History Spirals

There are several theories about history. One is that history repeats itself in cycles so if we want to plan for the future we must learn from the past. Another view is that history is a straight line on which present and future events are totally unlike the past, in which case there is not much to learn from reading history. A third view is that history is a spiral in which present and future events resemble, to a degree, past events but are always full of novel and unpredictable situations. In this case, we can learn from history, but are not able to say that the future will be just like the past. I tend toward the third view. I think there is much to learn from reading history, but we must acknowledge that the future will be full of surprises. Humans don’t really change that much, but circumstances do change enough to make prediction difficult.

With that in mind, I reflect on the situation that confronts us today in which the middle class is disappearing in the widening gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor. It resembles, in many respects, the situation that we read about at the turn of the last century, the age of the infamous “robber barons.” The period is described for us by Doris Goodwin in her excellent book The Bully Pulpit in which she says:

“At the start of [Teddy] Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions.”

These conditions brought about the age of the “progressive” Republican party and the “Trust Busters” with Teddy in the lead.  Roosevelt became famous and beloved because he was viewed, despite his patrician background, as “one of us,” complete with his cowboy and rough-rider images. He was a brash extrovert, an astute politician, and was smart enough to befriend members of the “third estate” to take on the machines and giant trust companies that controlled politics. He was also a man of wide interests and remarkable intellectual acumen who connected with the common folks around him because he really did believe that everyone deserves a “square deal.”

I have often wondered during Barack Obama’s presidency why he hasn’t used the media to arouse the public more than he does. Reagan knew how to use it, and Obama has considerable rhetorical skills and could go before the public and make his case for some of the programs he has been unable to work through a small-minded and obtuse Congress. Immediately after the shootings in Sandy Hook, for example, he could have gone before the public with an appeal to encourage them to put pressure on an intransigent Congress, urging some sort of  gun control. But he maintained his usual low profile, despite the fact that the vast majority of the citizens in this country, and even a majority of those who hold NRA memberships, wanted some sort of gun control measures. Obama simply rattled his verbal sabre a bit and the time passed for action without anything being done, despite his promises to the distraught parents of the slain children.

So, as one looks around to see if there is any politician determined and brave enough to take on the likes of the NRA and the other corporate giants who have taken over the reins of government, any possible “Trust Busters,” one sees only a couple of faces that stand out — such as Bernie Sanders, whom many reject as a bit “out there,” and Elizabeth Warren, who is relatively new at the job, but does seem to be bright enough and determined enough to take on the powers that be. Can she establish the rapport with the press that Teddy Roosevelt had in order to arouse the giant that is the citizenry in this country, asleep on its couch watching the latest sporting event? Or will she be bought out or silenced somehow, as we in Minnesota suspect Paul Wellstone might have been when he became a thorn in the side of the powers that be? In that regard, while we do live in an age that resembles in many respects the world in which Roosevelt lived, it is also an age in which the wealthy have refined their slight-of-hand tactics to very effectively manipulate the strings of power, clandestine maneuvers have become the order of the day, and the corporations have become owners of most, if not all, of the public media. One must wonder if Warren’s voice, as an example, would be allowed to be heard if that voice was saying the kinds of things the media don’t want the people of this country to hear? Gone is the “Golden Age of Journalism.” McClure’s Magazine is no more.  Now we have Fox News and the corporate-owned media simply entertain; they provide precious little information. Where are the voices that need to he heard?

These are interesting questions, and it remains to be seen if there is anyone in the political arena who, with or without the help of the third estate, is willing and courageous enough to take on the powerful lobbies and corporations that support them and go toe-to-toe with the unscrupulous powers that pull the strings in Washington. And if there is anyone courageous enough, will they be able to swim against such a powerful current? If the answer to these questions is “no,” then we are not likely to see another Teddy Roosevelt emerge, take the country in hand, and lead it out of our present morass. What then?

Conservative Types

There are at least two different types of conservative, the “intellectual conservative,” and the “dollar conservative.” The former wants to conserve the very best of the past and learn from it going forward into an uncertain future. The latter, of course, simply wants to make more and more money. Please don’t confuse the two.

I have posted a number of blogs critiquing the dollar-conservatives, those types the wealthy Republican Teddy Roosevelt described as the “predatory rich,” those “mere money-getting Americans, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune.” These are the folks who don’t want to pay taxes — except to support “defense” — and want to tear down the agencies of government that are designed to control our mindless determination to destroy the planet, all in the name of greater profits. I have noted the obvious fact that taxes, while there is assuredly waste, are the glue that binds this society together; among other things, they go to support those agencies that have been put in place to fill the void created by the “predatory rich.” Moreover, they help those who are in greater need than those who pay them, to wit, people, like you and me who have come on hard times and need a hand up.

This country was never healthier, financially, than right after the Second World War when the wealthy paid their fair share of their wealth into taxes. They now pay little or nothing at a time when there is great need to collect and spend tax monies wisely and the country as a whole ranks 32nd out of 34 among the world’s largest countries in percentage of income paid in taxes. And yet we hear that we are taxed “enough already” and there are shouts of complaint from the predatory rich that taxes should be done away with, along with the agencies they support. Meanwhile, these dollar-conservatives are busy hiding their wealth in off-shore accounts or taking their money elsewhere by moving themselves and their companies to countries that have lower labor costs and income tax rates. All of which is to the detriment of the disappearing middle class, those in real need, and the maintenance of the infrastructure that allows us to carry on in our daily lives.

But intellectual conservatives, such as myself — who lean decidedly to the left politically and willingly (?) pay our taxes — are concerned about the disappearance of rich veins of intellectual wealth that are also disappearing from the country as a result of various popular waves generated by the counter-culture that are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Notably, the urge in our colleges and universities to read only contemporary tracts and literature that reflect the views of a small group at the center of this movement has grown to dominate the college educational scene. The result is that our future leaders, when they read at all, are told to read material that has a very short shelf life and which almost certainly promotes the political agendas of the ones assigning the material. It is said that the so-called “classics” by “dead, white European males” are totally irrelevant to today’s needs. And while I think this is true of some, perhaps many, of the books we have treasured for centuries, we need to be wary about replacing the books that past minds have drawn from to the benefit of our current age only to replace them with inferior material that tends to state the obvious and will soon pass into oblivion. The one expands the mind, the other shrinks it.  Young people can learn a great deal more about justice by thinking their way through the dialogues of Plato and discussing them in small groups than they can be sitting passively and listening to a zealot go on about his or her favorite injustice lately committed.  Additionally, they learn to think in the process. It’s a zero-sum game, and one that is played by many with little or no consideration for the price that is paid by all of us in turning our backs on seminal ideas that have brought us so many of the benefits we take for granted.

Like so many words we use carelessly, we need to be sure how we use words like “conservative,” because there are conservatives of many stripes, and they don’t all get along. I know I am myself reluctant to be confused with the “predatory rich” who want nothing more than to continue to accumulate wealth until the day they die.

Hate Breeds Hate

We have read often about the terrible conditions undergone by the American rag-tag army as it endured the freezing cold Winter at Valley Forge prior to the attack on the Hessians at Trenton during the Revolution. But we don’t read as often about the many other such Winters both at Valley Forge and elsewhere, that had to be endured as the war dragged on for eight long years and the underfed and ill-clothed condition of the army remained virtually the same. Washington Irving in his biography of George Washington described one such Winter at Morristown in some detail:

“The dreary encampment at Valley Forge has become proverbial for its hardships, yet they were scarcely more severe than those suffered by Washington’s army during the present winter [1780] while hutted among the heights of Morristown. The winter set in early and was uncommonly rigorous. The transportation of supplies was obstructed, the magazines were exhausted, and the commissaries had neither money nor credit to enable them to replenish them. For weeks at a time the army was on half allowance, sometimes without meat, sometimes without bread, sometimes without both. There was a scarcity too of clothing and blankets so that the poor soldiers were suffering from cold as well as hunger. .  .  .  The severest trails of the Revolution in fact were not in the field, where there were shouts to excite and laurels to be won, but in the squalid wretchedness of ill-provided camps, where there was nothing to cheer and everything to be endured. To suffer was the lot of the revolutionary soldier.”

The details of the picture sketched here are graphically completed in a letter written by General Anthony Wayne, who was in charge of six regiments hutted near Morristown:

“Poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid. . . . some of them not having received a paper dollar for near twelve months, exposed to winter’s piercing cold, to drifting snows and chilling blasts, with no protection but old worn-out coats, tattered linen overalls and but one blanket between three men.”

Needless to say, there was widespread sickness and desertions were common, even mutiny. The wonder is that any of the soldiers stayed it out and that Washington had enough men to continue the fight when the war resumed after the long, cold Winters. But he did.

Much if this remarkable fact is attributed by many historians to Washington’s undeniable charisma, his devotion to his troops, and his willingness to endure the same conditions as they. But there is another factor that needs to be mentioned and that is the fact that the British and their allies were intent to demoralize the colonists by burning whole villages  and pillaging everything in sight. This activity had precisely the opposite effect. One famous incident involving the wife of the Rev. James Caldwell is recounted by Irving:

“When sacking of the village took place she retired with her children into a back room of the house. Her infant of eight months was in the arms of an attendant. She herself was seated on the side of a bed holding a child of three years of age by the hand, and was engaged in prayer. All was terror and confusion in the village when suddenly a musket was discharged in at the window. Two balls struck her in the breast and she fell dead on the floor. The parsonage and church were set on fire and it was with difficulty her body was rescued from the flames.”

The terrible incident became a rallying cry for the angry colonists who grew to hate the invaders and more determined than ever to drive them from their homeland. Their hatred helped keep them warm during the harsh winters.

There were a great many loyal British subjects as the war began and the colonies had a difficult time raising militia enough to engage in a war against one of the most powerful armies on earth, especially since many of those “loyal” British subjects joined with the invaders to fight against their former countrymen. But as the war went on and the atrocities multiplied, despite the harsh conditions of the Winters and the lack of pay accompanied by the diminishing value of printed currency, the number of loyal British subjects diminished and the intensity of the colonists grew and became fierce. And they became better soldiers.

In any number of ways throughout history the same story, or stories very much like this one, has been repeated in the innumerable wars that humans have waged against one another. And yet the lesson is never learned. It is determined by one side or the other to “escalate” the war and demoralize the enemy by dropping bigger bombs or sending drones — which is the modern version of pillaging — only to discover that such actions merely enrage the enemy and make them more determined than ever to retaliate.

We find this today with the rapid growth of terrorist groups that has resulted from the “war on terror” this nation has declared as a result of the attack on the Twin Towers. The number of terrorists doesn’t diminish, it expands. Hatred breeds hatred. This is one of the lessons that history has held before us and it is one of the many lessons that we continue to ignore.

George Washington’s Failures

Washington Irving, author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” was named by his mother after the first president of the United States — who, it is said, blessed the lad early on, leading the boy to determine then and there to write the definitive biography of the man his mother so greatly admired. It was eventually written and, when Irving was 78, printed in five volumes. While somewhat adulatory, it is reputed to be one of the very best biographies of the remarkable first president. Sadly, it is currently out of print. Fortunately for us, however, the five volumes have been reduced to one fairly large paperback by Charles Neider who did a remarkable editing job and provided us with a very fine biography — and one well worth reading.

Early on in Washington’s career he was involved in the debacle led by the English General Braddock against the French and Indians in the West of the United States — Pennsylvania and Ohio, as it was then. Braddock was bull-headed and insisted on fighting the French and Indians the way he might have fought the Spanish or the Germans in Europe — marching to battle with much musical fanfare, colors flying, and loud drums in tight formations in the middle of the American wilderness, easy pickings for the French and Indians waiting for them behind trees and rocks and attacking amidst loud war-cries. Braddock’s forces were decimated by a group half its side; those who survived fled in a panic. Braddock himself was killed and Washington had two horses shot from beneath him and later discovered four holes in his uniform from musket balls. He had tried to warn Braddock, since he himself had once before fought against the same foes with a small group of militia from Virginia which met nearly the same fate. Washington had learned his lesson, but Braddock wasn’t going to listen to a brash, young colonial who hadn’t ever received proper (English) military training. So much for smug self-complacency.

Washington Irving tells us about the lessons George Washington learned from his two failures and from his earlier experience in the wilderness surveying for a close family friend for little or no wages.

“In a letter to his brother Augustine, then a member of Assembly at Williamsburg, [Washington] casts up the result of his frontier experience. ‘I was employed,’ he writes, ‘to go on a journey in the winter, when I believe few or none would have undertaken it, and what did I get by it? — my expenses borne! I was then appointed, with trifling pay, to conduct a handful of men to Ohio. What did I get by that? Why, after putting myself to a considerable expense in equipping and providing necessaries for the campaign, I went out, was soundly beaten and lost all! Came in, and had my commission taken from me, or, in other words, my command reduced under pretense of an order from [England]. I then went out a volunteer with General Braddock and lost all my horses and many other things. But this being a voluntary act, I ought not to mention it, nor should I have done it, were it not to show that I have been on the losing order ever since I entered the service, which is now nearly two years.’

“What a striking lesson is furnished by this brief summary! How little was he aware of the vast advantages he was acquiring in this school of bitter experience! ‘In the hand of Heaven he stood,’ to be shaped and trained for its great purpose, and every trial and vicissitude of his early life fitted him to cope with one or another of the varied and multifarious duties of his future destiny.”

What a striking lesson, indeed. So here we are told that one of the greatest men this country ever produced learned valuable lessons from his failures! Can you believe it? We know better, of course, because social scientists in what Christopher Lasch disdainfully calls our “helping professions” have convinced us that we shouldn’t allow the kids to fail, either in school or at home: it’s bad for their self-esteem. Welcome to the age of entitlement.

One day soon, after our culture fades into oblivion, and the “counter-culture” has become firmly entrenched, the epitaph will be written and it will go something like this: “These people were stupid enough to listen to supposed “experts” who told them that children shouldn’t fail. If they had used common sense and read some history they would have known better.”

Lincoln’s Hope

Perhaps the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln ever penned was the Gettysburg Address which only took a few minutes to deliver but which encapsulated the whole of what Lincoln believed the Civil War was all about. We have all heard it numerous times and as school children many of us had to memorize it. But I wonder how many people have read it slowly and pondered what Lincoln is really saying? Let’s consider the ending of the brief address where Lincoln notes that

“. . .It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Beautiful words. Pure poetry, like so many of Lincoln’s speeches. But, more to the point, it embraced the core of what Lincoln was convinced the war was being fought to protect — to wit, popular government, government of, by, and for the people. Not only is this conviction repeated twice in this brief Address, it permeated Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence throughout his presidency from the time he was elected until his terrible end. He was very much aware that he was himself  “of the people.”  During his presidency he awoke one morning and laughed (as he was often inclined to do) at a thought he had during the night. He had been called “common” in one of the many newspapers he read and he awoke with the perfect rejoinder: “Well I guess I am common, but God must love the common people because he made so many of us.” That was Lincoln. Each week, on Tuesdays, he opened the White House doors and stood for hours shaking hands with the “common people” to remind himself who he was and where he came from. A poor man with little education who worked by the sweat of his brow until he could raise himself by his own bootstraps to join a law firm and begin to practice law before entering politics.

When the war broke out, even before Lincoln had a chance to make the White House his home, he knew the war had to be fought to preserve the Union. As the months went by it became clear that it was really about slavery and the freedom of four million people who were being bought and sold in this country and denied their fundamental humanity. He became increasingly sympathetic with the slaves’ plight and stressed that their rights had also been guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence which loudly declared, in Jefferson’s words, that “all men are created equal.”  And all must share the burden of self-government. He knew full well that America was the world’s first and most fragile experiment in popular government, built from the ground up, an experiment that would determine whether or not humans could govern themselves. This was what the war was all about in Lincoln’s mind. This was what his presidency was all about. This is what 630,000 men died to guarantee, as Lincoln saw it.

In light of these reflections on the thoughts of perhaps the greatest president this country has ever had — and assuredly one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time, the man Ulysses S. Grant called “the greatest man I ever knew”– it is deeply disturbing to acknowledge that today this grand experiment in popular government appears to be on the brink of failure. The “people” are now far removed from the seat of power and seem unconcerned; they care not that they have little or nothing to say about the machinations of an inept group of men and women in the Congress who are, for the most part, placed in office by wealthy special interests determined to see that their own private agendas are realized. Lincoln’s hope of a government of, by, and for the people — people like those who tramped all over Mary’s beautiful carpets in their muddy shoes at the Lincolns’ open houses — has become a government run by the corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals who give no thought whatever to the common people who are central to what this country is all about and worry only about their profits.

To be sure, something has gone terribly wrong. Dare we hope that at some point the people will realize what has been taken away from them and will rise up and take it back? Or have they been successfully benumbed by the entertainment industry to the point where they know all about, say, “deflate-gate” but nothing whatever about Watergate? To be sure, there are scattered pockets of concerned citizens and  a few voices in the Congress that speak for what truly matters. Let us hope they are heard by increasing numbers of people and that what they have to say somehow brings this country back to what our forefathers intended this country to be — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.

Enough Already!

I write this a few hours after Tiger Woods was forced once again to withdraw from a golf tournament because of pains in his lower back. Indeed, we have been given a detailed description of Tiger’s problems, including the fact that his “glutes” tightened up because fog delayed his tee time and he hadn’t had time to warm up properly when he had to actually hit his first shot — something the producers thought America needed to know. I suppose if those producers discovered what brand of deodorant the man uses they would determine that this is something America needs to know as well. Anyway, the whole withdrawal thing has been covered ad nauseam in the public media since the moment it occurred, including uninterrupted coverage on the Golf Channel of his long trip from the golf course via golf cart, his change of shoes, a closeup of his woebegone expression full of self-pity, to his eventual disappearance in his expensive rental car — the hell with the golf tournament and the fact that the rest of the players were still on the course! It does make one wonder.

After Tiger failed to make the cut in his last tournament, turning in a score that would suggest he was a moderately good amateur club player, the TV airways have been filled with endless analyses of his golfing problems, which focus on the fact that he has lost confidence in his stroke and is worrying too much about the mechanics of the game, etc. etc. To which I say two things: (1) Enough already! The man is over the hill and there are other good golfers out there who deserve a little TV time, and (2) Tiger’s problems have nothing whatever to do with his golf swing. They have to do with his utter confusion about just who the hell he is.

Tiger Woods is the reductio ad absurdum of the self-esteem movement that has swept the country and dominates our schools. He has been told since he was old enough to swing a golf club (on national TV at an age when most kids are still sucking their thumbs) that he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Growing up he became convinced by doting parents and an adoring public that he could walk on water. After seeming to fulfill the hopes and expectations of all and sundry by winning stacks of golf tournaments while making an obscene amount of money, marrying a beautiful wife and having two lovely children, he was discovered to be an inveterate adulterer. His wife found out about his infidelities and chased him out of the house with one of his golf clubs (reportedly). Then came his total humiliation, including a very public divorce and a stay in a rehab center where he was supposed to learn how to keep it in his pants, after which he tried to come back to the golf course and win a few more major tournaments. It didn’t happen. He actually won a few minor tournaments, but it was clear that he was a shadow of his former golfing self. Why were we surprised? His self-concept had been shattered. He suddenly found himself up to his ears in the very water he had been told for years he could walk upon.

Though, doubtless, there are some who watch to see if Tiger still has some of the magic that made him one of the best golfers ever, I suspect that much of the golfing public continued to follow him with something akin to morbid curiosity: after all, how often does one get to watch the gradual meltdown of a major star, a superb athlete who could no longer “bring it” the way he had done for years? But those “fans” are like buzzards picking at the innards of a dead carcass; thanks to the entertainment industry the sporting pubic has been fascinated by the man’s demise, refusing to just let it go. Enough already! Let the poor man try to put his self back together, if he can — though a good psychiatrist would be more to the point than another swing coach. But, in the end, we assuredly can learn a valuable lesson from his fall from on high.

As I say, though an immensely talented athlete, he is a prototype of the spoiled child who has been told all his life he was exceptional. Reeking with self-esteem, he suddenly learned he had feet of clay. His sense of who he is has been severely damaged and no amount of stroke correction and no change in coaches can repair the damage that was done by doting parents and an adoring public who apparently never let him learn about failure. He is today a tattered shell of his former self, complete with numerous physical problems to go with a middling golf game. Just listen to his press conferences and read his body language!

Thus, those who think that we do our kids a favor by telling them how terrific they are until they feel entitled to have whatever they want should take a long look at Tiger Woods and reflect on the damage we can do to young people when we lead them to think they are superior beings and forget to remind them from time to time that, like everyone else, they are flawed. We need to let our kids fail so they can learn how to deal with failure. And we need to reserve our praise for those moments when they actually accomplish something noteworthy. Otherwise, they might fall from the heights we place them upon — like Tiger Woods.

The Cat In The Room

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.

What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.

The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.

The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!

Right Or Wrong?

One of my favorite episodes of the excellent British detective series “Foyle’s War,” which takes place during World War II, involves the master detective in a moral  dilemma. He has caught the man who murdered a German woman, the wife of a wealthy English landowner. The evidence is overwhelming, but the problem is that the murderer is a naval officer who is working with the British navy to crack German codes. He is one of the few men in the country who has the background to make it possible for his country to achieve this, and if he does he will save countless British lives. He puts it squarely to Foyle who is faced with the moral dilemma: arrest the man for murder (of a woman who was, after all, German), or let him go to continue to work on the codes that may save lives. He arrests the man. It’s who Foyle is: he is convinced that even in wartime it is only the law that separates us from barbarians such as the Nazis they are fighting and he has sworn to uphold the law.

This is a most interesting moral dilemma and it gives rise to the question: Did Foyle do the right thing or did he not? Whatever we decide in this case, we cannot determine that he BOTH did the right thing AND he did the wrong thing. It’s either/or. Ultimately, all moral dilemmas are of the same type: it’s not possible for there to be an answer that is both right and wrong at the same time and the same respect — any more than it is possible for my computer to be both a computer and a telephone at the same time and the same respect.

The problem is that in our age a great many people deny that moral issues are like computers and telephones. The common view is that ethics is all a matter of opinion and when it comes to opinions you have yours and I have mine. This is, of course, true, but irrelevant. Our opinions are simply the starting point, not the end, of discussion.  Someone who has never watched a tennis match may have an opinion about who will win the match they are now watching. But that opinion doesn’t count for much, because the person knows nothing about tennis. In the case before us we may have our opinions, but the answer — somewhere out there — is that Foyle either did the right thing to arrest the murderer or he did not.

In a seemingly unrelated topic, Abraham Lincoln wrote what has come to be called a “Meditation” during the Civil War that was only recently published. He was wrestling with the question why God was permitting the war to happen. Ultimately, he was wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism. Regarding the war, which was not going well and eventually cost America 630,000 lives, Lincoln muses thusly:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.. . .”

Lincoln picked up the same theme in his Second Inaugural — regarded by many (and himself) as the  best speech he ever wrote. And this suggests that he was still wrestling with the dilemma at the end of the war. And well he should. But he knew one thing: either the North or the South was right in fighting the war, they could not both be right. They might both have been wrong, as Lincoln suggests, but they cannot both be right. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. But it is a fact that we may not be able to make out clearly, groping as we do through a thick mist of bias and confusion with our limited perspective, prejudices, and meager intelligence. From God’s perspective, there is one right and one wrong and perhaps only He knows which is which. So as we struggle to determine which side was in the right we may never see the answer clearly, but we can be certain, as Lincoln was, that one side or the other is right — they cannot both be right. Lincoln expresses this difficulty at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address when he famously says, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Italics added).

This is the nature of ethical argument. It parallels arguments that require evidence and careful thought which we might come upon in history (what would have happened if Chamberlain had not been so conciliatory toward Hitler?) or even in the hard sciences (does light consist of waves or particles?). But above all else, ethics is not simply a matter of opinion. Again, Foyle was either right to have arrested the murderer or he was wrong. He cannot be both. Ironically, it is precisely this fact that makes dialogue possible in ethics and takes us beyond the shallow realm of gut feelings and hunches.

Talking To A Wall

In light of the recent Senate vote on climate change, I had an imaginary dialogue with Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, who is the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee — a very important position indeed. The dialogue, such as it was, went something like this:

Me: So, Senator, it appears your colleagues in the Senate have finally arrived at the position scientists have held for many years about the radical changes in our climate that are already impacting on our weather and food production in disturbing ways. Is that so?

L: Yes they have and I was one of the 98% who agreed that climate change is a scientific fact.

Me: I also noted that 59 Senators agreed that humans are somewhat responsible for that fact but that only 50 agreed that humans have had a “significant” impact on global warming. You were one of those who voted “no” on this latter question, were you not?

L: Yes I was.

Me: Why was that?

L: Because I think the jury is still out on weather humans have had a significant impact on climate change. After all, there have always been ebbs and flows, oceans rising and falling, radical changes in weather patterns and temperatures, and even though humans may have contributed somewhat, it is a stretch to say that we have made that much difference.

Me: Really? Even though human populations are exploding all over the earth and industrial gasses are expanding at a very rapid pace in order to feed and clothe those folks? You don’t think that the carbon monoxide that our homes, cars, planes, and factories spew into the atmosphere has a significant effect on the rising temperatures around the globe?

L: No, I do not. Moreover, I resent the implication that because I don’t recycle and I want to keep my house warm and drive a car that can get me down the road quickly I am part of the cause of a global problem, that I should alter my lifestyle in order to please some crazies who seem determined to exaggerate the problem. Besides, any serious attempt to curb global warming, I am told, would require stringent controls on industry which would be bad for business and, as we all know, business is the engine that runs this great country of ours.

Me: Indeed it does. But there are companies harnessing alternative energies and building mass transit systems that could create work for anyone who might be displaced by currently existing industries that might be forced to cut back in order to reduce our carbon footprint — especially if they received a fraction of the $8 billion in subsidies that, as an example, the oil industry receives at present.  But let’s go back to the original question. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that those “crazies” are correct and that you and I, along with the industries that support our present standard of living, are all making an impact that could be reduced if we altered our lifestyles. Shouldn’t we attempt to do something that will reverse the trend?

L: Not in the least. Until you can show me that humans, all humans, are making a huge difference I prefer to continue to live the way I am right now.

Me: OK. So if the “crazies” are exaggerating the problem then you are home safe. But if they are correct in their estimations, by the time you and the others who think like you realize this it may be too late. It seems to me you are taking a huge risk. On the other hand, if you were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt it would doubtless alter our lifestyles somewhat, but it would also pay dividends in the long term by preserving a healthy planet for future generations. We would still maintain one of the world’s highest standards of living. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?

L: I don’t see why I should have to make any sacrifices at all on the basis of assumptions and speculation.

Me: Because these “assumptions and speculation” are supported by 98% of the scientific community that has studied the problem in depth. It is not simply an assumption or idle speculation, but a fact based on solid evidence and it behooves us all to take steps — again, if it’s not too late. As a nation we seem to be hellbent on conducting a risky experiment that places a premium on profits and creature comforts in the hope that the serious problems we are facing will simply go away by themselves. It’s virtually certain that humans are playing a significant role in climate change and we are making a terrible mistake to simply ignore that possibility — especially since the price of attacking the problem is so small in the grand scheme of things.

L: Who are you anyway? And why are you in my face?

Me: I am sorry. But just one quick question. I noted that two of your biggest contributors this past election were utilities and oil and gas companies — to the tune of well over $1 million, and that four of your five largest individual contributors were electric utilities and oil companies as well. Doesn’t that skew your thought process somewhat on this issue and, at the very least, shouldn’t you step down as chair of the Energy Committee because of a conflict of interest?

L: I don’t have time for this. I have a committee meeting.

Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.