Snippits From Adams

“All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”

I discovered Henry Adams late in life and wish I had done so earlier. One can always tell when he is in the company of genius, and Adams is just such a one. Accordingly, I want to share some of my favorite thoughts from Adams’ autobiography, which he wrote in the third person and which is historically fascinating and philosophically provocative. Being the grandson and great-grandson of two American presidents would lead one to expect that Henry’s life would be eventful and in some ways it was. But he spent much of his life trying to determine what he was best suited to do and in many ways he felt out of step with the world around him. In spite of this, the man became a keen observer and one of the brightest minds of his day and his reflections still have the ring of truth today. For one thing, he was convinced that even after only 100 years the Constitution needed drastic revision, since, among other things, it gave the Senate too much power. With the large number of presidential appointments still awaiting Senate approval today, we can see the truth of what Adams had to say. And given the Supreme Court’s recent decision taking off all limits to political contributions, we can see that the Founders clearly ignored one aspect of power that has every sign of crippling their brain-child beyond recognition. The Constitution simply didn’t mention corporations, leaving the door open for all manner of bizarre judgments regarding their status in this polity. In future, we can expect the very rich to determine who runs for political office and what their agenda will be once they are elected — and no restraints on unbridled greed. Our democracy is in danger of being transformed into an oligarchy — though that ship has almost certainly already sailed. But let’s hear some of what Adams had to say in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Adams saw himself as one of many young men after the Civil War who awaited U.S. Grant’s arrival in Washington with great hope. Here was a man of action who would surely move quickly to revise and update the Constitution and make it more workable. But he was soon disappointed as Grant seemed unwilling to do much of anything, except to get himself involved in scandals. Adams described what he took to be the type:

“In time one came to recognize the type in other men, with differences and variations, as normal men whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought; men who sprang from the soil to power, apt to be distrustful of themselves and others; shy, jealous; sometimes vindictive; more or less dull in outward appearance; and always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant — the instinct to fight.”

In general, Adams didn’t trust men in power and said several times that he worried that when one of his friends came into power “he was lost.” Power did, in fact, corrupt, as Adams saw it. With tongue firmly in his cheek, Adams tells us what political power did to U.S. Grant:

“That two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Like so many others, Adams placed his hope in the Supreme Court:

“Although step by step he had been driven, like the rest of the world, to admit that the American society had outgrown most of its institutions, he still clung to the Supreme Court, much as a churchman clings to his bishops, because they are his only symbol of unity; his last rag of Right. Between the Executive and the Legislative, citizens could have no rights; they were at the mercy of Power. They had created the Court to protect them from unlimited Power, and it was little enough protection at best. . . “

Unfortunately the founders simply didn’t foresee the power of corporations. Indeed, given the power of corporations today, the Supreme Court offers far too little protection as it happens! Adams was thoroughly disillusioned, as appears in the following observation:

“The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth century fabric of moral principles. Politicians had tacitly given up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. None-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of a system, might last for centuries if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world — the clumsiest — the most inefficient.. . . . The [fore]fathers had intended to neutralize the energy of government and had succeeded, but their machine was never meant to do the work of a 20-million h.p. society in the twentieth century, where much work was needed to be quickly and efficiently done. The only defense of the system was that, as government did nothing well, it had best do nothing. . .”

Adams’ despair soon extended so far as to include most of his fellow citizens:

“The American character showed singular limitations which sometimes drove the student of civilized man to despair. Crushed by his own ignorance — lost in the darkness of his own gropings — the scholar finds himself jostled of a sudden by a crowd of men who seem to him ignorant that there is a thing called ignorance; who have forgotten how to amuse themselves; who cannot even understand that they are bored.”

In the end, Adams placed his hope in education:

“The object of education should be the [mind's] teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout history the waste of mind has been appalling and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and those were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”

We can only hope that those few will somehow manage to resist society’s determination to force them into a mold of its making by turning them all into mindless robots, trained to do a job; that they will demand the best education available and continue to make the effort required to attain it. Otherwise, the democratic experiment in America will be judged a failure.

 

 

Ooops! My Mistake!

How can anyone read stories like this one and still defend the death penalty? If juries make one mistake in 1000 it forever refutes any attempt at rationalizing the taking of a life on the grounds of a trial where human error is ever-present.

NEW YORK (AP) — From the day of his 1989 arrest in a deadly New York City shooting, Jonathan Fleming said he had been more than 1,000 miles away, on a vacation at Disney World. Despite having documents to back him up, he was convicted of murder.

Prosecutors now agree with him, and Fleming left a Brooklyn court as a free man Tuesday after spending nearly a quarter-century behind bars.

Fleming, now 51, tearfully hugged his lawyers as relatives cheered, “Thank you, God!” after a judge dismissed the case. A key witness had recanted, newly found witnesses implicated someone else and prosecutors’ review of authorities’ files turned up documents supporting Fleming’s alibi.

The exoneration, first reported by the Daily News, comes amid scrutiny of Brooklyn prosecutors’ process for reviewing questionable convictions, scrutiny that comes partly from the new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson. He said in a statement that after a month-long review, he decided to drop the case against Fleming because of “key alibi facts that place Fleming in Florida at the time of the murder.”

From the start, Fleming told authorities he had been in Orlando when a friend, Darryl “Black” Rush, was shot to death in Brooklyn early on Aug. 15, 1989. Authorities suggested the shooting was motivated by a dispute over money.

Fleming had plane tickets, videos and postcards from his trip, said his lawyers, Anthony Mayol and Taylor Koss. But prosecutors at the time suggested he could have made a quick round-trip plane jaunt to be in New York, and a woman testified that she had seen him shoot Rush. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and was due to have his first parole hearing soon.

The witness recanted her testimony soon after Fleming’s 1990 conviction, saying she had lied so police would cut her loose for an unrelated arrest, but Fleming lost his appeals.

The defense asked the district attorney’s office to review the case last year.

Defense investigators found previously untapped witnesses who pointed to someone else as the gunman, the attorneys said, declining to give the witnesses’ or potential suspect’s names before prosecutors look into them. The district attorney’s office declined to comment on its investigative plans.

Prosecutors’ review produced a hotel receipt that Fleming paid in Florida about five hours before the shooting — a document that police evidently had found in Fleming’s pocket when they arrested him. Prosecutors also found an October 1989 Orlando police letter to New York detectives, saying some employees at an Orlando hotel had told investigators they remembered Fleming.

Neither the receipt nor the police letter had been provided to Fleming’s initial defense lawyer, despite rules that generally require investigators to turn over possibly exculpatory material.

Patricia Fleming, 71, was with her son in Orlando at the time of the crime and testified at his trial.

“I knew he didn’t do it, because I was there,” she said. “When they gave my son 25 to life, I thought I would die in that courtroom. Still, I never did give up, because I knew he was innocent.”

On Tuesday, Jonathan Fleming left court with an arm around his mother’s shoulders and the process of rebuilding his life ahead of him.

Asked about his plans, he said: “I’m going to go eat dinner with my mother and my family, and I’m going to live the rest of my life.”

Now, how does the State of New York go about giving the man twenty-five years of his life back?

Democracy and Socialism

Karl Marx, being a Hegelian, was convinced that capitalism was inherently contradictory and would therefore implode and in the process it would become transformed into socialism. The state would take over the means of production after the workers revolted against the owners who were exploiting them by paying them less than their labor was worth. The problem, as Marx saw it, was that in a capitalist economy workers are forced by circumstances to sell their labor as a commodity to a factory owner and this in itself is a contradiction — since labor is not a commodity. When, say, the carpenter who makes furniture in his small shop with an apprentice or two finds he cannot compete with the factory down the road that turns out furniture at a faster rate he must go to work for the owner of that factory in order to survive. The factory owner pays him a minimum wage (?) that has no relation whatever to the value of the objects the carpenter is now helping to produce. This is another contradiction. The real problem arises because the furniture he now helps to produce for the owner of the factory creates what Marx called “surplus value,” that is, value in excess of the value of the labor that went into the production of the furniture, including a reasonable profit for the owner. The owner keeps that surplus value himself in the form of excessive profits and therein lies another contradiction: the value that ought to accrue to the worker (because he helps to create it) goes to the factory owner. When the N.F.L. struck several years ago, the players wanted their income to be predicated on the amount of money the owners were taking in from TV revenue and at the gate. They didn’t know it, but the players’ stand was thoroughly Marxist.

In any event, because of these inherent contradictions within capitalism, Marx thought the government would inevitably take over the means of production in order to protect the workers and capitalism would be replaced by socialism which would almost certainly be coupled with a democratic political system — and history has borne out that coupling, for the most part. While there are obvious exceptions, such as the former U.S.S.R., not only is our democracy itself a peculiar mixture of capitalism and socialism, but there are a number of  nations that have found socialism fits nicely within the bosom of democracy — England, for one, and even more so the Scandinavian countries where, we are told, some of the happiest people on earth live and work.

It is amusing that a great many people in this country fear socialism the way folks in the middle ages feared leprosy — even though measures have been taken to make our economy more socialistic since at least the time of Franklin Roosevelt, and the government has always meddled in the economy. There has never been such a thing in this country as “free enterprise capitalism.” In the beginning the economies of the various colonies took the form of mercantile capitalism in which the colonial governments maintained considerable control in order to reduce the possibility of inordinate wealth in the hands of a few — fearing that it might develop into aristocracy, or fearing wealthy American colonists who might become a threat to Mother England. Most of the colonies also had laws prohibiting primogeniture as well, in order to spread the wealth. Despite these measures, a small group of wealthy Americans was able to help fund the revolution that eventually freed the colonies.

Many people mistakenly identify democracy and capitalism even though, while it is certainly the case that they evolved together historically, one is a political system and the other an economic one and the two are at times incompatible. Out-of-control capitalism, as we are seeing, results in incredible wealth in the hands of very few and a powerless electorate, which cripples democracy. At the same time, many people also fear things such as the Affordable Care Act because it smells of socialism and must therefore be “undemocratic” or “un-American,” whereas it does not conflict in any way with the democratic process. Folks frequently fear what they do not understand. These people need to be reminded of the fact that this country, which is ostensibly a democratic one, has been slowly but steadily moving in the direction of greater state involvement if not since the very beginning then at least since the 1930s and that a number of federal policies and agencies have sprung up since that time to avoid monopolies and to temper individual enthusiasm — largely because that enthusiasm in pursuit of profit has often shown complete disregard for the health and well-being of our citizens.

At any rate, capitalism is not to be confused with democracy and socialism is in many ways more compatible with democracy than is capitalism, especially our particular form of capitalism in which a few wealthy folks seem to have all the power and the rest of us simply go through the motions. A democracy is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people, but when the corporations and a few very wealthy families control the reins of power the political system cannot be said to be a democracy in any meaningful sense of that term. In a socialistic economy, on the other hand, in which the possibility of a few gaining the vast majority of the wealth and power is thwarted by the intervention of state and federal agencies and the courts, the people have more power and the political process is more likely to be one that is amenable to the will of the people as a whole. In other words, democracy often joins more comfortably with socialism than it does with capitalism because more of the citizens are likely to be in a position to play an effective role in self-government when the wealth and power are not allowed to collect in the banks or off-shore accounts of a very few — and the highest courts are not declaring that corporations are “persons,” thereby allowing them to unduly influence the outcome of political elections. I don’t advocate the elimination of private ownership, since I am aware of the advantages of a competitive economy, but I do wonder why so many of our citizens are frightened of an economic system that, it turns out, is quite compatible with democracy and which almost certainly gives them more power and freedom in the end.

Is Christianity Dead?

My blog-buddy, BTG, recently took exception to my claim that Christianity is dead — or if not dead, then rendered irrelevant by modern life. I want to defend my claim somewhat in this limited space, though I would say at the outset that even if it is true that Christianity is no longer a vital force in our postmodern culture, there are certainly many good people who profess to be Christians and attend church regularly. And there are Christian communities around the world that still share the deep beliefs of bygone days. Perhaps this is true even in this country, here and there.

But when we consider that a study conducted in 1993 concluded that only 19.6 percent of the Protestants and 28 percent of the Catholics in America were in church in any given week, we must pause. If we contrast this with that period of 1000 years in Western history when Christianity was a vital force, say, up to the Renaissance, I think I can make my case without repeating more than necessary what I have said in previous blog posts.

In the so-called “middle ages” atheism in Europe was practically unknown. The majority of men and women attended church regularly, sometimes daily and two or three times on Sunday. In addition, the invocation of saint-protectors, the cult of relics, the division of the day by the bells that sounded regularly from parish or monastic church permeated the air and threaded a sense of security through life’s many uncertainties. But one thing that was not uncertain was the assurance that a good life would be rewarded in heaven and a wicked life would be punished by eternal damnation. This was assured and it gave medieval people a center to their lives and a hope that is greater than anything we can compare it with these days. As Carl Gustav Jung said in his intriguing book Modern Man In Search of a Soul:

“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were the children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for blessedness; and they knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. . .

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brothers, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

Modern man, as Jung goes on to argue, seeks to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of this all-encompassing spirituality by amassing wealth and engaging in such fads as scientology, encounter groups, therapy, T-groups, creativity workshops, meditation, est seminars, and the like. These replaced the certainties of medieval life and the pervasive influence of the church with its many clerics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, lay members of various religious orders, all identifiable by their costumes — to the tune of from one to three percent of the entire population. The lives of these people were filled by the church and, as Henry Adams argued convincingly, much of the certainty they shared was due to the loving influence of the Virgin Mary whom they considered their own mother who would forgive them, regardless how great their sins, and lead them to eternal joy in the life to come.

There can be no question that religion generally pales today in contrast with the religion of those years. The causes of these changes cannot be identified with ease, but there do seem to be a series of factors that have brought about the retreat of Christianity and religion generally from the lives of the great majority of us Westerners today. As Adams argued, the Protestant Reformation severed the ties medieval men and women had with the Virgin Mary and, as a result, the Church began to retreat from their lives and seem somehow remote and abstract, though some might argue that the Great Schism and the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church created a sense of growing uncertainty. There was also the invention of the printing press, which made available to a great many more people the written word — especially in the form of the Bible which they could read for themselves: they no longer had to rely on someone else to determine how to live their lives. Further, the birth of modern science that lessened suffering and prolonged life on this earth while relegating religion to the dust bin of “superstition” had a powerful influence as well. And, of course, the birth of industrial capitalism, as I have argued in previous blogs, had a powerful impact, especially given the impetus of thinkers like John Calvin who insisted that material prosperity was a certain sign of God’s grace and love, whereas it had previously been regarded as a sign of earthly corruption. Add to this two world wars, recurring plagues and pestilence, especially as modern cities grew more heavily populated, and one can understand why many began to regard this world as “absurd” and ceased to believe in anything but what they could see, hear, and grab for themselves.

What resulted was a growing unwillingness to make personal sacrifices together with the retreat, slowly but surely, of a life centered around thoughts of the world to come as a release from the suffering that seemed inevitable in this world. These were replaced by a world view centered on the self and the security in this world that could only be assured by wealth and a solid social structure shielded by a strong military presence. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Christianity (if not all of religion) is “dead,” because, as noted above, there are sincere believers who seek to live good lives according to the commandments of God. But the number of such people has shrunk to meager proportions as the desire to gain material advantages has increased and spread throughout the Western world. To be sure, there are pockets of resistance to the spread of materialism, and entire communities that can still be called “religious” in a meaningful sense of that word — especially in what we derisively call the “third world.”  Furthermore, there are certain elements of the Christian religion lying buried in whatever is left of our sense of charity, duty, and right and wrong. But as a generalization I think the case can be made that religion, for the vast majority of people alive in this century, is a faint shadow of what it once was: it simply does not comprise the center of most lives; it survives, if at all, on the periphery.

The Now Generation

The psychiatrists who studied the American prisoners of war released after the Korean conflict were amazed at the success of the “brainwashing” techniques that were used on those men. Captured documents revealed that one of the secrets to that success was the claim of the North Koreans that Americans were generally ignorant of history, even their own. These young men could be told pretty much anything bad about their country and they tended to believe it because they had no frame of reference. For example, they could be told that in America children were forced to work in the coal mines and a couple of the men vaguely remembered hearing of this and were willing to embrace the half-truth and share it with their fellow prisoners. True, there were children working in the coal mines at one time, but no longer. It was precisely those half-truths that enabled the North Koreans to convince the ignorant young men of blatant falsehoods. Couple that treatment with censored mail that the prisoners received from wives and sweethearts complaining about how bad things were back home, not to mention the seeds of suspicion that were planted among the men that broke down their trust in one another, and you have a formula for success. There was not a single attempt by an American soldier to escape imprisonment during the entire conflict!

Today’s young people are equally ignorant of their history, perhaps even more so. We make excuses for these kids by moaning about how much “pressure” they are under. Nonsense! I would argue they under less pressure than those young men who were fighting in Korea, or even the generation that followed them. Today’s young people need not fear the draft. Moreover, they are the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and are therefore free from the restraint experienced by prior generations who were told to wait for sex until they were married. In fact, they don’t seem to show much restraint about much of anything, truth to tell. And there is considerably less expected of them in school these days than was expected of their fathers and mothers. They are told they are wonderful: they feel entitled. So let’s hear no more about how much pressure they are under.

Now, social scientists — who would rank below even the geologists on Sheldon Cooper’s hierarchy of sciences, I suspect — love to label the generations. We have read about the “me” generation and the “millenialists,” the “X” generation, and the “Y” generation. While I hesitate to lump myself together with the social scientists, I would nonetheless suggest that we call today’s young people the “Now Generation.” They, like their parents before them, don’t know diddly about their own history, much less world history. In fact, studies of recent college graduates have shown an alarming number of these folks who cannot name the first five presidents of the United States, cannot recognize the Gettysburg Address, don’t know who were our allies during the Second World War, or when the First World War was fought — or what countries it involved. Much ink has been spilled along with weeping and gnashing of teeth over these sad revelations, but very little of substance has resulted from all the angst. History is still not considered important in our schools or in this culture. As Henry Ford would have it: “History is bunk!”

Santayana famously said that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This presupposes a cyclical view of history and is predicated on the notion that human beings don’t really change that much. Because events tend to repeat themselves — we seem to be constantly at war, for example — and humans have become increasingly locked in the present moment, ignorant of their own past, they will tend to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. On a smaller scale, every parent laments the fact that their kids don’t listen to them and seem determined to make the same mistakes their parents made twenty years before. History is a great teacher. But we have to read it, assimilate it, and take it to heart. We tend not to do that. History is not bunk, Mr. Ford, and we are certain to repeat the mistakes of previous generations if we continue to remain locked in the present moment, ignoring not only the past (from which we have so much to learn) but also ignoring our obligations to the future as well.

So, I recommend that a more appropriate label for the present younger generation is the one suggested above. It is certainly true, as psychological and sociological studies have revealed, that today’s youth are addicted to electronic toys, immersed in themselves, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the world outside themselves; the label “Me Generation” does seem to fit. But my suggestion is designed to expand the domain of the label to include not only the young, but their parents as well. We all need to read and study the past in order to avoid the traps and pitfalls that most assuredly lie ahead.

Earth Mother

Carl Gustav Jung (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Carl Gustav Jung
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The central pillar of Jungian psychology is his notion of archetypes, which he discovered by analyzing his patients’ dreams and a careful study of myths, archaic symbols, and even fairy tales.  Jung defines archetypes as follows:

“. . .there are present in every psyche forms which are unconscious but nonetheless active — living dispositions, ideas in the Platonic sense, that perform and continually influence our thoughts and feelings and actions.”

These archetypes are part and parcel of the psychic baggage we all bring with us into the world. Just as from conception to birth our embryos pass through a series of developments that echo human evolution, so also do our psyches, or what the Greeks called our “souls.” In a word, Jung was convinced that our inner selves, despite our outwardly sophisticated, civilized twenty-first century appearance, are fundamentally primitive, psychically undeveloped. This is Jung’s notion of the collective unconsciousness: we all share the same primitive self deep within our individualized, modern selves. And that unconsciousness is filled with a variety of archetypes, which we share in common. They appear in our dreams and stories and are what enable us to communicate with one another and to understand the deeper meanings of the symbols that have been used by various cultures throughout the ages. It’s an intriguing notion. It is especially intriguing when we reflect on that most powerful of archetypes, the Earth Mother, the eternally feminine.

Notions such “the eternally feminine” are today regarded as politically incorrect, but I venture to suggest that political correctness may have rendered taboo one of the most important concepts we have that might enable us to understand the modern temper. By denying that there is such a thing as the distinctively feminine, by insisting that differences between males and females are merely cultural, we deny the fundamental truth (as Jung sees it) of the duality in all human psyches, a duality that requires balance in order to achieve mental health. Not only do we bring with us into the world a vast storehouse of archetypes that enable us to come to grips with the terrors and delights of living and growing, we are, all of us, both male and female — Yin and Yang, as Eastern religions would have it. The denial of this duality, this fundamental difference, destroys our ability to come to grips with our fundamental humanity, Jung would insist.

Worse yet, the denial of the feminine as a distinctive and vital element within each soul has coincided historically in the West with the denial of our connection with the earth itself which many cultures teach us is, indeed, our mother. And if Henry Adams is to be believed, the Western rejection of the feminine, more specifically the Protestant rejection of the honored place of the Virgin Mary in the Christian panoply of divinities, has brought about the slow death of Christianity itself, until there is nothing left but a hollow shell. In rejecting the Virgin Mary, Adams insists, the Church broke the vital, personal connection ordinary men and women felt with their Church and their God: it rendered the Church more distant, denying, among other things, the connection we all have with the feminine, intuitive, affective side of ourselves.  As Jung would have it, the Earth Mother represents her “cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” By denying the distinctive nature of the feminine, and our deep need for that psychic balance, we deny the possibility of mental health.

The reason Adams in convinced that the Virgin Mary was central to Christianity, especially during the medieval period, is because she represented love and pity — or Jung’s “cherishing and nourishing goodness,” –  which is the central concept in the New Testament itself. She was available to all, regardless of social position, and she forgave all when, as we are all prone to do, they sinned. She was the one divinity that ordinary people could feel close to, as Adams noted.

“Whatever the heretic or mystic might try to convince himself, God could not be love. God was Justice, Order, Unity, Perfection; he could not be human and imperfect, nor could the Son or the Holy Ghost be other than the Father. The Mother alone was human, imperfect, and could love; She alone was Favor, Dualism, Diversity. Under any conceivable form of religion, this duality must find embodiment somewhere, and the middle ages logically insisted that, as it could not be in the Trinity either separately or together, it must be in the Mother.”

Now Adams couldn’t have read Carl Gustav Jung, since Jung came later. But the sense they both shared of the essential relationship between the Virgin Mother and the health of the human soul is most striking. Indeed, they would almost certainly agree that the most serious mistake (if we can call it that) of the modern age is the reduction of the feminine to the masculine, the denial of mystery, the insistence upon knowing everything in terms of logic and categories, measuring and quantifying, rational certainty replacing the intuitive, imaginative, grasp of the female within each of us that our masculine society insists upon denying. Just as society demands political correctness by denying the fundamental differences between the male and the female, by exploiting the earth relentlessly in the blind pursuit of profit our culture exhibits its lack of feeling connected to our Mother; with our attention turned exclusively toward banking and business and ignoring poetry and the beauty that surrounds us, we plod ahead in our linear fashion, building more powerful weapons and machines, determined to conquer the earth and arrogantly pronouncing ourselves masters over that which cannot be known or commanded, denying mystery and our own ignorance. Instead of seeking harmony with that which is a fundamental part of ourselves, we grope in the dark and experience anxiety and fear.

Athletes As Employees

You have probably heard about the recent decision by the Labor Relations Board in Illinois allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize. In case you haven’t, here’s the lead from a recent news article:

Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the school and therefore entitled to hold an election to decide whether to unionize, an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday.

The stunning decision, coming after a push by former quarterback Kain Colter backed by organized labor, has the potential to shake up the world of big-time college sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and universities set the rules and cut the lucrative deals with TV networks and sponsors, exerting near total control over the activities of players known as “student athletes.” But now those football players, at least at Northwestern, are employees too and may seek collective bargaining status, according to the 24-page ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB.

Northwestern University plans to appeal the ruling and the likelihood is that the case will be in court for years making lawyers rich and everyone else frustrated — not unlike the case involving the Deadlock estate Charles Dickens talks about in Bleak House! By the time the lawyers finished with that one, the money at issue had been all used up in lawyers’ fees. This case will cost some people a great deal of money in the end as well. And, while workers’ rights are certainly part of the equation, it is money that is the primary focus.

The American football industry, housed primarily in NCAA Division I Universities, brings in well over a billion dollars in TV revenue every year and the kids who play the game want their share — or at the very least some protection from abusive coaches and unscrupulous university administrators. They are being exploited, as Karl Marx would point out, and they have finally figured out that this must stop. Whether it will or not remains to be seen. I have my doubts. The universities and the NCAA are both dead set against this and they are the ones who have all the money on their side and they like the idea of making sure they don’t kill the golden goose, and in this case the goose is named student/athlete. In effect, the kids are taking on the establishment. Go, David, kill Goliath!

What I find especially interesting is the inherent contradiction involved in the ruling that these athletes are employees of the universities. Not students, apparently, but employees: they really can’t be both. There goes the fiction of the student/athlete, assuming anyone believed it any more. The graduation rates for Division I football and male basketball players are a joke, as is commonly known. And the examples of kids who are recruited, don’t make the team, and are later discarded are legion. By making these kids employees folks like Kain Coulter, an oft-injured but terribly gifted quarterback who recently finished his collegiate football career, hope to get them the protection a union contract would seem to guarantee. At issue are such things as terms and conditions of employment, spending money, practice times, but especially medical benefits. It sounds good on paper. We shall see,

Those who have read my blogs and checked out the article on my web page about “The Tail That Wags The Dog” will expect me to applaud this effort on the part of the players at Northwestern. And I do. It helps rid us of the hypocrisy that is Division I athletics at American colleges and Universities. As things stand at present, the vast majority of those who play Division I “revenue sports,” aptly called, tend not to spend much time in class or worry overmuch about their grades and their future, in or out of the professional ranks. For years now I have recommended that we do away with the sham and hypocrisy and simply admit that these kids are professional athletes — pay them a decent wage, and let those who want to pay for their classes pursue a degree. It just seems more honest somehow. This step toward unionization appears to be the first step — if it is allowed by the courts and the powers that be. In any event, it is a sure bet that changes will be forthcoming, though no matter what comes about the colleges and universities (and the NCAA) will almost certainly not suffer in the process.

 

Bright College Days

It’s time to debunk another cultural myth, folks! In the 50s and 60s college was sold to young people as a way to increase their income during their lifetime. That doesn’t seem to work any longer, so the marketing tune has changed though the object is the same: sell the product to disinterested young people who don’t quite know what to do with their lives. The latest marketing ploy is to get these people into college by promising them the four years will be “the best years of your life!” If it’s true, it is very sad. But this, in fact, is the approach Claire used on the sit-com “Modern Family” last season to persuade her spaced-out daughter Haley to apply to college, referring to the parties and sporting events. It seems to be the best she or anyone else can come up with, though Claire says it with conviction. Again, how sad.

The “best” years of a person’s life should not be identified with four or five years of mindless partying, though if one watches the TV on Saturday morning and sees the young people flocked around the cameras on “College Game Day” on ESPN, and reads about the amount of alcohol consumed on college campuses these days, the myth seems to be true –  if we insist on identifying “best” with pure, mindless pleasure.

The problem is, of course, the colleges have to find a message that will resonate with high school students who are by-and-large miseducated, spoiled and self-indulgent, and who are unable to relate to the kinds of things that will in fact make them better and more successful human beings. So the marketers have latched on to the “best years of your life” mantra, and it seems to be working, at least for those kids whose parents can afford it. In fact, it works so well that a great many students actually resent it when their professors try to get them to do the work necessary to complete their courses and move on to the next level. Even in my teaching days, students talked about little else than the party(s) coming up on Thursday night (!) or over the weekend. Except for the honors students, I don’t think I ever heard the students generally talking about the subject matter they were learning about in their classes. The classwork almost seemed to be an intrusion into what they regarded as the real reason they were in college. But, of course, that was what they were told.

It is doubtful any more that young people would be willing to take on the huge loans and the hard work of preparing for challenging courses for four years unless they were convinced it was going to be fun. It should be fun, of course, but it should also be much more. It does the young a disservice to lower the appeal to their level and not make them stretch and grow — like selling them toothpaste. One would like to think that they would respond to the challenge provided by the promise of intellectual and emotional growth. But not in this world; not as we know it. So the myths will persist and the colleges will not only promise them fun but do their level best to turn the colleges themselves into country clubs. They might change slightly, but they will lead the young into a new world that isn’t really all that different from the one they know, and one that doesn’t threaten them with challenges they are unprepared for because an indulgent society keeps telling them they are brighter and better than, in fact, they are.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that so many of America’s colleges that promise their students a “liberal education,” even the most “prestigious” of those colleges, have lost their way and have forgotten their fundamental purpose, which is to free young minds. As a recent book published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, of the twenty-five most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States — as identified by that oracle of  Truth, U.S. News and World Reports — twenty are “falling short” of their express purpose. They all have a weak general education program (which is where the liberal arts are housed these days, if they can be found anywhere), at a time when students come out of high school with little or no real preparation for college work. They need those core courses now more than ever before. Of the seven core subjects that the ACTA has identified as central to any meaningful education “twenty [ of the prestigious] schools required three or fewer. . . five required none at all.” The irony is that the colleges make the assumption that the students no longer need these basic subjects at a time when the students’ needs couldn’t be any greater. The truth of the matter is, as noted above, the colleges seek to attract and retain students and tough subjects only get in the way.

At the same time the presidents of these small colleges, some with enrolments as low as 2000, are making close to half a million dollars in annual salaries, with houses and cars thrown in for good measure. And they have gathered around themselves a coterie of highly priced, like-minded administrators and “support personnel” whose goal is to make sure the institution operates in the black, no matter what the cost to the students in dollars and real achievement. As a result, tuition rates are out of control and in order to keep students in school the quality of what they are paying for is on the decline.

The good news is that the A.C.T.A. is slowly but surely putting pressure on the colleges and universities around the country to get their act in gear by going public with the embarrassing data their research continues to turn up. They understand fully the difference between what the students want and what they need, and they also realize that only by bringing the cost of tuition down (by, among other things, lowering the high salaries of overpaid administrators) can the colleges hope to make education more affordable for more students, thereby taking some of the pressure off the faculties to further dumb down the curriculum in order to attract and retain students. These are good things, to be sure, and it does offer a glimmer of hope. In the meantime, parents of college-bound students would be well advised to check the A.C.T.A. website to see whether the college their children might be considering is worth the thousands of dollars it is sure to cost.

Study In Contrasts

I suppose there are those who would say that it makes little sense to study the past: what’s done is done. But I am not one of those people. I think we study the past in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed, I have had a special interest in the Medieval period for many years, not because I would like to have lived then, but because I am astonished by the depth of medieval faith and the character of a people who stand in such sharp contrast to most “civilized” people I am aware of. Like so many “uncivilized” people today they seem to have been so much happier than we are, despite their many privations. I have referred in previous blogs to Henry Adams who visited Mont Saint Michel and Chartres for several months and studied the two remarkable cathedrals at great length, reading copiously in the literature of the era, in order to better understand the age in which they were built. He also thought it would help him better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age in which he lived. In his discussion of Chartres, for example, he remarks, almost in passing, about the depth of commitment the people made who built the great cathedrals:

“According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to estimates made in 1840, more than . . . a thousand million dollars [in 1840 dollars!], and this covered only the great churches of that century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewed with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries alone, the churches that belong to the romanesque and transition periods, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.. . . Just as the French of the nineteenth century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the thirteenth century they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come.”

The juxtaposition of ideas in these sentences provokes considerable thought, as does so much of what Adams had to say. To begin with, the devotion to an idea in the medieval period is astonishing and dwarfs anything Adams had witnessed in his lifetime — even the building of the French railway system! And when it comes to expenditure of our precious treasure today, the only possible comparison would be the immense amount of money we spend on what we like to call “defense.”  This suggests that our age exhibits less hope and greater fear than either the age of Henry Adams or the age of the great cathedrals, the age in which Christianity was most influential.

It is an easy inference to say that the birth of industrial capitalism killed Christian belief, for all intents and purposes. But this may be a bit simplistic. Surely, the conviction that a railway system and steam power could take us all to the promised land was widespread in Adams’ day, as is the deeply held belief in our own day that the billions of dollars we spend on the military will keep us safe and happy. Those beliefs have assuredly helped turn people’s attention away from the Christian belief in life after death to life here and now. However, those beliefs pale in contrast with those of the people who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were willing to devote their lives to making the great cathedrals — most of the people who helped build them not living long enough to see them completed. And just consider the staggering numbers of cathedrals built in the period Adams alludes to and the countless number of people who must have been involved in that building — especially considering that they had to haul solid granite boulders of immense size and weight from a quarry five miles outside of Chartres to the top of a hill where the cathedral was built and then raise them to a height of 370′ just to construct the towers at the West entrance! We really have nothing to compare it with in our age, not even putting men on the moon — which very few of us were involved with. And the fact is that most of the things we would point to proudly as accomplishments of modern men and women would reveal beneath the surface the motive of profit and personal gain; so, if we hesitate to claim that capitalism killed Christianity, we can safely say it helped render it irrelevant.

Be that as it may, the contrast that interested Adams most is that between “ignorance  fortified by a certain element of nineteenth century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand [and] the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.” Dare I suggest that we share that nineteenth century ignorance born of indifference while at the same time we refuse to recognize our ignorance and arrogantly insist that that there is nothing we cannot comprehend? What Adams found most unsettling, however, was the absence in his age of “the good faith, the depth of feeling, the intensity of conviction” that he found everywhere he looked in 11th and 12th century Europe. Seekers who have attempted to ferret out truths about subsequent ages have tended to echo Adams’ concerns.

In any event,  it was certainly the case that most, if not all, of those working on the cathedrals in the twelfth and thirteenth century were convinced that their efforts would buy them a shorter period in Purgatory and almost certainly an eternity in heaven with the saints and others who shared their views. Thus, while we might want to question their motives, we must remember that the church taught in those times that those who did good deeds in order to get into Heaven would be disappointed. Motive was all: the motive was to do good for its own sake, not for the sake of a reward. The brilliant Henry Adams, who had the childlike gift of being able to transport himself back to another age, is convinced that those who worked on Chartres had only one motive: to create a palace for the Queen of Heaven.

Thus, while we might resist the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about industrial capitalism and the demise of Christianity, once we begin to explore even a brief passage such as this one, we see layers of thought that take us much deeper into an understanding of our age in contrast with that of those ordinary, and extraordinary, (unsophisticated) people so many years ago. People have not changed that much, but the focus of their lives has changed dramatically. While they prepared to defend themselves from attackers, virtually all of those who peopled Europe in the medieval period devoted themselves and their fortunes to the building of monuments to glorify God; we spend our worldly wealth to build weapons of war while we seek longer and more pleasant lives. We do not come off well in such a study of contrasts, since for all of what we call “progress” we are far behind in so many ways those who were dedicated to something outside themselves, who shared a living faith in something greater than themselves and an abiding hope in a better day to come.

Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.