Defining Obscene

You have probably heard about the recent contract agreement between the Miami Marlins of major league baseball and Giancarlo Stanton the baseball player. The contract was for $325 million over the next thirteen years. Stanton is a very talented player who is most renown for being hit in the eye by a baseball last season and missing some of the season while still managing to hit .288 with 37 home runs and 105 rbi. That’s impressive and it is certainly the case that the Marlins are wise to sign the man to a long-range contract. But the fact that this contract makes Stanton the highest paid athlete on the continent raises some eyebrows. In a recent interview, he was asked if he was a bit embarrassed to be making the equivalent of $165,000 a day for the next thirteen years. His response brought about the following attempt at wit:

The man asked if he was embarrassed by the money, he being Giancarlo Stanton, who at that moment sat at the left shoulder of Jeffrey Loria [owner of the Marlins]. Still, the man in the audience remained laser-focused on Stanton and not Loria.

Embarrassed, he said, as though Loria had panhandled $325 million on a street corner in South Beach, which, OK, he sort of did, but he didn’t have to. That was Loria’s choice. And that was Miami’s choice. If not the residents, then the city leaders, and now the city has an honest-to-goodness “generational player” (unless, disgusted, he were to leave) to go along with a lovely ballpark the taxpayers carried in on their backs.

The game is rich. The owners – this one, in particular – are rich. And the man asked Giancarlo Stanton, someone who actually hits the home runs and catches the gappers, if this weren’t all so embarrassing. To, you know, Giancarlo Stanton. Personally.

To which Stanton opened his eyes wide, confirming that that fastball had indeed missed his eye socket, and he smiled, showing teeth still connected to his gums in spite of that fastball.

“Embarrassing to me?” Stanton didn’t so much ask as hold at arm’s length between his thumb and forefinger. “Nah, not exactly.”

.Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton smiles after his news conference Wednesday at Marlins Park. (USA TODAY Sports)

(Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton smiles after his news conference Wednesday at Marlins Park. (USA TODAY …)

The fact that Stanton was not in the least embarrassed and, in fact, didn’t seem to understand the question, must give us pause. Is it possible that we are coming close to understanding what the word “obscene” means? I realize that the word usually applies to works of art or other visual items that we find repulsive, but I suggest that the word has wider application — as in this case. I mean, after all, $165,000 a DAY for playing a game.

Given the fact that the highest salary on the Marlins prior to this contract was for $6.5 million and that the lowest salary on the team is a mere $500,000 one might suspect there could arise some tensions on that team in the future. But, more to the point, there are over 100 million homeless people on this planet, at last count, and 3 million unemployed people in America alone at a time when the average annual income of all Americans (including the Koch brothers who skew the figures a bit) is $25, 567. In the face of such widespread poverty and suffering, where the average Joe who is expected to pay for the tickets to see this man play a game will work at one or two jobs while this man drinks a $20,000.00 bottle of Champaign to celebrate his new contract, the truly depressing thing to note is that Stanton doesn’t grasp the fact that he might have the decency to be a bit embarrassed.

I know, the Marlins didn’t have to pay the man this kind of money and the average Joe doesn’t have to pay for the tickets to see him play. But these things happen on a regular basis in a country were the Congress can’t make a decision not based on corporate influence and the planet is in serious jeopardy of irreparable damage due to our demand for creature comforts that may, or may not, be necessary. Something’s wrong here.

Corporate Intruders

Readers of this blog will attest that I have a high regard for the writings of Christopher Lasch. I do tend to refer to him a great deal because I am convinced that he saw deeper than most into the current malaise, the sickness that is at the heart of our culture and our society. But he is not always correct in his musings, despite the fact that I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says. Indeed, I would recommend any and all of his books to anyone who is seriously interested in seeing more clearly what is going on around them. But, as I say, he sometimes goes a bit too far. As an example, take the following passage from The Revolt of the Elites that deals with the corporate “takeover” of American universities:

“It is corporate control that has diverted resources from the humanities into military and technological research. fostered the obsession with quantification that has destroyed the social sciences, replaced English language with bureaucratic jargon, and created a top-heavy administrative apparatus whose educational vision begins and ends with the bottom line.”

I am not aware that corporations ever allowed monies to flow in the direction of the humanities. So it is not clear how they “diverted” it into military and technological research. But it is certainly the case that corporate monies have somehow found their way in that direction. In any event, I think Lasch makes an excellent point here. But he takes a step too far later in the same paragraph:

“One of the effects of corporate and bureaucratic control is to drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities where they can indulge in a taste for ‘theory’ without the rigorous discipline of empirical social observation. . . . Social criticism that addresses the real issues in higher education today — the university’s assimilation into the corporate order and the emergence of a knowledge  class whose ‘subversive’ activities do not seriously threaten any vested interest — would be a welcome addition to contemporary discourse. For obvious reasons, however, this kind of discourse is unlikely to get much encouragement either from the academic left or from its critics on the right.”

There’s a problem here: this sound a bit too much like conspiracy theory. In his book Lasch makes a good case that the left-leaning academics have become lost in the jungle of newspeak they have invented to discuss the finer points in culturally acceptable literature — without bothering to read any of the classics they reject out of hand because they smell of the stench of “dead, white, European males.” In a word, they are caught up in the unreal world of “metalanguages” and “texts” in order to allow them to detach themselves from the real world where good minds should be attending to real problems. I accept this much. I have always felt that academics generally shield themselves from the world in so many ways, indeed, that many of them have retreated into the ivory tower precisely to escape from reality which can at times create undue stress. And I also see the intrusion of the corporation into the academy in so many ways, and have seen first hand the trend away from any sort of course requirements in the academy that would result in real thought on the part of college graduates. But I fail to see how the corporations have somehow managed to “drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities.” How, precisely, is this supposed to have taken place? The implication is that the social sciences no longer have any critical thinkers and those in the humanities are wasting their time (and their students’ money) chasing academic butterflies while the world around them is falling apart. I suspect his claims are on solid ground, but Lasch does not argue for these claims here, which would make him vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism he levels against other academics — bearing in mind that he was one himself.

So while I find myself in agreement with so much of what Lasch says, I do find him giving vent to generalizations at times that almost certainly reflect the man’s own take on the world, which he may have grounds for but which he fails to share with his readers. I would love to know how we get from the truth that the corporations have intruded themselves into the academy to the claim that they have managed to shift “critical thinking” personnel from the social sciences to the humanities (by withholding funding perhaps??). And I resent the implication that none of us in the humanities have the critical acumen to deal with real problems in the real world, though I would be the first to admit that an increasing number of people in literature and philosophy seem to be chasing imaginary butterflies. Indeed, I would go so far as to question whether those in the social sciences, by and large, are now or ever were any more critical of what is going on in the “real” world than those in the humanities. After all, these people are all academics in the end — and that seems to be the reason they feel most at home dealing with academic problems.

But it is assuredly the case that the corporations play an inordinately large role in the academy, as they do in the “real” world. And this is to be deeply regretted and should receive the attention of all those who regard higher education as a matter of some importance to the preservation of what’s left of our culture and indeed to our way of life.

 

Controlling The Masses

With tongue in cheek, I recently imagined the possibility that a small group of very wealthy men meet secretly to decide what steps should be taken to continue the status quo — to allow them to continue to amass huge profits and maintain their power in a supposedly democratic society. I want now to suggest that while the meeting of such men might be a “paranoid fiction,” the notion that the country is becoming increasingly undemocratic and that the wealthy exercise their power in insidious ways is by no means a fiction.

In his book The Revolt of The Elites, subtitled “And The Betrayal of Democracy.” Christopher Lasch notes that the dissolution of classes was one of the “great benefits of democracy.” He quotes Henry Adams as saying that “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization now aims at this mark.” Lash, in expanding on this claim, notes how we have always rejected the notion that there is in this country a “laboring class.” As he goes on to point out

“A laboring class implied as its necessary antithesis a learned and leisure class. It implied a social division of labor that recalled the days of priestcraft when the clerical monopoly of knowledge condemned lay people to ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition. To have broken that monopoly — the most pernicious of all restraints on trade, since it interfered with the circulation not only of commodities but also of ideas — was widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the democratic revolution.The reintroduction of a kind of clerical hegemony over the mind would undo that achievement, reviving the old contempt for the masses and the contempt for everyday life that was the hallmark of priestly societies. It would recreate the most obnoxious features of class societies, the separation of learning from everyday experience.”

In other words, democracy is incompatible with the notion of social or economic classes. In a democracy everyone is educable and all have a right to participate fully in the political process. Priestcraft presupposes an intellectual elite that has knowledge and exerts power through that knowledge, as was the case, for example, in ancient Egypt. These classes of men were less concerned about closeness to their God than they were about their presumed authority over the ignorant. As Lasch notes in this regard, “[Priestcraft] was incompatible with the authority of reason and freedom of mind.” And that’s the point.  Ignorance among the many was encouraged in order to assure the power of those who knew — or claimed they know. Is it possible that we are headed down that same road?  Lasch does not suggest this, but I do wonder.

Consider these items: To begin with there is the obvious shrinking of the middle class in America, the continued growth in wealth and power of the very rich, and the growth in the numbers of the poor who depend upon others for their daily bread. Next, there is the widespread attack on the public schools, targeting such things as teacher unions which seek to assure the teachers a living wage and, presumably, allow the profession to attract better minds to our schools which currently rank near the bottom of the 32 “developed” countries. This trend is coupled with the stress on job-preparation in the schools and the trend away from liberal learning in the colleges, a trend that assures that those who graduate will know something about one or two subjects, but lack the ability to think critically about things outside the area of their expertise. They may learn how, but they are not encouraged to ask why.

Both of these trends seem directed toward creating a class of persons who will make good workers but fail as leaders, malleable and adaptable, but not thoughtful and imaginative. The very few who can afford to attend private schools and continue to amass great wealth might very well be separating themselves as a “priestly class” who claim to know what is best for the country and — through the media which they control — what is best for the masses to think about. It was never clear that the priestly class in Egypt really knew anything important, but it was clear that they used what they knew to control those who knew even less. Knowledge is power; ignorance guarantees the lack of power.

Though I hesitate to attribute superior knowledge to our “ruling elites,” a pattern is emerging that suggests the priestly class that claims to know and thereby gains control over those millions they keep in the dark by pulling the strings of those they have seated in places of political power and controlling the media that daily preaches to the masses the false values of a materialist culture.

Obscene Wealth

Aristotle’s notion of virtue is built around the concept of moderation. Virtue, for The Philosopher, is defined as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Indeed, extreme behavior of any kind was anathema to the Greeks generally, though their behavior often lent the lie to the ideal. But at least they paid lip service to the notion, whereas we seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

In 1995 Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to a number of times in these blogs, published a rejoinder to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses which Lasch called Revolt of the Elites. In that book he took exception to Ortega’s notion that it was the masses who would drag down democracy and eventually destroy it altogether through their “radical ingratitude” and their “incredible ignorance of history.” For all the masses know, or care to know, history started when they were born and will end with their death: they have no obligations to anyone. Lasch is convinced that it is the elites who will bring this about because they are so much like the masses whom Ortega describes and because they have lost their sense of community and, indeed, lost all touch with reality. Their “community” is one made up of “the best and brightest of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.” Note here the absence of any sense of belonging to a place and any group to bond with, a total immersion of self into self.

Lasch defines the elites as the opinion-makers, the “thinking class,” which he defines as “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” These folks, feeling “no obligation either to their progenitors or their progeny,” are lost in a world of abstractions; they belong to no nation.

“The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

Certainly not to this democracy. They have dissociated themselves from what was their parents’ country and become non-involved citizens of the world, as it were. Traveling the world and taking their millions with them. And here’s the rub. The new elite control the wealth in the country and are in the process of destroying the middle class on which the capitalist economy and a vital democratic system have always depended. They are, above all else, the greatest threat, in Lasch’s view, to the preservation of this democracy. In fact, they don’t care much about the preservation of Western Civilization either. As Lasch points out, the “thinking class” who people the universities have turned their backs on Western Civilization which they traditionally pledged themselves to preserve. For these people

“. . . the very term ‘Western Civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of bourgeois values [which keep] the victims of patriarchal oppression — women, children, homosexuals, people of color — in a permanent state of subjection.”

Preoccupied with minor concerns like political correctness and cultural diversity, they ignore such things as the dissolution of the family, the intrusion of the market into all phases of human life, and “the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy; and a suffocating cynicism, the moral paralysis of those who value ‘openness’ above all.” But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate. Capitalism has traditionally frowned on the amassing of wealth beyond a person’s needs. For John Locke and Adam Smith, for example, capitalist accumulation was tempered by a sense of community coupled with a strong feeling of restraint from accumulating unnecessary wealth which might otherwise go to those in need; this tradition has been lost. These convictions are reflected in the words of Horace Mann who, two hundred years later, helped us recall that “The earth was given to mankind for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race, and the rights of successive owners were limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use.” No one, according to this way of thinking, has a right to unlimited wealth and possessions they cannot possibly ever use. But those restraints are no longer with us. In light of these changes, Lasch expresses the hope that

“boundaries are permeable, especially where money is concerned, that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that a moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action. . . In the old days Americans agreed, at least in principle, that individuals cannot claim entitlement to wealth far in excess of their needs. The persistence of this belief, even though it is admittedly only an undercurrent in the celebration of wealth that now threatens to drown all competing values, offers some hope that all is not yet lost.”

But that “undercurrent” has grown very weak, not to say feeble, in the twenty years since Lasch wrote those words. And with it the hope that our democracy will survive grows weak as well. The infamous 1% who control more and more of this nation’s wealth, who do not see themselves as part of this nation or its people, who, indeed, see other people as simply exploitable, have taken this country so far away from the ideals envisioned by our Founders that we will assuredly never find our way back. And augmenting this demise is the full support of those mindless masses whom Ortega identified; those who see no reason why people should not accumulate wealth far beyond their needs because in their own shrinking minds they see themselves as at some point joining the group; those who have also lost any sense of moral restraint, who do not recognize how obscene — in the full sense of that word — is the accumulation of great wealth in a society where many have no food to put on the table or roof over their heads; those who are lacking in the moderation that Aristotle long ago insisted is the core of human virtue.

Paranoid Fiction?

Imagine if you will that a group of, say, eight or ten of the wealthiest and most powerful corporate CEOs meets together once a year in Switzerland — or, if their inclination leans toward sunnier climes, perhaps Belize. They have drinks and a bevy of loose women at hand, though they break every now and then for gourmet meals while they discuss the coming year together: how can they maintain their positions of power and keep the money rolling in?

They might decide to gain control of the media, especially television. Then they would make sure that the airwaves are filled with news reports biased in their favor together with sporting events 24 hours a day with plenty of patriotic zeal blended into the mix — fly overs, bands blaring, and plenty of flags waving while men and women in camouflage are conspicuous and constantly touted as “heroes” fighting a war on terror that these powerful men have encouraged (because it’s good for business). This will keep the viewers occupied for much of their free time and convince them that they live in the greatest country on earth. As such, they will be much more willing to believe what they are told — more malleable, if you will.

But to augment this effort, this group decides to make sure that the vast majority of the citizenry is either unemployed  (and thus dependent on the State) or holds mindless jobs for meager wages that lead them toward drugs, drinks, and the entertainment that is always ready at hand. Indeed, they promote inventions that guarantee that these folks can take the entertainment with them wherever they go — even while they drive to work or to the wide variety of recreation made available to them.  Further, the schools will be teaching practical, “hands-on” courses like computer science and various technical skills that might lead the students to whatever jobs that are available and away from any course work that might get them to think – such as history, literature, and philosophy. The idea here is to guarantee that these folks are attending to things that simply don’t matter and, like those watching a shell game, are unaware under which shell the pea is hidden: keep them occupied on mindless drivel. And to put the icing on the cake, they encourage violent television shows that keep people engrossed and on the edge, a bit fearful and better able to control. To add to the mix, through the NRA, which they control, they decide to promote the purchase of hand guns and automatic weapons to guarantee that frequent acts of violence occur that are discussed in the media they own while the Congress, bought and paid for by these corporate giants, debates what course of action not to take. This heightens the sense of danger and the fear in the population that makes it so much easier to control what the citizens do and (more to the point) what they think. And while they’re at it, these men (who make more than 400 times what their average employee makes)  encourage social media that guarantees that these people ‘s attention, such as it is, is turned on themselves so they don’t have the faintest idea where the pea might be hidden.

This, of course, is pure fiction, smacking as it does of a conspiracy theory. It is the fruits of a disturbed mind that borders on paranoia. Wouldn’t you say?

Free Or Slaves?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no friend of representative government. He was convinced that citizens are only politically free when they make the laws they themselves obey, in a pure democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that in a pure democracy the citizens would be well-informed and discuss the issues thoroughly. They would then vote and their decision would be the correct one. Anyone who was in the minority would then obey the will of the majority and in doing so, paradoxically, be “forced to be free.” Freedom, in Rousseau’s view, is defined as doing the right thing. Any form of representation, on the other hand, is a form of slavery, according to Rousseau. Citizens are putatively free for one brief moment when they vote, but after that moment has passed, they are slaves to the people they voted into office — those who would subsequently make the laws the voters would then have to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rousseau, of course, never envisioned an age in which the airwaves would be filled with political campaigning, promises never to be fulfilled, and smiles that never seemed to leave the faces of the politicians who spent fortunes to be elected — not to mention the endless stream of phone calls and emails promoting the latest candidate who will assuredly  “cut the pork” and “break the grid-lock in Washington.” He also never envisioned an age in which the candidates themselves would be chosen by a handful of wealthy men running giant corporations, thereby limiting the “freedom” of the voters even more. After all, how free are we when we don’t even chose the folks we are supposed to vote into office? But, then representation is itself a logical puzzle. Think about it.

One person cannot possibly represent more than one other person — with whom he presumably agrees on every possible point of contention. Two or three, or two or three thousand people who are supposed to be “represented” by a single person, a paid politician, is a logical impossibility. And when that politician’s allegiance is to the wealthy few who have placed them on the ballot in the first place, then the notion of political freedom in a representative government begins to stretch beyond recognition.

In a word, Rousseau’s notion that voters are free only when they actually vote (presuming that they bother to vote at all) raises problems in the world we have come to know — the world in which politicians are professional liars, for the most part, who are selected by a process over which we  have no real control. We seem to have even less political freedom than Rousseau imagined, which was very little indeed. But why worry? I’ve got over two hundred channels on my television: now there’s real freedom!

Legal Advice

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the Bible of sports fans across the country, an attorney by the name of Michael McCann wrote that Jameis Winston should quit Florida State and wait for the NFL draft where he will assuredly be a high pick and will then become another spoiled millionaire football player (I added the last caustic comment). You remember Winston, surely? He was investigated for raping a fellow student a year or so back and in the brief police cover up investigation it was determined that there was no case against the young man. He later stole some crab legs from a grocery store, claiming he “forgot” to pay and was summarily released. He then stood on a table in the cafeteria and shouted obscenities at the top of his voice — for which offense he was suspended one game by the football coach. He is a real jewel. Each time he screws up he faces the camera with an earnest expression on his face and swears it won’t happen again.

In any event, McCann’s professional advice is for the young man to quit school because the university has decided to investigate the alleged rape on its own and could bring charges against Winston, and possibly suspend him, on the grounds that he violated the rights of one of his fellow students. Indeed. McCann’s idea is that if Winston leaves the university, the investigation will never surface. If he remains enrolled evidence might come to light that would not only lead to his suspension from the university but also provide grounds for a possible civil case later on. As McCann puts it, it’s a question of what is in Winston’s “best interest.”

And there’s the rub: it’s what is in the young man’s “best interest” in the eyes of this lawyer. The young man should quit and not face the possible consequences of his actions. He should quit school and lie low, making sure he commits no further atrocities, until the NFL comes calling and he can sign on for the big bucks that surely await him. Given his past behavior this is more easily said than done, of course: he seems to lack self-control. But McCann doesn’t mention that. Be that as it may, the issue of what is morally correct is not considered by Mr. McCann, who chooses to focus attention on legal and practical matters. The fact that the young man would be ducking his responsibilities as a citizen and member of the university community is apparently irrelevant according to Mr. McCann. What is important here as this lawyer sees it is the issue of saving face and making big money later on.

In a follow-up issue of Sports Illustrated one reader wrote, with tongue in cheek, that McCann is right and that Winston should quit and go back to third grade where he would learn “that stealing is wrong, swearing is not acceptable, and that women should be treated with respect.” Another reader put is more seriously: “I was disappointed with McCann’s article. He basically wrote a blueprint for how Winston could avoid disciplinary action for his alleged heinous acts against a female student.” Spot on! What was it Shakespeare said? We should kill all the lawyers. He knew a thing or two, even if McCann doesn’t.

In any event, the entire episode underscores once again the rotten state of things at the heart of big-time college football and basketball. As I wrote years ago, the athletes should be regarded as semi-professionals and paid a decent salary to play — even allowing them to form unions to make sure they get a fair share of the millions of dollars at stake in college sports these days. Then, those who actually want an education can enroll in classes and pay like all the other students, thereby learning what those students are learning every day –  that after graduation it will be hard to find a job and there will be huge debts to be paid to the colleges and universities when they finally do find one. The things in this life that are most worth having are not those things that are simply handed to you: they are the things you work hard to earn.

Standards of Taste

In my view one of the most interesting debates, and one I have discussed before in these blogs, is the one among those who insist upon or deny the possibility of standards of taste — especially in the fine arts. We hear all too often that beauty, for example, is a matter of taste. You like popular music and I do not. I prefer Rembrandt to Rockwell, whereas you think I am a snob. Indeed, the disagreement can become heated and often lowers itself, as do many debates, to the level of the ad hominem — attacks on the person. I may or may not be a snob, but my preference for Rembrandt over Rockwell doesn’t rest at that level. There may actually be something about Rembrandt’s work that makes him a better painter and his works truly more beautiful (if we can use that word any more). Or is it all a matter of taste about which there can be no dispute?

It is assuredly the case that taste differs widely among various people and that one’s taste changes as he or she grows older. But it is also the case that the change may well mark an improvement and that there is such a thing as “refined” taste. If I grow up listening only to pop music and never hear a symphony I am not really in a position to judge whether classical music is or is not somehow better (more beautiful?) than popular music. If I have read a great deal of literature it would seem that I am in a better position to judge of a new work if it is truly worth reading or a waste of time than I would be if I never read anything but comic books. I may even be in a better position to say if it is “great” — though, again, we retreat from such words these days. The point is that there may not be such a thing as a standard of taste, but there may be subtle differences in works of art and literature that are only perceived by those in a position to recognize them: those who have a more refined taste, which is acquired with wide experience. This is true even in the case of fine wine and tea. It is said that there are experts who can discern hundreds of different varieties of tea just from tasting them. And we all know folks (I am not one of them) who seem to be able to detect certain qualities of the wine they are tasting that the rest of us seem to miss.

The man who addressed this interesting issue and seems to have made the most sense of it was David Hume in the nineteenth century. In his essay on the “Standard of Taste,” he remarks:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

In a word, if I am color-blind, I am not in a position to judge the worth of a painting. If I am tone-deaf, I cannot possibly discern the subtleties of a complex piece of music. And if I have no experience whatever with great art and literature, I am not qualified to judge such things. The notion that there is such a thing as “good taste” is often labelled as “elitism,” which once again lowers the discussion to the level of the ad hominem. It is not elitist to recognize the differences among persons who are or are not in a position to judge the worth of various objects. There may not be an indisputable standard of taste, as Hume suggests, but, as he also suggests, there are qualities in objects that announce themselves to those who are in a position to hear them or see them. As Hume admitted, the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice . . .” Some people are simply in a better position to judge of works of art, say, than are others. I do not speak of myself, but I know of people whose opinions seem to me to be well informed and I know enough to listen carefully to what they say. There may be no disputing taste, but it makes perfectly good sense to speak about those who have “good taste,”  those who know whereof they speak, and those who do not.

Disappointments

I have just returned from a train ride to Cooperstown and back which gave me time to reflect on many things — and time away from the blog, which was a bit of relief, I must say. One of the things I reflected on was a number of huge disappointments in my life. As one gets older, I am told, this is the way the mind wanders.

I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in (of all places) Baltimore, Maryland. Every year the students put on what were called the “Poly Follies.” It took several days and was well attended. It also required the printing and handing out of hundreds of programs. In my senior year the art department decided to have a contest to pick the cover for the program. It was a big deal and I hurried home after hearing the announcement and spent the entire weekend drawing and painting three covers — at least one of which I thought pretty good. At that time I drew and painted a bit and even submitted several pen and ink cartoons that were included in that year’s Yearbook. In any event, I was sure I would win (of course). But when the winner was announced and the cover placed in a large glass case in the main hall, along with all of the other submissions, none of mine were there. I was stunned. There were the three top covers and also all of the other submissions — none of which I thought as good as mine (!) In any event, I was deeply hurt to have my hard work ignored like that. So I went to the art department and reminded the teacher that I had submitted three covers which had not been displayed with the rest. A sudden look of awareness appeared in his eyes as he remembered my submissions, which he had placed in a cupboard below one of the art tables. I had submitted mine early and he obviously forgot all about it. I sensed that, but it simply increased the pain. I had been ignored and my covers were never even considered: they were in that cupboard the whole time.

The point of this little story, which recounts one of several disappointments I reflected on during the long train ride, is that disappointment is a part of life. The move today, which I have remarked upon repeatedly, to build our children’s self-esteem and help young people avoid pain and disappointment at all costs may be costing them the growth they require to develop as whole persons. It is the pain and disappointment that deepen sensibilities and broaden our perspectives and help us grow. Our society’s determination to disallow these experiences on the part of our children is a mistake of the first order, I believe, and I call on Dostoevsky as an authority on the subject. He was convinced that suffering is essential for the development of the human person. And he should know as he suffered a great deal himself and witnessed it in many others.  It is not something we should encourage, of course, but it is something we should allow as part of the necessary steps in growing up — along with failure from which we learn so much about ourselves. In its place, we try to guarantee our children only pleasure; we have self-esteem movements in the schools and at home where no one is denied and everyone gets a prize, while only a few truly deserve it; this in turn has devolved into the entitlement we see all around us where spoiled children grow into shallow, spoiled adults whose attention is turned only on themselves.

I don’t regard myself as exemplary, by any means; but I am aware that most of the people I admire and respect have had many disappointments in their lives and have suffered at times a great deal. Dostoevsky may have overstated the case by insisting that suffering is essential to becoming fully human, but our attempts to protect the young from every type of disappointment and harm is assuredly misguided.

Moira

When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.