgeons, but a Jew, not far removed from the Holocaust, the pogroms, and the shtetl.  As nice and talented as Bruce was, it never paid, said Aunt Leona, to marry outside the community.  While there was nothing wrong with Jews per se, nor with their chosen professions – tailors, money-lenders, pharmacists, and furriers – marrying them was another issue altogether.  The introduction  - incursion – of an outsider into a perfectly happy, familiar, and well-adjusted community made no sense.  Why bother?  Why have to parse and interpret foreign signals and intent.  When uncertainty figured in the equation, there could be no confident answer.  Moreover, why shouldn’t such cultural interlopers return to form – Jews go back to Jews, Italians back to Italians.  in simpler terms, who could you trust?

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The American Mafia had learned this lesson well.  Unless you could trace your lineage back at least three generations to Sicily or Naples, you could be blackmailed, extorted, and used.  More importantly if you defected, informed, or turned traitor La Cosa Nostra knew where to find you – and if not you, your Italian family.  Family, omertà, blood allegiance meant something in the old days.  It meant belonging and ‘We can find you’ – an allegiance based on proximity, duty, and honor; and if that was not enough, then accountability.

Patriotism meant nothing to the Italians of the early part of the century – only faith and belief in family, neighborhood, and community,  The United States meant nothing to the new immigrants who relied on friends from the Old Country, relatives, and especially La Cosa Nostra to protect, defend, and adjudicate.  It was a closed system and a good one.  You looked after your own because no one else would, and history was the witness.  European history was nothing more than a melodrama of deceit, manipulation, and extortion. Neither princes, nor governors, nor politicians could be trusted to do the right thing.

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The Chief of a United Nations mission to a West African country, discouraged and defeated by nepotism, corruption, indifference, and manipulation, confronted the Minister of the Interior at a gala held in the UN’s honor.  Don’t you realize, said the Chief, that no good can be done here because of your insular, tribal culture?

The Minister drew himself to his full height, tall and elegant in his blue Sahelian formal dress, handsome, and confident and said in an impeccable, unaccented, and correct French, “Mr. _____ you don’t seem to understand.  Why am I here before you?  Firstly thanks to my family, then to my community, then to my tribe and my ethnic region, and finally to my country.  And, Mr. ____ I will repay them in that order.”  The conclusion had been pronounced.  There was no point for foreigners, ultimate outsiders, to understand let alone meddle with the function of tribal nationalism.

Blood is thicker than water, the Minister said in so many words.  Nationalism is not only an important, culturally relevant concept.,  It is the most important.

Nationalism today, however, has gotten a bad name.  Instead of being respected as the most central factor in culture, it is disparaged and declaimed as an evil impulse – one which by nature excludes rather than includes; and which attacks, demeans, and denounces any principles other than those espoused by the majority. 

Presidents who are called nationalists are ipso facto assumed to be racist, homophobic, and sexist.  An ex posteriori guilt must be assumed.  Anyone proclaiming the validity if not currency of traditional, conservative ideas originally expressed generations earlier; generations which were far from evolved and politically sensitive, must be antediluvian and retrograde in their thinking.

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Those who gather in the name of traditionalism must be irremediable sinners; and worse, those who gather in the name of collective respect for the past must be as racist….etc….as those who articulate the notion.

Nothing  of the sort of course.  Likeminded, politically conscious people tend to band together especially if they are in the minority.  Theirs is an emergent nationalism – a belief that the wisdom of their particular group can and should be adopted as the canon for a large community if not the nation.

In Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the Broadway 50s musical based on Romeo and Juliet, a boy and girl from two opposing gangs, one white and the other Puerto Rican, fall in love. Anita, a friend of Maria, warns her against getting involved with someone from a different community.  She sings:

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

“Stick to your own kind” is her refrain. If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.  Of course Maria does not listen, bad turns to worse, and the final scene is a melodramatic replay of the end of the star-crossed lovers.

Although the message of the musical is brotherhood – the same fateful brotherhood which doomed Romeo and Juliet, Capulet and Montague – the underlying message is clear and undeniable.  Nationalism – sticking to one’s own kind, defending their families, community, and principles – is fare more essential.

West Side Story is a play about political philosophy – despite the essential, immutable, and survival instincts expressed by human nature (conservatism), one must always search out love, togetherness, and mutual understanding (progressive).

Nationalism is borne out of instinctual impulses for survival.  No group ever survived intact by welcoming all comers, considering that there was nothing to protect or defend; and concluding that one community was just as good as any other.  Nationalism is only the outspoken allegiance to what is.

The new Brazilian President, a nationalist, has been branded, not surprisingly, a racist homophobe whose only interest is in rolling back decades of socio-cultural progress and returning the country to its formerly fascist, military rule.  Nothing of the sort, say his supporters.  We are only here to preserve the fundamental, historical integrity of the Brazilian people – an integrity based on democracy, enterprise, and peaceful accommodation; and to reject socialist excess, tolerance of crime and antisocial behavior, and regressive political thinking. This ‘essentiality’ is beyond temporal justice, supposed civil rights, and equality for all.  it must be preserved, protected, and promoted at any cost.

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Nationalism is political fundamentalism the same in Brazil as in America, Poland, Hungary, Russia, China, or the Philippines.  It cannot be ignored.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sliding Off The Gender Spectrum - A Tale Of Woe In The Modern Age

Barkley Phelps was not sure what he was.  He wasn’t any more certain after going through Facebook’s 56 categories of gender identification.  He was fairly sure he wasn’t cisgender or genderqueer, not sure about two-spirit, certainly not neutrois (identifying with no gender whatsoever), and tempted by pangender because it implied a universal sexuality, a love the one you’re with Sixties permissiveness.  Barkley’s parents were of the Woodstock generation, and he assumed that they had enjoyed all the sexual liberation and spiritual evolution as the rest of their generation.  They had been revolutionaries, Barkley assumed, rejecting the old monogamist, Church-mediated, insufferable piety of the Fifties and expressing themselves, their sexuality, and their feelings completely and with hesitation.

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However, like many who claimed they had been there only had had the intention of going, got as far as Saratoga Springs, bunked with friends from Gaithersburg, got stoned on their own, and returned the next day.   They were never meant for Woodstock, they said later, and it was written that they turn around.

His parents had met in a conventional way, in an English class,  had courted more along the lines of the Fifties (milk shakes, hamburgers, and making out) than casual sex, but were swept up in ‘The Movement’, took off their clothes in public, smoked dope, made love in yurts and teepees, but remained together.  Somehow the old ties that bind held fast, and despite the everything goes zeitgeist, the Church, Old Europe, and a conservative American propriety won the day.  The Sixties were nothing more than an escapade.  Not long after Woodstock his father cut his hair, shaved his beard, and applied to graduate school.  His mother had been more reluctant to return to the predictable propriety of her youth, especially because she found many of the young men she slept with far more attractive than her dutiful classmate; but she demurred, listened to reason and common sense, married, and had Barkley.

She continued to see a number former lovers long after her marriage.  The Fifties-Sixties compromise of their marriage was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ tolerance within the context of general fidelity and marital respect.  Her husband had been more deeply influenced by his upbringing, and while tempted, never strayed.  He had simply put the Sixties aside – interesting, but no longer relevant; impressive, but forgotten – and went on with his life which was, as he said, ordained.

Barkley had no idea of any of this, but as a precociously sexual boy and determined adolescent, assumed what he wanted to be true – that he was a product of two fearlessly sexual people who had simply put their sexuality on hold while they tended to the business of work and and the work of raising him. 

The Sixties of course were never as pansexual as Barkley had assumed.  They were heterosexual in the main, as traditional in their sexual partners as their parents had been, only less inhibited.  The whole gender thing was far in the future; and the Woodstock generation simply pushed the mainstream farther forward.  It took another generation at least to open up the floodgates and let in every possible stream of sexual expression.

For most of his younger years, Barkley was as heterosexual as Casanova.   He was as free-spirited as his Woodstock avatars and was successful as they despite the growing censoriousness and neo-Puritan feminism on campus.  It was only when he had completed graduate school, and was off on his own that he began to have doubts.  His years at Oberlin – perhaps the most politically conscious and progressive school in the country – had taken their toll.  By the time he had graduated, he began to doubt his heterosexuality.  What was it, he now realized, but a socio-political construct devised by oppressive white, patriarchal men who needed children for heritage, patrimony, and legacy.  If homosexuality had always been a part of human society; and if Ancient Greece, the foundational source of Western thinking, had raised it to an art, then why shouldn’t their be variations on a theme?  Ipso facto if the Greeks rejected universal monolithic sexuality, then any disaggregation was not only possible but called for and right.

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The idea of a gender spectrum, Oberlin activists insisted, had its origin in 2500 years ago.
This was the problem with Oberlin, however.  It attracted bright students from good families, all schooled enough to do well on the College Boards, write good essays, and make a good impression during interviews; who, while they might be tempted by the post-modern vehicle of deconstruction and disaggregation and ‘interpretive logic’ could never forget or ignore 1+1=2.  Heterosexual sex had been the be-all and end-all of the human race since its inception.  While well-to-do Greeks may have enjoyed their dalliances with young boys, marriages went on with as much to-do as ever. And so did heterosexual prostitution, affairs, infidelity, deceit, and pandering.  Homosexuality was then as now, a minor sexual episode.  While the student activists at Oberlin might have insisted on the existence of a gender spectrum and the importance of finding one’s place on it, logic, history, and common sense suggested just the opposite.

Barkley like many of his Oberlin classmates left the campus confused.  Although they spoke the party line – most of his class graduated with commitment, fidelity, and allegiance to the cause of progressivism – they harbored natural, expected doubts.

Barkley was one of the ones who had taken his education seriously; and rather than pursue the issues of sexuality and gender academically and from afar, he thought that some introspection and light-of-day personal analysis was in order.  Was he really the insatiably heterosexual man he had been a decade earlier?  Didn’t he find John the mail boy attractive? Wasn’t the transgender woman on the seventh floor beautiful and as desirable as any ‘true’ woman?  Didn’t he once want to wear high heels and stockings?

The answer was no to all the above; but Barkley was persuaded by the thought of pansexuality; or in the modern lexicon, of being on a sliding gender spectrum.  One could slide this way or that on a smorgasbord of sexual interest.  The idea of tasting Arabian sweetmeats, briny oysters,  bitter amari, creamy custards, and crunchy nuts with no diet or restraint was tempting indeed.   The idea of picking one single place on the spectrum – i.e. one of Facebook’s 56 – was boring and unappealing.  If he was to make the jump from heterosexuality to something else, he wanted a bit of everything.

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Yet, try as he might to convince himself that he and every other man and woman were not male or female but some minor alternative among many, he could not.  Facebook encouraged users not to check only one of the 56 boxes, but to combine them. The number of possible ways to combine two or more categories are limitless (1 and 25; 1 and 26; 2 and 31, 2 and 44; 1,2,3 and 33…).  Facebook was being overly sensitive to ‘inclusivity’ but was on the right epistemological track.   If there is such a thing as a fluid gender spectrum with many, constantly increasing categories, then the possible subdivisions of those categories must be equally valid. 

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The Oberlin Paradigm again.  Barkley was thinking very logically but had been indoctrinated by so many a priori assumptions that logic did not seem enough.  It was like seeing an unbelievably complex insect and instinctively dismissing Darwin and evolution.  Simple, step-by-step incremental change could not possibly have produced such a living form.  There simply had to be more than two sexes.

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OK, thought Barkley finally.  Granted there are people who prefer to do things differently; and God knows human diversity is limitless.  At this very moment unimaginable sexual partners are enjoying unthinkable sexual practices.  There are as many possible sexual permutations within the LGBTQ community as there are on Facebook, and more power to them.  Yet no matter how many ways one finds to slice the cake, it is still a small one.  Without Oberlin and the extensive progressive social community, the fractional slices (less than 1/2 of one percent each), let alone the cake (three percent at most) would be unnoticed.

Most Americans are and have always been happy to tolerate all kinds of sexual behavior as long as they don’t have to see it; and the issue of the gender spectrum may have just tipped the balance away from sexual tolerance to sexual misgiving.  Everyone knows that God created two different sets of sexual organs, and made them pump their juices through the body ad perpetuum; and while these fluids make us do very crazy things, babies still be born every few minutes with the equipment intact.  Yes, sometimes the fluids get redirected and the genetic wires get crossed; but in the main men are still looking for women and vice versa. A sliding scale is easy to fall off, and then what?

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Cherchez La Femme–When Was It Ever Otherwise?

Paul Ballard was from a traditional New England family, not a Cabot, Lodge, or Corbin, but a well-respected, pedigreed one, dating back to early Virginia on his mother’s side, and Connecticut Yankee on his father's.  He was brought up Episcopalian and Republican.  His father rowed on the 1932 Yale crew team, his grandfather on the 1910, and his great-grandfather an amateur pugilist who could have fought John L Sullivan had it not been considered unseemly for a young man of birth and American peerage to make money off of mens sana in corpore sano.  Each of these forbears had had numerous wives, untold paramours, and as many incidental lovers. 

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The sexual adventurism of the Ballard men was nothing unusual, descended as they were from the kings, cavaliers, and courtiers of England who who came to America, had hundreds of Potomac, Powhatan, Chesapeake, and Tuscarora women, and fathered many children.

Henry Ballard, for example, who arrived in Nanticoke not long after John Smith, was known to be ‘The Prince of the Savages’, a man who slept with women from even the most suspicious and hostile Indian tribes.  Joshua Ballard  was an envied seducer of women in New York in the early days of the Victorian era.  Joshua in top hat and tails was the toast of the town, squire of the most beautiful women of Park Avenue. 

Percival Ballard ushered in the era of the Robber Baron with brio and notice.  “Percival Ballard and Margaret Collingsworth Hawthorne to marry”, said the headlines of all the New York newspapers, announcing the wedding of the decade; but were obliged to retract as the wedding was cancelled due to the groom’s previously unknown relationship with the Duchess of Salisbury with whom he was allegedly to have had not one but two children.

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Irvington Ballard, a great-uncle of Paul and still alive to share his exploits with his young nephew, was, despite the incursions of early feminism, no different from his ancestors.  Irvington was neither apologetic nor reticent about his sexual dalliances and mistresses in suites at the Mayflower, the Waldorf, and the Beverley.  He made no apologies to his wife of thirty years, to his five children, or to his elderly mother.

The social environment into which Paul was born was less congenial if not hostile to the idea of male ‘expansive’ sexuality.  Feminism was on the upswing, and male chauvinism was the byword.  Men, said newly activist women,  had always trivialized women and demeaned them through their serial, meaningless affairs, their ignorance of particular female intelligence and insight, and their assumption of patriarchal authority. 

Paul was skeptical.  Women, as far as he could see, were as attuned and attracted to confident, assertive males as ever before.  Shakespeare’s only true love was between Kate and Petruchio – she who found his sexual confidence essential and the answer to her years of subservience; and he  who, desirous of an untamed, independent, unique woman, found her irresistible.  As much as feminist critics decried her obeisance to this uber-male, many others acknowledged Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexity of sexual dynamics.

Feminist critics have equally dismissed D.H. Lawrence for his supposed misogyny; but Lawrence, more than any other writer, understood that sexual parity was central to personal if not spiritual evolution.  Maleness and femaleness would always be at odds, he said; but the struggle for sexual supremacy cannot be ignored, for it is at the center of such evolution.  There is no value in either male or females dominance.  It is only the struggle which matters, and if both partners are willing, it will result in equilibrium and mutuality.

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Lawrence never shied away from sexual characterizations,.  Men are always pursuers and women complaisant, willing lovers, he said; but by this he did not imply superiority or inferiority, only the natural order of sexuality.  Within this context of male pursuit and female willingness, there are no winner or losers, only gainers. It is the balance of sexual will that matters.

Paul because of his heritage and sexual traditionalism, was considered suspect in the new world of the early 21st century. Ideas of maleness and femaleness a la Lawrence were antiquarian and irrelevant.  The idea of sexual dynamics itself – that existential be-all and end-all of human self-discovery – was considered antediluvian at best and retrograde at worst.   Male insistence was considered a throwback and inconsistent with more evolved and reasonable ideas of sexual parity and emergent female preeminence.

Yet Paul, thanks to his uncomplicated and assertive desire for, love of, and respect for women, had a series of satisfying affairs from Jane from Accounting to Baroness Elizabeth Crane.  He was never overly demanding or insistent; but was canny and savvy enough to be sexually forward,  gender-sensitive, and most of all patient, respectful, and understanding of women’s feelings. 

In short, Paul sensed that women had not changed from Shakespeare’s or Lawrence’s day.  Men would always ‘cherchez la femme’ and women would always parse, deconstruct, and analyze men’s intentions for their protection and benefit.  The delight was in having, but not easily.  Men are essentially Lawrentian and are looking for epiphany not just easy sexual conquest.

Lisa Franken, one of the leaders of the Feminist Coalition of the Southeast, had at first found Paul Ballard insufferable.  He could easily have been the poster boy for male chauvinism and unwoke testosterone-driven backwardness. Moreover he was indifferent to progressive claims and activism, and insufferably self-satisfied.   Lisa hated him for his easy conquests and his oblivious and deliberate ignorance of social imperatives.  She was surprised by his attention.  How could this enemy operative even dare to enter her camp?

Yet he did, deferentially, respectfully, and honestly.  He found her attractive, he said, for her intelligence, principles, commitment, and beauty.  There was no inconsistency, he implied, in admiring her for her character and seriousness and falling for her feminine allure.

It was not that she had been taken in by a familiar and predictable male line, for she had quite obviously evolved far beyond typical male blandishments. It was simply that she found his sexual assertiveness new, surprising, and attractive.  She had put up with far too many male feminist hangers-on – men in solidarity with women’s causes, partisans in the struggle for women’s rights, political allies and community activists; but who, each and every one, had ignored her as a woman, a sexual being, and emotionally and sexually as needy as anyone else.  Each was as boring, insipid, and weak as the next.
 
So Paul made love to Lisa in her Mt. Pleasant walk-up, joined her for communal dinners at the First Church of Christ, sat through ‘Pippi Longstocking, Feminism, and the Epistles of Paul of Tarsus’, and eventually left her – honestly and respectfully - for an investment banker at Prudential, a woman as taken with his sexual temperance, sexual interest, and non-polticial feminism as he was with her outspokenness, honesty, and sexual awareness.

Paul was a truly post-modern male, one confident in his conclusion that men and women had changed little if at all since the prehistoric era of human settlements, and one as adaptable to changing circumstances as the most Darwinian evolutionary product.  He was the human sexual equivalent of the raccoon, a creature which, thanks to its infinite adaptability, had a good future.

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The Search For Perfection–The Legacy And Curse Of 19th Century Reformism

The desire to reform and even to perfect society is as American as apple pie. From the Puritans’ determination to create "a city upon a hill," to the utopian communities of the early nineteenth century, to the communes created by twentieth-century "hippies," the goal has been to establish a new social order that will improve upon the status quo. Sometimes this reform impulse is an isolated one; sometimes it defines an entire era. Historians point to two such eras with roots in the nineteenth century: the age of reform in the 1830s and 1840s and the Progressive era that spans the Gilded Age and the pre–World War I years of the twentieth century. (Carol Berkin, Institute of American History)

The philosophical principles on which such reform was based were first expressed in the early decades of the 19th century.  Scholar Philip Gura suggested an "Oversoul" shared by all humanity but perceived only by those who transcended the cares and concerns of the material world. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller developed an American ideology of spiritual equality.

From the 1840s to the 1930s reform movements were organized to improve conditions of work, education, and social welfare.  The Utopian Movements, such as the Oneida Colony, were the heirs of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and although many were organized around spiritual principles, they were more purely philosophical than the more practical socially conscious movements to follow. The Oneida Community, for example, was a religious commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus's millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism).

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Oneidans experimented with group marriage, communal child rearing, group discipline, and attempts to improve the genetic composition of their offspring. Self-reliance, optimism, individualism and a disregard for external authority and tradition characterized one of the most famous of all the American communal experiments. Brook Farm, near Roxbury, Massachusetts, was founded to promote human culture and brotherly cooperation. It was supposed to bestow the highest benefits of intellectual, physical, and moral education to all its members. Through hard work and simplicity, those who joined the fellowship of George Ripley's farm were supposed to understand and live in social harmony, free of government, free to perfect themselves.  Gradually, utopian communities came to reflect social perfectibility rather than religious purity. Robert Owen, for example, believed in economic and political equality. Those principles, plus the absence of a particular religious creed, were the 1825 founding principles of his New Harmony, Indiana, cooperative (US History Online).  

The Educational Reform Movement led by Horace Mann began the process of establishing a public education system in the United States.  The Women’s Rights Movement’ declaration of principles and objectives, presented at the Seneca Falls Convention. provided the philosophical, intellectual, and political basis for suffrage and equal opportunity.  The Labor Movement led to reforms in worker’s rights, safety, and benefits.  The Abolition Movement provided the philosophical and political basis for the North’s stand against slavery and Southern rebellion.  The Prohibition Movement was the first attempt to reform social behavior.

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Modern day progressivism is rooted in the reformism of the past.  It has, no less than any other utopian movement believes that human nature can be corralled, tamed, and reconfigured to act in society’s interests and not just those of the individual.  Beginning in the 1960s progressives first turned their attention to civil rights and then to world peace.  Freedom Riders, marches in Selma and Washington, DC, sit-ins, and protests against Jim Crow were instrumental in upsetting the Southern status quo, influencing the federal government to finally take notice of civil injustice, and encourage Congress to pass remedial legislation.  Similarly, marches, protests, and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam were instrumental in forcing a critical look at American military interventions specifically and American geopolitical hegemony in general.

These movements were as successful as many of those a hundred years earlier because not only were they based on philosophical idealism – the belief that society can evolve to a more just, principled, and moral community – but they were practical.  They focused on one single issue, organized protests around it, and most importantly demanded specific, identifiable, practicable solutions.  Progressives of the 60s were not content to demand civil rights for black Americans, but insisted on the passage of a Civil Rights Act.  They did not stop at protests of the Vietnam War, but demanded an end to it.

Today’s reform movements – environmentalism, race-gender-ethnic diversity, economic equality, and civil justice – are heirs to the reform movements of the past, but, because of their lack of specific, practicable, and realistic recommendations, have either floundered or never found the audience they expected.

Environmentalism, for example, for years included every issue from the spotted owl to global warming.  Activists assumed that citizens would make the connections they did – that the Earth was a living, interrelated, organism; that assaults on one preserve would necessarily affect all others.  There was a moral imperative behind environmentalism, activists argued, a question not just of adjustment but salvation.   The well-being and survival of the world depended on stopping the destruction of natural resources, the pollution of air and water, and the overuse of fossil fuel energy.

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In the early years of this century, environmental leaders understood that consolidation was the key to success.  The spotted owl, old growth forests, and the snail darter would have to take second place to the overriding issue of climate change which was existential in nature.  This consolidation around a single issue has helped environmentalists to focus popular attention and to raise climate change as a political issue.

A 2014 Gallup poll found that only 24 percent of Americans considered climate change a priority, and 14th out of 15 issues cited.  Despite the insistence of environmental reformers, little progress has been made in influencing citizens to take the threat seriously. Why has response been so diffident?

First, there is an equally strong campaign of resistance insisting that the science is not settled, that the current warming trends are but common occurrences in the geologic history of the planet, and that while man might be contributing to the phenomenon, climatological history is so difficult to decipher, and the climate at any one point in time is perhaps the most complex natural system of all, that conclusions are impossible.

Second, there are many who look to human ingenuity as a resolution to the problem.  If climate change is actually occurring, then human society will adapt as it always has.  Already cities like New York and Miami are considering ways to adapt to rising sea levels through systems of extended wetlands, Venetian-style canals, Dutch dikes, and new architecture.  Agricultural growing patterns might change given climate variability, but a global economy is well-positioned to adapt and prosper.

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Third, environmentalists have never offered serious compromises.  Their business is an all-or-nothing one; and yet each effort to control global warming means economic dislocation if not hardship.  Few Americans are willing to do little more than compost and sort their trash because anything more will cost money.

Finally, Americans are skeptical of doomsday scenarios.  While a surprising number of Americans believe that a Biblical Armageddon will come in their lifetime, anything less is looked at askance – hysteria, politically-driven emotionalism and a trampling herd mentality.  The more environmentalists hector, the more voters resist their appeals.

Other less existential reform movements have been quieted.  For months ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the campaign against ‘The One Percent’ were on front pages in every major newspaper.  The populace was finally exercised and up in arms about the dramatic income inequality in America.  While the wealthy continue to prosper, the middle class falls farther and farther into poverty, and the lot of the poor becomes even more hopeless.  Yet the Occupy movement is moribund if not dead.  Why? Because it like all other reform movements was an heir of Utopianism.  Social and economic equality had to be right and good because of the Christian lessons of brotherhood, community, and charity.  Yet the lessons of history were unmistakable. There has always been a concentration of wealth, power, and influence in every society and every human community since the Paleolithic.  Attempts to reform this natural, historical fact have always fallen short.  Communism is a long-discredited political philosophy, and socialism not far behind.   Americans ignored the Occupy movement because of their appreciation of history and because of their desire to cash in on American entrepreneurial opportunity.   Most importantly, no reformer had any realistic proposals to rejigger the American economy to be more economically equitable.

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‘Black Lives Matter’ has come and gone as reform movement for similar reasons.  Social inequality has always been a part of human settlements and true integration has only happened once ‘The Other’ acted like ‘Everyone Else’.  Americans, while formerly sympathizing with the plight of black Americans had, after 60 years, decided that enough was enough.  It was time for individual responsibility, morality, and ethics to take their traditional place.  Enough angry, often destructive demonstrations.   BLM has languished because it had formulated no specific goals as the Civil Rights movement had decades earlier.  What was the point? Americans asked; and when no answers were forthcoming, BLM was off the front pages.

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Reformism is at the heart of the civil unrest and divisiveness in America today.  Righteousness is a given, not a premise.  Assumptions have become conclusions without the facts to support them.  Whites are innately, inherently racist.  Men are born misogynists. Capitalists are inescapably predatory and destructive.  Diversity ipso facto is right and good.  There is no such thing as sexual bi-polarity but only sexuality on a fluid gender spectrum.  Civil rights, especially those within a race-gender-ethnicity context – will always supersede individual, religious rights. 

Economists will always ask, ‘What’s the point?’.  Before investing in X program of public expenditure, what are the likely verifiable outcomes? If they cannot be demonstrated, then the investment must only be based on idealistic expectations, not realistic ones.  Moreover, economists will always speak of opportunity cost and cost-benefit.  If the assumption is made that all police are abusive, racist thugs and that they must be reined in, then what are the likely consequences?  One cannot ignore the spikes in violent crime in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore after the police were put on notice.  The cost-benefit equation had not been thought through.

There is no doubt that early American reform movements have had a significant impact.  Without reformist demands, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians would still be all white.  Without MLK the Civil Rights Act would not have been passed.  Without the massive student protests of the Sixties, the war in Vietnam, painfully and unnecessarily long, might have been longer. 

Yet, as mentioned above, these reform movements had specific, objective, practical, and verifiable objectives; and were part of expected democratically-inspired change.  Most importantly their spiritual, Transcendental nature was balanced by civil politics and supply-and-demand.  The War in Vietnam was wasteful, financially depleting, unwinnable, and demoralizing.  It took no reformist to demand its end.  Similarly the time had come to end the Civil War, albeit 100 years after the capitulation and surrender of the South. There was no way for true regional integration to happen – as Lincoln so desperately wanted – and along with it economic, social, and political unification without an end to segregation and Jim Crow.

Today’s reformist movements have no such focus and specific intent, nor especially no answers or practicable solutions.  Reformism – progressivism – today remains largely utopian, emotional, and idealistic.  Today’s reformers come by it naturally, so perhaps the criticism of them should be more moderate than it has been.  We are a nation of reformers after all.  It is in our national genes.  We believe that progress is real, that human nature is not hardwired and unavoidable, and that a better world is indeed possible 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Illusion, Fantasy, Religion, And The Allure Of The Impossible–Why We Fall For Progressive Idealism

Branford Pease had always considered himself a rational, objective, and thoroughly dispassionate man.  He had grown up with a a father who preached Leibniz, a mother who was a confirmed Cartesian, and an uncle who, despite a long tutelage with the Jesuits, was a freethinker in the style of Thoreau.  With this background and genetic heritage, it would seem impossible for the young Branford to have veered off the epistemological rails, but veer he did, and by the time he was thirty, he had fallen into the deep crevasse of progressive idealism. 

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There was not a reformist cause that he did not embrace.  He passionately fought for the rights of women and minorities; stood at the barricades to denounce Trumpism, the One Percent, Monsanto, and corporate cronyism.  He was convinced that a climate Armageddon would happen in our lifetime, that nuclear war was only a second away on the Doomsday Clock; that rape, sexual aggression, and abuse were endemic; and that the gender spectrum, right and just in its re-ordering of human sexuality, was still far from realization.

When challenged by less idealistic colleagues, Branford reiterated a familiar litany.  Science was settled in matters of climatology and sexual disposition.  Social science was as settled in matters of wealth and its concentration; power and its abuse; and political science clear and irrefutable concerning the abrogation of the rights of man, infectious nationalism, and ignorance of popular will.  When pressed, he resorted to tautology.  Sexism was an evil because so much of it existed.  Climate change was an inescapable reality because the oceans and air were warming.  Circuitous logic was his only logic; subjectivity when associated with a higher good was a necessary armament; and petitio principii was neither fallacious nor illogical.

It all made good sense to Bradford who, because of his Kantian upbringing, had become the poster boy for the progressive movement in his suburban community of Washington DC, but close-in enough to have been influenced by the nation’s most influential political leaders.  Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, and Charles Schumer were as good as their neighbors; and even if they lived inside the Beltway in the most prestigious neighborhoods of Washington; and even if their multi-million dollar homes beggared the simple split-levels of Rockville and Gaithersburg where Bradford and his colleagues lived, the irony was either lost or dismissed.  The progressive movement welcomed all comers, wealthy, nouveau riche, modest, and poor.

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The progressive perimeter was tightly drawn.  No sappers had ever breached the wire, and the defense of the ramparts was inviolable. 

Heresies were common in the early centuries of the Christian era.  Arianism denied the true divinity of Jesus Christ taking various specific forms, but all agreed that Jesus Christ was created by the Father, that he had a beginning in time.  Docetism argued that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die.  Nestorianism stated that Jesus Christ was a natural union between the Flesh and the Word, thus not identical, to the divine Son of God; and Tritheism postulated that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three independent and distinct divine beings as opposed to three persons of one being and one essence. 

All of these were discredited and disavowed at the Council of Nicaea when the Emperor Constantine put an end to the internecine and inter-faith squabbling that was preventing the consolidation of his empire.  Of course it took decades if not centuries for these heresies to disappear, and some, like Gnosticism, remain today.

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Modern-day progressivism is not unlike the Early Church, battling as it did against religious heresy.  It was not enough for traditional theologians of the time to affirm their conception of Christ, his divinity, and the nature of the Trinity; but to fight heresy and to defeat it.  in fact, the first two centuries of the new church were spent in doctrinal fights.  The same holds true for secular progressivism.  It is not enough to state a doctrine, core principles, a liturgy, and a prayer book.  It can only survive and prosper if it is protected from those who wish to discredit and destroy it and therefore have a clear avenue of righteousness.

Little did it matter to the prophets and apostles of the new, secular religion if received wisdom was based on assumption and presumed belief.  What was Christianity after all but hearsay and supposed parables of a holy man written down nearly a century after he was supposed to have said them?  What did accuracy, fact, and confirmation mean when the message of redemption and salvation were existential?  There are only one or two contemporary, oblique references to the historical Christ – a man who might or might not have actually lived in Palestine in Roman times – but such historical grounding has never been necessary when the Word – His word – was so transformational.   Progressives need not worry about veracity since their message is abundantly clear and evident. Men, descended from male apes, would always be as brutal, aggressive, and domineering as their animal ancestors.  It was all coded in their DNA.  The same human nature – acquisitive and territorial – would rule modern man just as it did his Paleolithic forbears.  Just as tribal warfare was de rigeur 50,000 years ago, it remains the go-to option for the aggrieved and put-upon as well as the well-to-do expansionists.

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So progressives have always thought themselves to be on solid intellectual grounds.  There could be no denying obvious truths recorded by history and no criticizing their logical applications to current events.  it does not take a logician like Descartes to see that the world needs repair, reform, and rehabilitation.

One would have thought, however, that some ray of reason would have peeked through the Bradford’s curtains, even as tightly drawn as they were.  Some logical exegesis or a simple If…Then sequence.  No science has ever been settled.  Ask Ptolemy or the blood-letters of the Middle Ages.  No political system, Churchill notwithstanding, has ever prevailed for long.  Even democracy – "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” will have its day.  Even now nationalism and imperialism are waiting impatiently in the wings.

Not so.  Bradford remained committed, hellaciously activist, and optimistic to the core.  As a young man he spent months worrying the nature of God, Christ, and the universe, and spent endless hours with the Catholic chaplain at Yale hoping for resolution.  Just like Tolstoy who wrote of his exasperating and fruitless decades-long search for meaning in A Confession, Bradford finally gave up and concluded like the Russian, “If billions of people believe and billions more have believed, why shouldn’t I?”.  Progressive beliefs and ideals were unquestionable, absolute, and true.  They always had been and always would be.  End of story.

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Bradford’s father, despite his long career in academia – and East Coast academia to boot – was a lifelong conservative, a climate skeptic, a firm believer in Hamiltonian governance by the elite, a committed free enterprise advocate, and dismissive of ‘snowflakes’, affirmative action bolstering, helpless women, and corrosive liberalism.  He challenged his son time and time again but to no avail.  Facts, data, objective observation, logical analysis, and proven hypotheses were of no use and no interest to his son.  The boy simply took matters on faith.

Of course the son stood his ground and quoted ‘statistics’ on sea level temperature gradients, genetic ‘imperatives’ for a multi-gender human nature, the destructive nature of capitalistic concentrations of wealth, and the absolute value of ‘diversity’; but his father could only shake his head in surprise and disappointment.  What had he done wrong?  How had this level-headed, sensible, intelligent boy turned out so intellectually flaccid and undisciplined?

Had Bradford’s father been a religious man, he would have understood.  True belief comes in many forms; and had he set foot in an evangelical church where the Word of God as written in the Bible is taken as undisputed, absolute truth, he would have gotten the picture.  He would have accepted his son as a wild prophet, but a serious, responsible, and faithful one nevertheless.

Since the father had never set foot in a fundamentalist church or any church for that matter, the question was moot and irrelevant.  His son had simply gone off the rails so carefully laid by him. 

And so it is for many young people who start off with the right education and direction.  Some way or how, they veer off into murky bogs and never emerge.  Religion, that’s what does it, reflected Bradford’s father after many perplexed years.  Those damn priests.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Saga Of Henry Marker–Finding Identity, Meaning, And Purpose And Then Losing Them

Henry Marker had impeccable progressive credentials.  He had cut his teeth as a freedom rider in the Sixties, won plaudits from internationalists thanks to his tireless efforts to promote world peace through nuclear disarmament, and evolved into a secular evangelist for many liberal causes.  He wrote  extensively on the dangers of climate change, the unbreakable glass ceiling, the corrosive, predatory nature of Wall Street and the One Percent, male privilege and female servitude, and restitution for people of color and for all Native Americans.

His most recent book was entitled The Put-Upon – Female Chattels In A Harem Of Rogue Males.  Men, Henry wrote, were innately misogynist – retrograde, barely evolved throwbacks from the Paleolithic.  Irremediable, hormone-driven, hopeless tied to failed notions of patriarchy and male superiority.  It made no sense, Henry wrote, to differentiate ‘good’ men and ‘bad’ men.  Men were all bad, prisoners of their genetic destiny, and perpetrators of aggression, hostility, war, and brutality.  The world would be better off without them, and sooner rather than later, genetic engineering will make them redundant.  Women will finally have their due and men their comeuppance.

Now, Henry’s case is unusual not because of his harsh, uncompromising views of men – these had been said as eloquently and with as least as much passion by many women since the 70s – but because he was a man himself.  After all he, a happy child of happy parents, had spent his younger years untroubled by such contentious issues.  He was an easy-going C student, congenial fraternity brother, and as eager to make weekend trips to women’s colleges as any undergraduate.  Then, as abruptly as a change in the weather, Henry became political.  He had found religion – and make no mistake about it, the social causes of the 60s and beyond were no less than religious crusades.  He felt a certain divinity in his actions.  Marching for social justice in Twentieth Century America was no different than Paul’s mission of salvation to Ephesus and Galatia.  His reversal of intent – from diffidence to engaged passion – was indeed an epiphany, a turning point from which he could never go back.

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From a more practical, realistic perspective, Henry’s epiphany was nothing of the sort.  There are no such things, said his less sanguine and idealistic colleagues.  People are infallibly conditioned by nature and nurture; and while it takes some years to finally listen to their own musical score, for others it takes no time at all.

In Henry’s case his father’s words from the pulpit had finally sunk in.  Sunday after Sunday Pastor Marker had preached the Word of God and the gospels of Jesus Christ from a compassionate, human, and social point of view, all of which had passed over the head of his young son who had other things on his mind and no interest in his father’s insufferable droning.  Had the culture of the Fifties continued for another decade or two, Henry might never have awakened to the scherzo within him; but they did not.  The Sixties took American by surprise so revolutionary were they.  What had been a settled, peaceful, respectful, orderly, and pious world was transformed into ugliness and dispute.  Henry’s orchestra played allegro con brio, and even after four movements just kept on playing with more percussion, thunder, brass, and chorus.

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Looked at from another, even more personal perspective, Henry's sexual timidity might well have provoked his anti-male anger.  If he couldn’t be like the campus jocks whose sexual confidence, prowess, and insistence were the standard, then harsh criticism of their uber-macho behavior would provide the perfect cover for his immaturity.  As a convinced feminist, one committed not only to gender rights but to exposing the empty theatrics of male posturing and braggadocio, he could remain sexually neuter, neither challenged by conflicts of sexual will nor seduced by feminine allure.  His political stance inoculated him against sexism, misogyny, and abuse.  Some collateral damage was inevitable.  Henry was a virgin far longer than any young man should be, and only when a young activist from Radcliffe had seduced him one late night in Harvard Yard, did he become ‘whole’.  To keep sexuality and politics in perfect equilibrium, he left all initiative to Martha who quickly grew tired of Henry’s sexual prostration and moved on to a more normal relationship.

Being left on the curb by Martha Vibbers was a further damaging blow to Henry’s already low self-esteem, and he compensated for his sexual inadequacy by ever more impassioned demands for women’s rights and the overthrow of male dominion.

It wasn’t much of a reach for Henry to graduate from feminism to civil rights, to environmentalism, to world peace.  There was very little difference in righting a civil wrong whether it be the ill treatment of women by a hereditary, patriarchal society, the de facto servitude of African Americans, or the marginalization of gays and lesbians.

By the time he was in his late forties, he had hit his stride.  The orchestra was in better fiddle than ever before, playing with passion, perfect harmony, and balance.  He felt as complete and satisfied as he ever had.  Life had purpose, meaning, and intent. He was surrounded by like-minded, sympathetic, and equally engaged colleagues – the big tent was filled with eagerness, optimism, and collective faith.  Nothing could be better.

Most importantly, his persona – his personal identity –  was finally complete.  There were no irritating conflicts between the inner Henry and the outer.  What he felt inside was exactly what he projected to those around him.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Yet, disappointingly, epiphanies come and epiphanies go – there is no such thing as permanent or perfect equilibrium.  Balance is a temporal state, always in a state of adjustment, and more often than not thrown off kilter by surprising, unexpected, and usually unknown factors.

What made Henry Marker start doubting himself at age 57 was perplexing and troubling, and kept him awake nights.  It started as simple lassitude.  Staying in bed a bit longer, holding on to a nice dream, reminiscing about his college days; but it got progressively worse.  His flagging spirits became stale and worn.  He had trouble making his way to the office and his speeches before enthusiastic audiences became flat, emotionless, and perfunctory.  Gone was that old Marker wit and charm, that ability to rouse even the most reluctant student. 

Yet that was not the worst of it.  At the bottom of his insipid, still, and increasingly stagnant pool, was existential doubt.  Perhaps there really was no point to activism.  After all, history if nothing else was boringly repetitious – been there, done that – but still, despite history’s perennial wars, territorialism, ethnic strife, corporate and public greed, antagonisms, and self-centered interests wasn't change possible? Why could there not be a new utopian millennium.  Who was so presumptuous to assume that just because history had shown itself to be predictable, it could not be fundamentally altered?  That men could be better if not good.

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Unfortunately, the black dog depression of futility came over him completely and he felt irreversibly hopeless.  Human nature was a given, he reasoned – petty, venal, aggressive, self-protective, and violent – so what was the point in trying to corral it, neuter it, or spray it with some kind of Monsanto insecticide?

The struggle for sexual dominance hadn’t changed one iota.  The canny observations of D.H.Lawrence, Strindberg, and Ibsen, let alone the Old Testament were never more true.  Sex was the defining factor of human intercourse, and equilibrium did not happen by itself but only as a consequence of winners and losers in battles of sexual will.

The climate may or not be changing; but regardless, human societies for 100,000 years have been adaptable, flexible, and innovative.  There was nothing like environmental threat to hasten adaptation.  The hope for world peace is nothing more than a chimera.  If there were any hope at all, there would be some signs of social evolution; but the 21st century was as bloody and brutal as any before it.  The very idea of progress – progress itself – is a chimera, an illusion, an ill-considered hope.

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Henry had absolutely no idea what provoked the change in him, what hastened his final epiphany.  Perhaps it was the gradual disappearance of logic within the holy roller community of the big tent.  Current believers thought that all thinking about serious issues had preceded them.  Now all that was required was passion, engagement, commitment and solidarity.  Perhaps it was how camaraderie and good times had replaced anything more serious.  The progressive movement had become like a summer camp – archery and badminton in the morning, boating and canoeing in the afternoon, so predictable that one did not have to prepare or bone up.  Everything was too easy, too received.  The avant-garde esprit de corps had long gone. 

Or perhaps it was because he had simply become tired of being and doing good.  Being a model citizen, attentive and faithful to the canon, the liturgy, and the theology, never off-script; being a model of rectitude, a perfectly ordered and orchestrated man of leadership and idealism was exhausting.  Maybe that was it.

In any case, the more his energy and interest flagged, the more relieved he felt.  Goodness is hard, he thought, but it was too late to reverse his ways.  He didn’t have it in him to be bad, so all that was left for this last, final phase of his life, was a happy nihilism.  He had given his life to helping others, trying to make the world a better place; realized too late that while not wasted effort, there were a lot of years when he could have been doing something else a lot less demanding -   Dissolute men have no image to keep up.  Nevertheless, ‘Phase 3’ was an enjoyable coda.  He never looked back with regret on his professional life.  It was what it was, conditioned, predictable, and no more or no less important or significant as any other.  These were the thoughts that one was supposed to have later in life – a kind of settled resolution if not wisdom.

Yet there was still the niggling thought that he had been conned.  How could he have been so…stupid? Why were the insights that age and distance provided not there when it mattered, when it was time to do something with his life not so good and far more enjoyable?  Too soon old, too late schmart was the old, tried and true, perennially wise adage.  More importantly, what difference did it make?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Life As A Cliché–Why Allusion And Aphorism Suit Us Far Better Than Accuracy And Precision

“Beauty is as beauty does’, said Flannery’s mother, one of a string of clichés she used every day. ‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, ‘Actions speak louder than words’, and ‘All that glitters is not gold’ were just a few and all perplexing to the young girl, looking up to her mother for love, support, and advice but getting only illegible aphorisms. 

“What does that mean, Mommy”, Flannery would ask.

“Why, it’s obvious”, replied her mother. “It means just what it says.”

Mrs. Booker had used clichés all her life as her mother had, so many in fact that her language had become a strange American Creole.  “The pot calling the kettle black”, she told her husband when he had made a comment about her driving, a comment that had nothing to do with his driving, but a reference to some other minor flaw.  Within this family lexicon, it was up to him to decipher her meaning and intent. 

It was not as though Mabel Booker could not think more precisely or clearly.  It was just that she preferred ellipses rather than rectangles.  Precision left no room for reflection.    It was better to let her husband wonder a bit what he had done wrong than to confront him with it.  Lord knows he had a lot to answer for, so let him chew on it for a while.

Mabel carried her clichés with her wherever she went – to the country club, afternoon tea, or the Women’s Auxiliary.  There was always room for an allusive comment.  No matter what the gossip, Mabel was ready to comment.  When the ladies suggested that Pastor James had interests in a certain young lady in the West End, Mable said, “He’s already got one paw on the chicken coop”.  The image of a cunning fox about to sneak in to Lily Thomas’ bedroom was more apt than any more direct and presumptuous allegation.  To comments about Harry Abel’s unseemly doings and unsure health she said, “Before the Devil knows you’re dead”, a favorite of her Irish uncle who, the drunker he got, the more he recited, “Ah, Mick”, he said, raising a glass to his dear departed friend, “May your glass be ever full, may the roof over your head be always strong, and may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.”

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The ladies looked up from their tea sandwiches, smiled, had no real idea what Mabel had meant, but as was Mabel’s intention, they began to wonder. She knew that Harry Abel had many more skeletons in his closet than most, and he would be lucky if he escaped the law let alone God’s divine justice; but rather than add to the already murky mix, she let things and Harry Abel lie.  Let them think what they may, she thought, smiling back at Laura Dugan in her lovely flowery sundress, and taking a bite of a delicious cucumber and chutney canapes the hostess had prepared.

Mabel was particularly fond of Biblical clichés which added import to her observations.   ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’, ‘A prudent man conceals knowledge’, ‘Your enemy shall distress you at all your gates’ were some which seemed to have particular salience in these troubled times.

Jesus himself spoke in parables when he could have just come right out and said what he had to say plainly and clearly.  He wanted to make people stretch their belief and force them, by solving his parabolic puzzles, to realize the profound meaning behind them. Anything important, Jesus implied, was not black and white.

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So Mabel, encouraged by Jesus and the Bible, but as an indirect and imprecise person from birth found clichés to be her go-to manner of speaking.  She knew that many found her endless, Hallmark card, predictable, and treacly aphorisms unbearable, a sign of an unfinished education, flaccid thinking, and hopeless idealism.  At the end of the day, what were they worth? When toted, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  A collection of worthless, childish sayings that, Biblical reference or not, adding nothing to discourse.

Yet had the ladies at tea stopped to consider themselves and their equally imprecise, subjective, and speculative comments, they might have been more forgiving of Mabel’s childish verse.  What was the difference, after all, from drawing conclusions from Pastor James repeated visits to Harriet Goodman’s house while her husband was at work?  He could certainly be spending long afternoons in bed with her; but he could just as easily have been ministering to a woman at the end of her rope.  Why indeed did the ladies make more of Harry Abel’s supposed delinquencies when he could well have been in a legitimate although marginal business?

The ladies, like most people, found it much easier to come to facile conclusions than more cogently argued ones; and if truth be known, it was more fun to speculate than to know.  Innuendo was no different than allusion.  Both suggested but never claimed.  Mabel was only more obvious.   She contributed as much to the gossip by her well-timed clichés as the ladies did by their catty innuendos.  Both were in the same boat.

And, when one considered most clichés, they were not stupid or irrelevant.  An apple does indeed not fall far from the tree.  Children are like their parents and no sooner can avoid their influence than an apple can fall upward.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall has been true forever.  Ambitious, arrogant men will always become overconfident, incautious, and reckless; and will inevitably be removed.  Blood is indeed thicker than water, shown time and time again, the stuff of O’Neill, Faulkner, and the Old Testament.

A film critic recently wrote that he saw no difference between Turkish soap operas and so-called ‘great’ literature.

If it is at all true that great drama should be judged in part by its evocative, emotive power; then why should popular dramas not be classed in the same category as Williams, O’Neill, and Miller and judged as such?  Turkish soap operas – most notably Winter Sun, The End, Black Money Love, and Love is in the Air – are perceptive in their understanding of human nature; the inevitable crises, ambitions, frustrations, enmities, and selfishness of families; jealousy, sexual competition, and conflicts between family and individual loyalties; the nature and satisfying pursuit of revenge; and the disruptive, painful experiences of disease, disadvantage, and death.

Turkish dramas are as focused on human nature, foibles, desires, and disappointments as the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The characters are memorable, and while they are often formulaic they are never dry, sterile, or academic.  What more is there to learn about human nature than we already know? We turn to both drama and soap operas to see it played out in a thousand entertaining forms.  What makes them so popular? They are good, true to life, relevant, and compelling.

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Anything that has broad appeal is automatically suspect in the eyes of traditional reviewers.  If tens of millions of viewers could be watching and enjoying Turkish soap operas, how could they possibly be?  How could anything mass produced, predictable, and simple be considered anything but popular entertainment? Even Graham Greene, author of some of the most morally complex yet compelling dramas of recent decades felt obliged to divide his work into ‘Entertainments’ and serious works.

Without a doubt Turkish soap operas are theatrical clichés.  Everyone expects infidelity, deceit, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy, fatal disease, crime, and power; and viewers are never disappointed.  Like verbal clichés, those on the Turkish ‘dizis’ are familiar, predictable, and obvious.  While they may not have the more profound insights of more respected playwrights, they accomplish the same purpose.  They illuminate human nature, encourage viewers to reflect on it, and even move them off the couch.

Is not the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is compelling and fascinating. 

Clichés are really social code.  They need no explanation but are open to interpretation.  Which apple? Whose blood? Whose chicken coop?  In an increasingly complex world, they are needed shorthand; a way of commenting on familiar, endlessly repetitious human actions without exegesis.  Human nature has not changed in a hundred thousand years and is unlikely to; so why not rely on a proven lexicon to allude to what is already known but unendingly surprising?  The cliché not only has its place, but is part and parcel of human observation.