Great Quarterbacks and Such

In a recent interview with Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, the man modestly brushed aside the question of whether he is likely to be the “next great quarterback.” He said that he really doesn’t listen to those sorts of comments; he looks to his parents and close friends, his coaches and teammates for evaluations of his abilities as a player. It was nicely done and the man does seem to be genuinely self-effacing, determined to give credit to his teammates rather than to take it all for himself. It was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the stench coming from the NFL these days.

But the issue raises an interesting philosophical question: how does one determine greatness in sports, specifically in football? The answer usually circles around some sort of calculation — how many games the man has won, his completion percentage, the number of Super Bowls he has won, and the like. The criteria of greatness shift and change like the smoke from a campfire, which can at times get as hot as the discussions themselves. But they always seem to involve numbers. In America we have a penchant for quantifying things. And with everyone and his Aunt Tilly carrying portable computers around, everything seems to be reduced to numbers and computed quickly so comparisons can be made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of times a man brushes his teeth become a factor in determining if that man is a great quarterback before long. We love numbers.

But when it comes to greatness in literature and art, we blanch. There really aren’t any numbers we can plug into our computers. It doesn’t matter how many compositions a composer has written  or the number of paintings an artist has completed, how long the performances are or how large the canvasses. What matters is quality and this is a concept we cannot manage to deal with. So we dismiss it with a wave of the hand and call it “subjective.” It’s a “matter of opinion.” But, as I have noted in previous posts, there would appear to be legitimate criteria of greatness in art and literature, and the dismissal seems intellectually lazy and just a bit sloppy. Furthermore, it closes discussion just when it ought to get interesting.

Great literature, for example, is well written, full of vivid descriptions, interesting characters, gripping situations, intriguing plots and, above all else, it is thought-provoking. It grabs and holds our attention. Moreover, it invites revisiting. And that’s the key. Great literature, like great art, rewards innumerable visits, because we always seem to find something new every time we visit. With art and literature that is created for quick perusal and mere profit the visits are usually short and sweet. Popular music, for example, remains popular for a brief time and then is replaced with something else. There’s not enough for the mind to get hold of, as one critic has said: it doesn’t engage our imagination. With great music, there is so much going on that one needs to listen closely, recall what has already occurred in the music and try to anticipate what might happen next. Popular music does not invite repeated visits or close listening, just as popular art tends to tug at the heart strings, but leaves the intellect and imagination untouched. There is more to great art and great literature than there is to popular art and literature, in a word, though there may be perfectly good reasons to enjoy and even take delight in the not-so-great in art and literature. As they say, there is no disputing taste.  But greatness, while it cannot be quantified, can most assuredly be felt and experienced at many levels — so many that one visit is never sufficient.

Someone once said he re-read Don Quixote once a year and has done so for years. That’s a bit extreme, but it makes sense. Cervantes has put so much in his novel that it is like finding buried treasure every time the novel is read. Or, perhaps, it is like a bottomless cup of coffee except that, unlike coffee, the taste is fresh and delightful every time one takes a sip. The notion that greatness in art and literature is a matter of opinion, simply, is not worth taking seriously. We may not be able to quantify it as we do with quarterbacks and infielders, but we can experience it directly and discuss it intelligently.

Once More, With Feeling

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape long before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL engages in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more credible because he showed more feeling. Say what?? Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts (ESPN to the contrary notwithstanding), we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpas thrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain control; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like compassion and conscience; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. But reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth.

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully thought-out program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

Dante’s Relevance

In a most interesting article in a learned journal not known for its interesting articles, author Rod Dreher bemoans the fact that he didn’t read Dante’s Inferno — or the rest of the Divine Comedy — until he was in middle age (as was Dante himself).

     Midway along the journey of our life

      I woke to find myself in some dark woods,

      For I had wandered off from the straight path.

So begins Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and into Paradise, as well as the story about a twenty-first century man who had also lost his way only to pick up Dante’s poem by accident and find himself captivated. What interested Dreher most were the chords struck by Dante that resound in today’s world and which should be heard by all college students, if not all who can read. And while it is sad to note that Dreher hadn’t read Dante’s poem until his mid-forties, it is refreshing to have him echo my conviction that the classics are relevant to today (which, indeed, is why they are regarded as “classics.”) But how can a poem written by a medieval Catholic speak to today’s students whose attention is entirely on themselves? That’s the question this article seeks to answer.

It is precisely the fixation of modern youth on themselves that one finds in the occupants of Dante’s Hell. To begin with, they all tell lies, and Dante is warned not to believe all he hears — which reminds me of Jameis Winston’s press conference where he said, with a straight face, “I’m not a ‘me’ person.” But more important, the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno are filled with thousands of passionate people who do not know how to love. The circles begin with love perverted, the love of a man for a woman that never rises above the level of lust, and ends, eight levels later, with those who either love only themselves or or betray those who love them, buried in ice up to their chins and condemned to remain frozen for eternity — as far from God’s love and warmth as possible. In between Dante finds those whose love degenerates into mere passion and is misdirected (they love money or fame, for example); they sin but fail to repent. And, indeed, it is the unwillingness of the sinners in Hell to repent that places them there instead of in Purgatory. As Dreher points out, “All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant.” Such as it is, their love was twisted and self-involved, and it dwarfed their reason which would, together with love properly felt,  have led them away from themselves and into the world of others who are also in need of love.

And thus we find the message that rings true today when folks are told to “let it all hang out.” As the author notes,

“This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. . . . We live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ — just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur. . .  All these damned souls suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante egotism is the root of all evil.”

Furthermore, Dante’s sinners are unanimous in finding fault with others, never with themselves. They are very good at pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to admit that theirs is the fault. The relevance of the ancient poem begins to become apparent.

Dreher takes the reader through several other circles, but in the end he notes, appropriately, that “Dante’s egoists suffering in Hell would be admired and even heroic figures in twenty-first century America” [Cue Jameis Winston, et al]. There is much for each of us to learn from this ancient poem written by a poet in his darkest hours — suffering exile from his family and from his beloved Florence as well. In the end, as Dreher concludes,

Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.”

It is sad that Dreher had to wait until his own mid-life crisis to read this remarkable poem. It is even sadder that very few will ever read it at all, though it is a bit of a stretch to think for a moment that even if today’s youth did read it they would see its relevance to their own lives. But it is certain that very few of them will read it at all if it is not required reading, which is even less likely in a culture that insists upon allowing everyone to find his or her own way — even at the risk of getting lost. Like Dante.

(Note: For those of us who don’t read Italian, I have found that John Ciardi’s translation is the most readable. Many are not.)

 

 

Take Jameis Winston, e.g.

The off-field activities of the college football player Jameis Winston are most thought-provoking. As you may recall, he is the Sophomore quarterback at Florida State University where he won the Heisman trophy as a Freshmen. As was the case with “Johnny Football” before him, the award and subsequent attention seem to have gone to his head. Winston is under investigation by the University for alleged rape of a young women last year. He was also arrested for shop-lifting some crab-legs. And recently he was suspended by his team (for half a game!) for standing on a table in the student union and shouting obscenities. In each case he appeared before the public in a choreographed press conference where he told the gathered reporters that he has learned his lesson and this will not happen again. Yeah, right. He is an example of a self-involved youth who feels himself entitled to special treatment. After all, he has received it most of his life, why not now? And, of course, there are growing numbers of athletes at the collegiate and professional levels whose behavior is not only violent, but also exemplify the type of person described by Thomas Jefferson (of all people) in the early part of the nineteenth century:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, or a stateroom, pamper them with high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind.”

There is a good deal of talk about holding athletes to a “higher standard of decency,” but I would be perfectly satisfied if they were held to the same standards as everyone else: one would not expect anyone to stand on a table in a public place shouting obscenities, to rape young women, or to steal crab legs. But let us not assume for a moment that this sort of behavior is limited to spoiled athletes. Let us admit that today’s youth — well into adulthood — have been so indulged. In our schools where self-esteem is the name of the game, spoiled children, raised by tired, preoccupied parents who have been told by so-called “experts” not to thwart the child’s natural instincts, develop a sense of entitlement that assures each of them that they are the only ones that really matter in this world. They, too, resemble Jefferson’s type described above: they become “all body and no mind.” The example of athletes such as Winston are simply extreme cases of a phenomenon that has become widespread in this culture. Attention might be focused on those who seem larger than life, but while we may criticize their behavior we must admit that they are encouraged in our culture to behave in this manner and they are tokens of a type. Further, they have been told that if they appear sincere and say they are sorry they will be forgiven. After all, we want to see them play on Saturday . . . or Sunday . . .  or Monday night . . . or Thursday night.

In any event, let us keep our eye on the larger picture where a sense of entitlement is increasingly common, and certainly not restricted to athletes.  It is an attitude fostered in the homes and at school, and it stems from the wave of pop-psychology books that were published in the 1950s and 1960s telling parents and teachers how to raise and teach their children. So their parents, exhausted from the work-a-day world where they struggle to provide their families with “necessities,” seldom discipline their children; and in school, where the self-esteem movement has roots going back to Rousseau, they are told they are terrific when they are not. This is certain to turn out young people who feel entitled to whatever it is they think they might want.

Jefferson knew a thing or two. We shouldn’t wonder at the behavior of spoiled, rich athletes or kids out of control: the chickens are coming home to roost.

True Diversity

There is a disturbing movement afoot on America’s college campuses. I speak of the growing tendency to exclude certain points of view from being heard. In the name of defending the campuses from what they regard as “hate speech,” numbers of liberal students and faculty members are banding together to make sure that opinions they strongly disagree with are not heard.

In an article in this month’s “Intercollegiate Review,” an author with a familiar name (David Ortiz) tells of a number of instances in which speakers have been refused a voice on a number of campuses. At Stanford University, of all places, a group known as the Anscombe Society attempted to get funding to bring in a group of “nationally renowned speakers”  to discuss public policy issues “driving the marriage debate.” The campus  LGBTQ community launched protests against the attempts and the funding, which had originally been approved, was withdrawn. Then the Anscombe Society was told it would be necessary for them to pay a $5,600.00 “security fee” to protect the student body against possible violence. Now, whether one sides with the political left or the right in this issue, it beggars belief that a group of students and faculty on today’s campuses would argue against listening to a point of view, no matter how strongly they happen to disagree with it. Whether one is for or against same-sex marriage (and I am in favor of it as it happens) a college campus is a place where one would think it is not only possible, but desirable, to hear opposing points of view. It engenders healthy debate which is the life-blood of intellectual growth.

This is only one of several examples of intolerance across the country on college campuses cited by Ortiz. Others involve Brandeis University, which refused to allow prominent women’s rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, to be their commencement speaker. Her offense? “She has dared to critique radical Islam for its history of violence and bigotry against women.” More than seventy-five members of the faculty joined student leaders to force the Administration to withdraw the invitation. Similar incidents occurred at Rutgers University involving Condoleezza Rice and at Azusa Pacific University (whatever that is!) involving right-wing author Charles Murray. As Murray noted in a letter he wrote to the students at Azusa, “[Your] administration wants to protect you from earnest and nerdy old guys who have opinions that some of your faculty do not share. Ask if this is why you’re getting a college education.”

Clearly, this is part of a growing problem across the country — and one that was pointed out in a recent speech in Iowa by former president Bill Clinton: people are increasingly refusing to listen to opposing points of view. While dialogue is vital to a democracy, genuine dialogue is dying out. On college campuses, in the name of what many regard as cultural diversity, there are movements to “protect” students against intellectual diversity. And this is the real problem here. As I say, whether or not one agrees with a person’s opinion it ought to be allowed to be given a voice — especially in an institution that claims to be promoting a liberal education. Listening to only one point of view is not education, it is indoctrination. There is considerable truth in the cliché “a closed mind is an empty mind.” And of all people, liberals (so-called) should be opposed to indoctrination. For years they have insisted that conservatives have indoctrinated students on America’s campuses by promoting ideas put forth by “dead, white, European males.” Whether or not this is true, and I strongly believe it is not, intolerance is wrong no matter who happens to be practicing it. The students, who are paying through their noses, are the real victims here.

We live in strange times. But they are times that demand open and searching minds because the problems we face as a human race grow larger by the day. Any attempt to close those minds, especially by so-called “educators,” is alien to everything that is demanded in today’s world. Whether or not we have children in college we must all be concerned about the growing tendency to silence voices that should  be heard — from both ends of the political spectrum. Intolerance of any type should never be tolerated on a college campus, or anywhere else.

Out Of Control?

The image of the NFL which so many people work so hard to protect seems to have taken a beating of late. The Ray Rice pummeling of his wife in an Atlantic City elevator was the highlight of the past few weeks, but the recent story of Adrian Peterson’s “whooping”  of his  4 year-old son now takes center stage. For the moment. Stay tuned.

As a resident of Minnesota who notes in the large print of my contract with the state that I will always be loyal to the Minnesota Vikings, it pains me to think that the talented and seemingly likable Peterson would strip a branch from a nearby tree and whip his son for pushing his brother; the boy was later taken to the doctor’s office with cuts and bruises over much of his small body. As it happens, I was switched as a child on the backs of my legs. My mother lost her temper, switched me with a willow stick and then insisted that I wear long pants to visit one of her friends so the welts would not be visible. Peterson says he was whipped as a boy and Bill Cosby makes fun of the fact that his father took his belt to him and his brother when they were little. That’s the way it was done in those days.

But no more. Now any sort of corporal punishment is regarded as abuse and the parent is held accountable. The jury is out on whether or not this is a good thing, but on the face of it uncontrolled anger on the part of a large and strong parent “whooping” a young child is clearly abuse. I ask, however, is all corporal punishment abuse? My sense of it is that when done in extreme cases by a parent who is on control of his or her emotions it may be necessary and effective way to manage a child who is otherwise out of control. It is not crystal clear to me that corporal punishment used judiciously is more harmful to the child than is the almost total absence of restraint so prevalent today.

But because of the extent of damage to his son, the case of Adrian Peterson is exceptional, and as the latest in a series of violent incidents on the part of an astonishing number of NFL players it raises several questions. Those questions not only address the issue of what sort of punishment would be appropriate for a man as strong as Peterson for taking out his anger on a helpless boy. They also address the question of whether his loss of control in this case (which he admits and which is apparent from the consequences) might be the result of the use of anabolic steroids. It is certainly the case that this man, along with his fellows in the NFL train their bodies to be as hard and strong as humanly possible. And it is clear that there is widespread use of steroids in the NFL to assist in improving performance in a violent sport. Further, it appears to be the case that their use can result in uncontrolled violence.

We need to recall the case of Lyle Alzado who died of brain cancer which was at the time attributed to the use of anabolic steroids. His description of his condition shortly before his death is gripping:

I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 lbs or jump 30 ft. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.

The issue of whether steroid use lead directly to Alzado’s death has been  questioned, but increasing testosterone in a male animal most assuredly increases the tendency toward violence, which in football players is already high. Further, the NFL has known about the use of steroids since the 1960s and instituted a testing policy in 1987 that resulted in suspensions as early as 1989. However, as we know from cases like those of Lance Armstrong, there are ways around testing and the use of anabolic steroids appears to be widespread in the NFL — if not in college football and even at the level of the high schools.  Many a high school football player is now as large and nearly as strong as a professional football player thirty years ago. Perhaps it is a coincidence. Perhaps it is not.

In any case, the NFL players union has recently approved a new drug testing policy that includes such things as HGH which will supplement the testing of steroids even though, again, there are ways around those tests as well. The agreement also guarantees lesser punishments for players who might be caught out using marijuana. But in light of the recent incidents of violence on and off the football field, where players are larger, faster, and stronger and incidents of injury to the players themselves (including concussions) are increasing — coupled with growing numbers of cases involving players being violent toward those whom they profess to love — one must wonder if the NFL has the will or the ability to curb the use of the supplements, and the violence. After all, the games sell out and pro football is Big Business.

Lost Its Way?

The stereotype of the old-fashioned schoolroom shows us the stern-faced teacher walking up and down the rigidly straight aisles with a ruler in her hand glowering at the children who were told not to speak in class or even to sneeze. If a child dared to make a noise and, say, whisper to the child next to her, the ruler would come down swiftly and the child would break into shrieks and later have nightmares about those terrible days. The idea was, it seems, to keep the kids in line, force-feed them knowledge — teach the kids the “three Rs” whether they wanted to learn or not.

Following the lead of people like Jean Jacques Rousseau in France and later A.S. Neill in England, parents and teachers in this country began to realize that this model was somehow wrong and that the child matters. Theory started to shift toward what we now call “child-centered education.” The subject-matter began to be thought of as less important than the child who was being taught. Such notions as “authority” and “discipline” took on a pejorative meanings, calling up images of the ruler coming down on the knuckles of the small child by a teacher who suffered from Jehovah’s complex. Soon popular psychologists got on the bandwagon, thinking they could not only teach better than the teachers, but also raise children better than the parents. Parents and teachers were told not to “inhibit” the child, that “stern discipline” was not the way to go, that the child ought to be treated like an adult and allowed to find their own way. Teachers and parents were told to be their kids’ friends, not authority figures. Soon the “free schools” sprang up, patterned after Neill’s Summerhill school in England — where students were allowed to select their own subjects and study them when they were ready to, and not before. His system worked with many bright, precocious children, but in the majority of cases the children learned little and the experiment was called by many people, including Bertrand Russell, a failed experiment.

But the child-oriented movement in this country had gained headway and began to take this country by storm. Supported by people like John Dewey (who later abandoned the theory, realizing that it had gone too far afield) and by the pop-psychologists who fell all over themselves rushing to get their books into print, parents and teachers questioned their own instincts and fell in line behind the so-called “experts” who may or may not have ever taught or even to have children of their own. They were not to restrict the children; they were there to support the child no matter what, always say “yes” and never say “no.”  Thus was born the permissive society with which we are now so familiar where students are told they can walk on water even when it is not frozen and “authority” and “discipline” have become bad things — in the home as well as the classroom. Neill took a plain truth, namely, that students learn more quickly those things they enjoy — and developed it into a blatant falsehood, namely, that they will not learn those things they do not enjoy. In fact, students learn to like a great many things they might have avoided had they not been required to study them. Further, maturity is a function of being able to do those things we are not fond of doing, or which we have an aversion to doing.  Child-oriented education has resulted in numberless children who are mis-educated and remain immature well into adulthood.

While this might be seen as (a necessary?) swing of a pendulum away from the stereotype given at the outset of this discussion, the pendulum at present shows no signs of moving. There is little evidence that more than a handful of folks connected with education realize how damaging this theory has been to the education of our children — as evidenced by comparisons of the American school system with the likes of Finland. Take, for example, the current notion of discipline which is regarded as a bad thing, whereas, in fact, intellectual discipline involves the ability of a mind to follow an argument, form cogent arguments, perceive untruths and formulate responses to blatant falsehoods. In a word, discipline is essential to real thought. It does not require teachers patrolling the classrooms with rulers in hand. But it does require teachers who are acknowledged as legitimate authority figures and who are committed to teaching tough subjects and demanding positive results from their students. Above all else it requires teachers who demand that their students learn to read, write, speak their language, and calculate such things as the tip in a restaurant — things that increasing numbers of American students cannot do. The sort of thing that passes for thought in a classroom where discipline is thought to be a bad thing is merely disjointed, incoherent drivel.

Flaubert said that discipline makes art of impulse. Similarly, discipline makes thought out of tangled, incoherent ideas and half-truths. Undisciplined thought is not real thought at all, it is mere impulse, gut feelings. And coming from kids who are, in many cases, overflowing with  undeserved self-esteem, the way is paved for our mindless age of entitlement where spoiled kids cannot read, write coherently, or figure. But let us not simply assume that the pendulum will swing back somewhere just short of the teacher cruising the aisles with ruler in hand  — say, to the vital notion of intellectual discipline instilled by demanding teachers who recognize and reward genuine excellence. It’s not going to happen unless enough people realize that the pendulum needs a push. And, sad to say, there appear to be very few around who even recognize the fact that the pendulum has become stuck in place.

Cover-up?

I am sure you have heard the latest in the sad and truly unsettling story of the Baltimore Ravens’ running-back, Ray Rice, who was recently suspended from the NFL for “domestic abuse.” In fact, the case goes back to July when a CCTV video clip showed Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who claims unlimited power in these matters, suspended Rice for two games as punishment for the deed and then the proverbial shit hit the fan. The outrage over the film clip that was shown widely followed by the slap on Rice’s wrist was loud and clear. In light of the flack he had stirred up,  Goodell reneged and issued a new policy statement on Domestic Abuse with stiffer penalties that seemed sensible and calmed the waters somewhat.

But very recently another film clip was released showing Ray Rice striking his fiancée in the elevator, knocking her against the side of the elevator and falling unconscious to the floor. After this, he dragged the unconscious body out of the elevator and lowered her unceremoniously to the floor of the corridor outside. Suddenly the shit started to fly once more. Big Time! This time The Ravens football team cut their ties with the player and Goodell suspended him “indefinitely” from the NFL. Iron-Brain Mike Ditka, former Chicago Bears head coach, worried about Ray Rice’s future “earning power,” while others raised serious issues. One of those people was known to remark that the NFL seemed to be “reacting” rather than being “proactive.” Further, many wondered, were they reacting to Rice’s brutal behavior — or to the public reaction to that behavior that was becoming widespread with repeated showings of the film clip in television (ESPN has been known to exploit such incidents, ad nauseum)? It seemed clear that the latter was the case and many people expressed their disgust, not only with Rice, but with the NFL as well. But, for the most, part talking heads shied away from pointing the finger straight at Goodell and the NFL.

Until Keith Olbermann got in front of the cameras.

As this piece of must-see TV makes clear, Olbermann pulled no punches. He held not only the NFL but also everyone involved in the case, including the courts, responsible for covering up the truth. He called for the resignation or the firing of all concerned. He expressed the notion that the NFL was simply out to save the image of what has become America’s favorite sport and a billion-dollar industry to boot, and not the millions of women in the country who face the reality of domestic violence every day. The NFL fumbled the ball, according to Olbermann and they (and these who supposedly enforce justice) deserved to be punished accordingly. One knows that this will not happen, of course, since the reach of powerful corporations and the incredibly wealthy individuals in this “democracy” is far and effective. Their reach, in fact, raises many questions.

Why, for example, did the NFL claim not to have seen the latest video clip from within the elevator until TMZ released it to the public? Goodell claimed that if he had seen the clip the initial punishment of Rice would have been swift and fair, yet the hotel said the NFL never contacted them about the clip of the event. Further, a complete description of what had happened inside that elevator (if not the clip itself) was available not only to the prosecutors but also to the NFL. Why did the prosecutor not proceed with charges against Lewis after seeing the clip despite the fact that Rice’s fiancée (now his wife, if you can imagine) was unwilling to press charges? When Goodell interviewed Ray Rice about the incident, why did he insist that the victim accompany him — which flies in the face of every known procedure for fair and impartial judgment? Olbermann even suggested that Lewis’ wife might have appeared in support of her husband out of fear of another beating, which is not beyond the realm of possibility. As has been pointed out by legal analysts, the state does not require that the victim press charges, especially when there is visual evidence such as the clip of the incident actually occurring in the elevator. But nothing happened until the clip was released to the public and outrage was heard from one coast to the other.

Reacting rather than pro-acting. Very well put. But one expects that is business as usual for professional sports where the bottom line is all that really matters. Olbermann put it well. The people involved were more concerned about saving face than doing the right thing. This strikes me as symptomatic of a much larger problem we have in this country that almost certainly stems from our Business Mentality. This is our inability to consider possible outcomes and take measures to prevent problems before they arise. Instead, we focus on the short-term (profit) and are habitually involved in cleaning up the mess afterwards. This does not bode well for the future, given the many serious problems this country — and indeed the world — faces.

The Visible Wonder

Great writers are great because they notice things about the people around them and the world in which they live. One of the greatest of these is Joseph Conrad whom I would list among my top five favorite writers — a list that includes George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. They not only notice things: they write about them with extraordinary psychological insight and a distinctive writing style — even in the case of Dostoevsky whom most of us must read in translation.

Conrad was, in addition to being a magnificent writer, a relentless critic of man’s inhumanity to man — especially with regard to the exploitation of the Congo, which he witnessed first-hand, “the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.” This concern was most powerfully expressed in his remarkable novella Heart of Darkness where he made clear that the white Europeans were guilty of the most heinous crimes against the native people as well as the earth they exploited out of unfettered greed. Unfortunately, this message was lost on Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and critic, who wrote an essay attacking Conrad and urging people not to read his novels, calling him a “racist” because his moderator, Marlowe, used the word “nigger” — a word freely bandied about by merchant seamen in the early part of the last century. Ironically, Achebe simply could not see beyond this to uncover Conrad’s obvious sympathies with the native people and hatred of what the Europeans were doing to them. In any event,  Conrad would have us all become astute observers of our world and the people around us. In his “Personal Record” he says that we should all become engaged in

“visionary activities. . . unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe . . . [make it] our appointed task on this earth. . .to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.”

The problem, of course, is that we can no longer engage in “self-forgetful attention” to the world, because we cannot for a moment forget ourselves: we have reduced the world to OUR world. With exceptions like the delightful artist Z, who is alive to the world around her, increasingly we suffer from our inverted consciousness, our attention focused solely on ourselves — a condition exacerbated by the electronic toys we are addicted to that direct our attention away from our world and other people to the ego at the center. Surely, the word “social media” is a misnomer: there is no real socializing going on here; we just write about ourselves. Beauty is no longer regarded as out there in the world, it is “in the eye of the beholder.” We no longer see the beautiful sunset or the grace of the deer as it leaps over the fallen tree. We “see” only our own reactions to those events, our own feelings. It is now all about us, not about our world. How does it make me feel? That’s the only question we ask. Some even go so far as to deny that there is any truth to be told about the world, that all truth, like all value, is subjective — just a reflection of the subject himself or herself. In the process, of course, we have flattened the world and made of it a two-dimensional sheet that merely reflects back the face and the feelings of the observer, ugly though that image might be.

In a word, if we ever were able to realize what Conrad seems to regard as our true, human calling — to “bear testimony to the visible wonder. . .” — few of us today are able to do so. I would guess that most don’t even know what Conrad is talking about — assuming that they read Conrad (or anything else for that matter!)

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.