Links & Thoughts: Being Nice, Care, Membership vs Achievement

A. Was talking with a 6 year old of my acquaintance, nice little boy. He was telling me that he gets to go to first grade next year, because he was nice and followed the rules. He said almost all the kids in his class get to go to first grade, there was only one boy who was in doubt, because he was always in time out because he talked. I opined that it was pretty normal to want to talk when you’re with your friends, but my young friend said this boy talked all the time and almost never even raised his hand.

No mention of learning anything, except that the price of advancement is being nice and doing what you are told. The young woman who taught at our school (she quit – another victim of the gender fascists discussed here earlier) was in the room. Sotto voce, I asked: how subversive should I get? She seemed to be for it, but I, thinking of this boy’s immigrant single mom, decided not to sow discontent too directly.

His 8 year old brother showed up. He showed me a set of paper strips whereupon were written compliments from his classmates. These included ‘funny,’ ‘generous,’ ‘kind,’ ‘friendly,’ and so on – I half expected ‘punctual,’ as these comments didn’t seem like the kinds of things the 2nd graders I’ve known would come up with on their own. He gets to go to 3rd grade. He is a very nice boy, too.

Once in a while, these kids will tell me about something they’ve learned, all excited about reading hard words or being able to figure out some math. I wonder how much of their school experience is really about learning basics. It seems all but completely about learning to be nice and follow orders.

On a more subtle and damaging level, any sense of real achievement is subverted into awards for mere conformity. Real achievement allows a child to develop a healthy sense of independence, a notion that he, himself, can do worthy things that are not merely plays for somebody else’s approval. (1) Our schools systematically defeat this, by rewarding compliance and compelling empty compliments. It’s telling that one side of the political spectrum went so far as to make ‘you didn’t build that’ a sort of mantra and litmus test. The very idea of achievement is seen as a bad thing. As people of low or no achievement, they hate and fear precisely the independence their opponents admire and hold up as an ideal.

This process of rewarding compliance while defeating any sense of real achievement is an implementation of Fichte’s goal of reassigning a child’s natural loyalties to the state, based on his claim that what a child wants more than anything is the approval of his father. Fichte stated this desire can easily be redirected into seeking the approval of a (state certified) teacher. The goal, according to Fichte, is to destroy family and paternal loyalty and replace it with loyalty to the state (for the child’s own good, of course).

B. These two items over at Rotten Chestnuts are worth a read: The Man of the Hour and Haidt’s “Righteous Mind”. The first opens:

Academics, of course, are all in on “social” explanations of historical phenomena.  Being weak, ineffective people themselves, with no experience of life, the very idea of a Caesar frightens and repels them… so they construct theories of History in which it is impossible for a Caesar to exist.  On this view, “social forces” (what they used to call “the relations of the means of production”) tore the Roman Republic apart; the Empire was its inevitable next stage.  Assign whatever name you like to the Imperator — whether Caesar, Marius, Sulla, or Miles Gloriosus, he’s just the temporary face of the vast, impersonal social forces that control our fate.  None of this “History is just the biographies of great men” for them!

Academics as the type specimens of the “Kool Kids Klub membership is the only achievement” crowd. In connection with Great Men, Severian observes something that should be obvious: any culture recognizable as a culture over many generations produces people who are motivated and equipped to

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Rome produced him on purpose.

continue that culture. This should be a night follows day level truism. He gives Julius Caesar as an example, who as a 15 year old kid was sent on family diplomatic missions, given command of family guards, and took it upon himself to hunt down and execute some pirates who had kidnapped him and held him for ransom. While Julius was likely more talented than the run of the mill scion of a Roman patriarch, his training was typical. A teenage boy is hankering for some responsibility. The Romans, even if they may seem to us to have gone a bit far, gave such responsibility to their sons as befitted the keepers of a Republic (or an Empire, as needs may be).

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Our schools produce these folks on purpose as well.

The second, regarding Jonathan Haidt’s book asserting politics is a function of morality, where he talks about classifying liberal and conservative, left and right, whatever, using 5 categories – care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and purity. (Note: that’s stretching the idea of morality past the breaking point, at least, as understood in the West for the last 1,000 years, but whatever.) Severian points out how Haidt’s analysis is exactly opposite of reality:

Start from the top.  Care?  Liberals very ostentatiously don’t give a shit if their policies actually help or not.  How’s gay marriage going, for instance?  Anyone bother to follow up on that?  Did that loving gay couple ever get those hospital visitation rights that we were told, in story after heart-wrenching story, was the whole reason for gay marriage in the first place?  As I’ve pointed out before, you’d think the Left would at least be doing some victory laps at this point — “haha silly wingnutz, you said the sky would fall if the gays got married, and look!”  But…. nope.  Obergefell might as well have happened in the 17th century, for all the Left cares about it now.  Ditto the Great Society, the War on Poverty, Head Start, and all the other great Liberal crusades of the past 50 years.  They very obviously did the opposite of what they were supposed to, but if Liberals bother to think about them at all — which they only do if you hold their feet to the fire — they just mutter “needs more funding” and change the subject.

Again, we have the dichotomy whereby, on the one hand, people who value achievement (and, therefore, more likely than not, have achieved stuff) tend to strongly care about if and how a proposal is supposed to work, meaning, among other things, they’ve had to wrestle with what ‘work’ means. On the other hand, there are the people I’m always going on about, for whom membership is the only achievement. They care only about signaling they are in the club, and seem truly baffled when people like me keep asking how a proposal is supposed to work, and, indeed, what work means.

My favorite example: when Obamacare was first on the table, I kept hearing wildly ridiculous claims, such as the profits of the drug and healthcare companies would cover the additional costs, and the implicit idea that ‘health care’ is like pork bellies or soy futures – completely fungible, so that the cost of healthcare in, say, Brazil, whatever that means, is somehow relevant to what we call healthcare here in America.

So I did a little research and crunched some numbers. Um, no. It was painfully clear that Obamacare supporters cared only about supporting Obamacare, as in no way was better, cheaper healthcare going to result from it, as events have since demonstrated. But to even go in the direction of considering likely results is a no-no, you hater, you.

  1. It should not need to be said that individual success and the healthy independence it engenders do not exclude appreciation the contributions of others nor make one antisocial. On the contrary, it seems more common for one to both achieve nothing and fail to be grateful. It’s difficult for ingrates to be sociable.

The Allure of Psychology

One thing a classic liberal education is supposed to do for you is make you suspicious of ideas you find emotionally attractive. Like the brutal honesty demanded by science, it is just assumed to rub off on students who work their way through all those tough classic texts. Just about every freshman finds Plato attractive. Like the young men who followed Socrates around just to see him lightly eviscerate some pompous fool, we thrilled to the discovery that pompous fools could be eviscerated, and craved more. Then we run into Aristotle, and don’t like it much, because he, effectively, says: enough with the fun and games, time to stand your ground and say what you mean. Perhaps some of us get the idea that Socrates would have met his match, or more, in Aristotle (although I suspect they would have gotten along pretty well while having some doozies of arguments, because they had doozies of arguments. Socrates must have been bored out of his skull with the Ions and Menos of the world.)

Then, as you move on through the list, one precious idea after another gets beat up. You think that you’ve reached the pinnacle of sophistication as an 18 year old who has learned that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing, only to have that self-refuting notion beat up by Aristotle’s moderate realism. Then, perhaps, you see how Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology lead to places you might not want to go, making Descartes very appealing. But Descartes leads to Hume, Berkeley, and, eventually, Kant, while Thomas leads to science. So now, maybe, Descartes is less appealing, and you take another look at Aristotle…

Thus, by a million paths, the serious student learns to take extra care about accepting too readily ideas that he finds attractive, because he finds them attractive.

When I read Alice Miller‘s books 30+ years ago, I found her ideas very attractive, even though her Freudian approach was seriously off putting. I like to say that Miler was a fallen-away Freudian, but had not fallen away nearly far enough. What made her assertions more acceptable to me was how well they fit with evolutionary theory. On the fly as I read her books, I would substitute arguments from natural selection for hers, the unholy offspring of Freud and Rousseau.

Brutal honesty moment: in other words, I back-filled psychological theories I found emotionally appealing with evolutionary just-so stories. I get it. I suppose my purpose in writing this out, apart from trying to make it as clear as possible to myself, is to invite criticism.

What are these theories? I’ve mentioned them before, but never in great detail. Here, I’m paraphrasing them based on 30 year old memories and replacing Freudian turns of phrase with Darwinian language. These start out as truisms (I should hope) but turn dark:

  • For their very survival, children need to be part of a family/tribe (Extended family – I’m just going to use ‘tribe’ from here on out). In our evolutionary environment, no children lived to reproduce outside of a tribe. Therefore, intense selection pressure has been applied to children in favor of group membership and against running off or doing anything that might get them excluded. (1)
  • As sophisticated social mammals, children by instinct incorporate whatever behaviors are required for tribal membership into their base understanding of the world as foundational assumptions. (This is nothing more than saying ‘tribalism’ is a base state for humans and is pre-rational). Kids don’t think about these requirements (much), they just are.
  • We see it in the ‘attachment-promoting behaviors’ of babies and toddlers before they are even aware of what they’re doing. As they grow, their behaviors become more complex and more specific to their particular environment. In this, people are only the most sophisticated among animals – you cat and dog do this as well.

All well and good, and I hope not too controversial. It should be noted that the reciprocal activity on the part of the adults – nurturing the tribe so that the child might survive – must also be a part of any environment of evolutionary adaptation. So parents and relative – the tribe – can be expected to behave in such a way as to promote the survival and integration into the tribe of its children. That’s the model that seems to have been developed and to have worked over the last half a million years or so, at least. There’s nothing necessarily nice or pretty about it – it’s just what works.

But what happens when, as in the modern world for the last couple hundred years in many places, many people survive despite having no tribe in the evolutionary sense? What happens when the brutal culling mechanisms of Darwinian survival get put on hold? Whatever else may happen, it is now possible on a scale and to a degree never known before for children to be neglected, abused, and traumatized – and still live, and perhaps even still reproduce.

  • Children who are neglected, abused and otherwise traumatized will, through the all but inexorable drive of instinct, incorporate their neglect, abuse and trauma into their pre-rational view of the world. Miller, in her decades of work as a psychoanalyst, noted a remarkable ability of her patients to excuse, ignore and explain away the objectively horrible things done to them – which is what one would expect, under the evolutionary explanation above. Aside: this, at least, seems to be obviously true from just routine interactions with people.
  • So we have a world increasingly filled with damaged children of all ages who, for basic survival reasons, have accepted their mistreatment at the hands of those who were supposed to love them, rationalized it, and who are highly motivated to accept it as part of their tribal membership fees.
  • It gets worse: as part of the emotional mechanisms that ‘worked’ insofar as they did in fact survive into adulthood, their experiences and coping mechanisms now become the template for how to raise any children they might have. Thus, Miller observed the pattern where someone who had been sexually abused as a child, even if they were not themselves an abuser, would routinely put their children into situations where they were likely to be abused. To do otherwise would be to confront the careful structure that allowed the parent to survive in the first place. Very painful and disorienting.
  • This is expressed in the title of one of her books: Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. To acknowledge one’s own mistreatment enough to protect one’s own child requires reopening some deep and carefully scarred over wounds. Rather than do that, we readily subject our kids to what we experienced, no matter how horrible.

Miller says that a sympathetic witness, someone who understood the trauma and abuse on some level and could tell the child that it wasn’t right, was all but essential to having any hope for healing. That witness provided a counter to all the stories the kid would otherwise make up in order to keep his membership in the tribe: that daddy didn’t mean it, that momma does really care, that what uncle did wasn’t so bad, and so on – all the little myths one runs into whenever one is drawn into other people’s dramas. Lacking such a witness, it seemed to Miller all but impossible to get past all the barricades built up by the child.

So, there you have it: I see – I think, that’s the question – people reenacting in their child’s life whatever it was that traumatized them as children: people who were abandoned at 15 abandon their own kids as teens; children of divorce get divorced; Sexually abused kids become libertines and expose their own kids to that life; and so in a million ways.

There’s more, but that’s the general outline. I’m not just saying that miserable childhoods tend to make for miserable adults. I’m saying that miserable childhoods tend to all but compel people to make their own children miserable in the same way.

Anyway, make any sense? I readily acknowledge that Miller is a loon – I read most if not all of her books, and she gets into speculation that’s little better than palm reading in many places. And, as mentioned, even though she became one of Freud’s harshest critics, she still thought and spoke like a Freudian. Am I just experiencing confirmation bias when I seem to see this inflicting of one’s childhood trauma on one’s own children everywhere I look, or is it real?

  1. And, of course, tribes can’t survive without children, either, so, at least by nature, tribes care about their children as passionately as children yearn to belong. Note that this doesn’t imply any sort of lovie-dovie niceness: the ever-popular Yanomami tribesmen raise their sons to be good little homicidal sociopaths, because that approach has been proven to work. Similarly, their daughters are raised to seek the most murderous sociopaths as mates.
  2. And then expanded, by design, to school, with its artificial and arbitrary tribes of classrooms and grades. But Miller doesn’t go there, as far as my memory can recall.

Is There an Aristotelian in the House?

Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.

Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.

The guy on the right.

Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.

My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.

I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?

Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.

Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.

I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.

So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:

He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.

Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.

But I digress.

Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.

Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.

Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.

Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.

It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.

So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…

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“I trust I make myself obscure.”

Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.

Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.

  1. Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
  2. The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.

Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:

They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

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While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.

Halloween, Hieronymus Bosch & Ephesians

This morning, had a discussion about slavery in the Roman Empire triggered by the Epistle to the Ephesians read this morning at Mass:

Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling,
in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
not only when being watched, as currying favor,
but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
willingly serving the Lord and not men,
knowing that each will be requited from the Lord
for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

The usual commentary here goes something like: here is a revolutionary Christian proposal by Paul, that slaves, who have no rights under Roman law, must still be treated as brothers, and that masters will be judged by God on how well they treat them.

And, of course, this is true, and this new understanding in fact set the stage for the elimination of slavery wherever Christianity held sway. (Of course, given human nature, slavery pops right back up whenever we take our eye off the ball, but one or the other – slavery or Christianity – must prevail.)

I was making the point that understanding slavery under the Romans is a little tricky for Americans, as we have this history of racial slavery, where, because Americans were nominally Christians, they could not justify enslaving other men. Therefore, black Africans had to be thought of as less than men at least to some degree in order to keep the guilt and cognitive dissonance at bay.

The Romans, while as arrogant and bigoted as any conquerors, did not necessarily consider slaves as inferior men just from the fact of their slavery alone. A brave and noble man might just get unlucky, might be cursed by the gods, and simply be on the losing side of a war, and end up a slave through no real fault of his own. This is not to say that Romans didn’t look down on slaves, or treat them terribly – they did – but they did not imagine them a different, fundamentally inferior species. In general.

Also, a vast gulf exited between household slave and agricultural slaves. Sometimes, free men would sell themselves into slavery to a patrician, in order to have some hope of upward mobility – perhaps the nobleman had business interests that he might put the slave in charge of, if the slave proved himself dependable and talented. Then, if all went well, the slave could then buy or have given to him freedom for his children. At least, he probably wouldn’t starve in the meantime.

Agricultural slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been largely treated as animals. I have not run across any stories of agricultural slaves, who made up the vast bulk of slaves under the Empire, working their or their children’s way to freedom. But again, my reading in this area is slight.

Anyway, the only point, and it is a small one, is that it might have been lass shocking to the Romans and their Greek subjects to hear that a slave must be treated as a brother than it would have been for a Southern slave owner. In fact, the American slave owner just refused to hear it.

And this discussion lead, in that ineffable way my mind works, to consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, and why there are not more Halloween costumes and parties based on his works. The connection is that slavery isn’t the only thing that the Romans thought very differently than we do. Their sense of honor doesn’t map exactly to ours, for one thing, and the same noble Roman who would die unflinching for his Republic had most likely a deep and abiding affection for scatological humor. It’s a mistake to think of them in our terms. They inhabited a very different emotional and esthetic universe, it seems.

Hieronymus Bosch inhabited another very weird universe, one that – thankfully, I think – is very different from ours. It’s not just that his work is bizarre and often obscene – that might just be a personal quirk – it’s that his work was enormously popular. For a century after his death, people came to admire it. There are hundreds of copies drawn, painted or sculpted from that time. His work was hung in public places for people to see, and people traveled to see it. People really dug this stuff.

So I hit the web. And the answer is that first, there are plenty of Bosch themed costumes out there, if Google images is to be believed, and, second, that even a few parties along those lines have taken place. So, OK, even in these modern times Bosch has some appeal.

Then, for the first time in years, I looked, like really looked, at some Bosch.



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And this is kinda tame. There’s stuff I won’t even put up here. 

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The ice skate/funnel/red cape/yoyo combo really sets off the cross beak/letter look. 

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As a costume, you’d need the right attitude to make that fish head with butterfly wings cape, sword and shield look work. 

And these are some of the less disturbing ones.

As Halloween costume inspirations, it seems to me Bosch would not be very appropriate, at least, under what I hope are modern American sensibilities. For Catholics, we dress up as scary or even evil characters in order to mock them, to show them we no longer fear them. Oh Death, where is thy sting? after all. Bosch does seem to be mocking something. The mockery has a hard time cutting through the disturbing, at least for me.

Conclusion: the 15th and 16th century Netherlanders, and the Germans, Spaniards and Italians who admired and copied Bosch, did not look at the world the same way we do. At least most of us. And I’d frankly like to avoid the ones among us who do.

Voting is Like Taking Out the Garbage

Yes, over-the-top clickbait style title. Just thinking out loud here…

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In order to have civilization, you have to take out the garbage.  When people are few and far between, you can dispose of your refuse any way you want, partly because you’ll likely produce little refuse, and that refuse will be biodegradable or at least ‘natural’, partly because you don’t have many neighbors to complain about it.

But once you get civilized, the root meaning of which is ‘living in cities’, garbage disposal becomes an active concern. Your neighbors very likely will care where you dump your garbage. Your own home will become a dump by default if you don’t make the effort to get rid of that stuff.

No one mistakes taking out the garbage as the purpose of civilized life, even though proper waste disposal is essential to it. Instead, if we think about it at all, we think proper waste disposal is something we all do in order to make and keep space for doing what is more important to us. A comfortable, non-smelly home with places for meals, conversations, sleeping and so forth is the goal on a personal level; on a community level, we want similar standards applied to public places for similar reasons. Therefore, we take steps both for our personal garbage disposal and for methods and places to deal with our collected garbage.

Thus, every city, town and village has its garbage men and dumps. Public piles of trash outside of dumps are a sign that civilization is slipping away or has never completely arrived. Privately, Hoarders, cat ladies and people who never seem to clean up their own messes are a tolerable nuisance, usually, but could become a public issue if their personal garbage gets too far out of hand.

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Oh, the huge manatee!!

Few imagine that their success or excellence in dealing with garbage is a defining characteristic of their personhood. True, out here in California, you will meet the Prius-driving composters who would never use a plastic straw nor fail to recycle a soda can and who thinks anyone who fails at these steps is Destroying the Planet and therefore probably irredeemably eeeeeevil. But even out here, people tend to be more sane than that, and take into consideration other personal factors, such as friends, family, hobbies, and achievements before marking a person for future culling once the right-thinking people achieve their peaceful, righteous totalitarian paradise.

Not so with voting! In two different senses, voting seems to be popularly considered an indispensable sign of full personhood. First, not having the right to vote makes one less than fully human in the minds of many. Second, to some, voting *wrong* makes one an unperson, as evil, stupid and suitable for extermination as people who consciously put plastic straws in the San Francisco Bay.

I contend, rather, that voting is much more like our duty to take out the garbage than it is a defining aspect of full personhood. Voting is something we do for the sake of other, much more important things. It is those important things – family, friends, possessions and the freedom to enjoy them – that give voting its meaning.

Historically, in America, we had a revolution to a large extent over the colonists chafing at the very idea that a government an entire ocean away could make and enforce rules and taxes without so much as a how do you do to the people to be ruled and taxed. Coming from Britain, the colonists had inherited a belief in a commonwealth reflected in common law – the idea that certain rights and duties had been established by centuries of precedent, and that the day to day laws were to reflect and reinforce those precedents. More simply, the English in Britain had one commonwealth, which included peculiarly English laws and traditions, royalty, parliament and so forth, while the English colonists in America had developed, over the centuries prior to the Revolution, a different commonwealth, which included, among other things, the practice of self-government. That the Crown would attempt to unilaterally impose its will with no regard to the colonists’ long-established practices shined a stark light on the fact that America was not the same naturally-constituted Nation as England.

In such an environment, the simple act of voting, of having a say in your own government, took on the sacramental quality of religious dogma. “All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” – this is a religious dogma in its very formulation. Compare this to the early English practice of having local votes on local issues, such as each man who bore arms got to vote on (local) issues of war: because it was my life I was putting on the line, I get a say. In medieval practice, a woman, or a teenager we might consider a child, might get a vote in local decisions if they were the ranking representative of their family. Voting was more or less tightly bound to personal duties and obligations the voter would be expected to be personally responsible for.

Having a farmer or miller vote on ‘national’ issues or ‘candidates’ made no sense, not the least because the modern idea of a nation or candidate are complete anachronisms when applied to the Middle Ages. Instead, I, the local farmer, owed allegiance to a local lord, who in turn vowed to protect me and mine and to honor our rights. That lord owed allegiance to a greater lord in a similar way. Such allegiances might or might not roll up to a king or emperor someplace, but even such nested loyalties were built upon local, often face to face, loyalties, duties and rights.

The English systems grew out of these medieval roots, and, at the time of the Revolution, weren’t all that far from them. Indeed, the new Republic’s voting ideas reflected those English roots to some extent: State governments selected Senators and Electoral College members however they saw fit; the President therefore worked for the States and only indirectly for the people. The federal judiciary was yet one step further removed from popular vote. Only the House of Representatives was the direct result of state-wide elections.

But this removal of most of the Federal Government from direct election by the People contradicted the dogma that government gains its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and, even more important, the inescapable corollary that the individual is the sole sacred locus of all legitimate political power. It is clear from the Federalist Papers that insulating the bulk of the government from the whims of voters was an active goal, reflecting the republican idea that we share an inherited commonwealth that is not open to revision by vote. Such a commonwealth included the notion of individual rights, and government of, by and for the People.

The idea of the sovereign individual who reigns supreme via his consent given at the ballot box conflicts not only with the idea of an inherited commonwealth that his vote cannot overrule, but with reality in general. It seems the Founders assumed voters would be like them – men for the most part thoroughly invested in family, children and usually land. Those families, especially those children (“our posterity”) are the direct embodiment of the commonwealth. A voter could only legitimately exercise his franchise to support the commonwealth! A voter votes as a son, father, and husband, or his vote is not legitimate. Those of us who are sons, fathers and husbands get this instinctually.

This conflict between the sovereign individual and the family man produced by and protecting a commonwealth can go one of two ways:  either individual sovereignty becomes THE measure of worth in society such that not having it is being relegated to non-person standing, or voting a secondary or tertiary thing that only has value insofar as it promotes and protects the commonwealth that is the place where individual rights reside.

Further, if we go the sovereign individual route, the commonwealth itself cannot be off limits. We must be able to vote away our rights, for example, or we are not truly sovereign individuals – something completely contrary to what the Founders stated, but an inevitable result of the logic’s gravity.

In the hoary American tradition, we’ve mostly whistled past this issue for 200+ years while sliding with greater alacrity toward sovereign individualism. In a final twist, a large number of the latter-day recipients of the franchise – women, blacks, 18 year olds – choose to vote for various flavors of the idea that the individual is nothing, the masses everything. Inheritances such as free speech and due process are attacked daily – by popularly-elected officials. The gravitational pull of sovereign individualism toward destruction of the commonwealth is not just a theory.

Under a republican understanding, where a Republic consists of a common wealth held by all to the benefit of all, a citizen does not need to be defined as a voter. Citizens are all those who share fully in the benefits of the commonwealth. Voting becomes the means to an end: the protection and promotion of the commonwealth for the sake of family, and, particularly, our posterity. It would be absurd from this view to pit the right to vote against duty to family and Republic, since voting exists for the sake of those things. Under this view, voters should be those who are best situated to defend the Republic. The idea that voting could be allowed to drive a wedge between members of the same family would be a horror, or at least wildly counterproductive.

Rather than the ultimate expression of our full adult personhood, voting is more like taking out the trash. It needs to be done in order to have a civilization, but it is not that which defines us a full adults.

Finally, sovereign individualism flies in the face of reality in another sense: we Americans with few exception spend tiny amounts of time and effort on voting. If we really believed voting is the highest expression of our human dignity, maybe we’d hold votes more often that once every year or two? Maybe get the week before election day off to allow proper study of the issues and candidates? Perhaps have quarterly or monthly holidays on which to hold local meetings to discuss politics and try to understand our neighbors? In other words, shouldn’t we ACT a little more like voting is all-important if we claim to believe it is?

(Just realized I almost went full Starship Troopers here…)



A Further Thought on Politics & History

Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.

I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.

Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.

But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff  being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.

As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard: 

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model‍—‌many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge‍—‌but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)

The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.

While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.

Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model‍’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.

As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.

Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)

The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.

The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.

Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!

What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad  person to even bring it up.

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

  1. I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
  2. With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.