Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Ceremony of Innocence

It seems I have Yeats on my mind, these days.   This is well and good, as he was a great poet in the Modernist manner, and it is the Modernists I find most interesting.  Yeats ranks up there with Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, for me; among the greatest of them.  I was never fond of Carl Sandburg and others who it seems tried to construct a peculiarly American poetry, and never thought much of anything of e.e. cummings, whistling far and wee. 

Most everyone knows of The Second Coming, or knows at least a word or two of that poem, either by virtue of being compelled to read it in school, or running across snatches of it in print or on the screen, or perhaps even by reading it out of interest and while at leisure to do so.  In the last case, it may be even that the poem is understood, or if not understood then known to be powerful and evocative (perhaps that's being understood in the case of a poem).

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned."  That's one of many striking phrases in the poem, but it's the one that keeps coming back to me right now.  Why "ceremony"?  No doubt many learned professors have expounded on this, but I haven't read them and in all honesty don't care to read them, though I'm sure to be enlightened if I did.  Or perhaps not.  It's hard to accept expertise of any kind these days.  Experts are always in front of us, on display by the media and used as kinds of fillers between commercials.  Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, and so a dismissive contempt seems to pervade among us, regardless of the qualifications of those who are strapped on horseback like El Cid to ride the satellite waves for our enlightenment.

Left then to my own devices I wonder why "ceremony" was used by the poet.  It would appear to refer to something formal, something religious or in the nature of a ritual.    Is that what innocence was to the poet; did he think that's what innocence had become?  Innocence is generally a lack of sophistication, earnest, unfiltered observation of the world and reaction to what the innocent encounter.  And why "drowned"?  By the blood-dimmed tide, presumably.

The poem was written in 1919, so there was certainly quite a bit of blood being shed shortly before.  Probably enough to make a tide.  It's been claimed often enough and by many that the Great War, which we Yankees call World War One, was an end to innocence, and there would seem to be support for that claim.  Certainly it brought to an end any "innocent" view of war as glorious and fulfilling, though one is compelled to wonder how any innocence would have survived the American Civil War or the Boer War if not others.  Even the juvenile and romantic view of war held by such as Teddy Roosevelt was dimmed by the blood-dimmed tide.  And of course much that was new and unusual, and less than "innocent" as commonly defined, seemed to follow the war inexorably in politics and in the arts.  It's hard to believe that ascribing such things to the war is merely a case of  the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

But a ceremony is something that's existed for a good amount of time.  A ceremony is seldom created anew, and when it is it's not considered a ceremony for some years.  So it would seem that the ceremony of innocence for Yeats would have been something that was existent and known long before the Great War--known in fact as a ceremony.  Innocence as a ceremony is not spontaneous or uncontrived.

Had we, even then, made of innocence a ceremony?  If so it is even more of a ceremony now, if indeed it still exists.  Who can we consider innocent in this age?  Young children, perhaps, but they're encountering an end to innocence more quickly now than in the past.  Communication is relentless and innocence can only be maintained by the cultivation of ignorance.  Innocent isn't necessarily good, but at least for now it remains something we prize.  Perhaps that's why it's become a ceremony for us.

Perhaps too much of a ceremony--too much that is of something not merely significant but to be extended if not perpetuated.  Parents now are said to be notably protective of their children (when they're not abusing or ignoring them, that is; parents like everyone these days are extremists of one kind or another) and described as "helicopter" parents, shielding them and controlling them and maintaining their innocence, or trying to do so, which in itself is dangerous.

The danger of innocence is that it may generate gullibility.  The innocent are subject to being fooled because they're unaware of what those who are no longer innocent desire and the lengths they'll go to satisfy their desires, or if they are aware believe this to be a concern of others.  In a very odd way, I think we remain innocent even now, and that we want to be innocent, unthinking, perhaps more than ever.  Unfortunately, though, there are those who take advantage of the innocent and the simple, and today they are omnipresent. 

As they were in Yeats time, as I think of it.  Did he think it unfortunate that the ceremony of innocence was drowned, or did he welcome it?  How could he welcome it when the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity?  Did he think that was due to the drowning of the ceremony?

There are too many full of passionate intensity here in the Kingdom of Fear, and proud of it.  No ceremony will save us from them.  They seem eager for ceremony; they thrive on it.  Perhaps it's time to grow up at last.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

No Country for Poor Men

It's not a country for poor women either, of course, but I'm obviously mimicking the first line of the great poem by Yeats, and the title of the not quite as great but quite good movie, and so it must be.  The country I refer to is our Great Republic, and this post is devoted to the Supreme Court's latest curious decision regarding the First Amendment, McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission.  In that decision, the majority finds, once again, that the First Amendment requires that those with a great deal of money to spend in an effort to support the election of politicians and the success of political parties they prefer, and who want to spend it for that purpose, must be allowed to do so.

Not long ago, SCOTUS taught us that money is speech.  That's not entirely clear to me, but what is clear and what has unquestionably been the case for much longer--a very long time indeed--is that money is power.   Speech may be powerful, but money always is.  Money is power because money allows us to do things and to buy things.

Among the things which may be bought with money is influence in politics, which is to say influence in the election of politicians and influence thereby on the making of political decisions.  Speech may influence, but it cannot do so with the persistent and and overwhelming efficacy of money in a political system which is so entirely dependent upon the expenditure of money, which in turn requires the acquisition of money. 

Money "talks" in this sense only.  It isn't speech any more than it is a belief, thought or an idea, but it serves to contribute to the expression of particular beliefs, thoughts and ideas in such a manner as to assure their predominance.  That is particularly the case where money is essential to the "selling" of beliefs, thoughts and ideas, as it is in these United States.

The majority of the court acknowledges, as it must, that even the right of free speech is subject to reasonable restriction.  However, it apparently feels that money as speech cannot be restricted except in the very limited cases when it is used, directly, in obtaining a quid pro quo.  Also, in a rather stunning statement under the circumstances, it asserts that its decision is required in order to foster the primary purpose of the First Amendment which is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.  Money as speech therefore may be restricted if it is a bribe.  As a bribe, however, money is clearly not speech, as it is in that case something of value given to influence an official in the performance of a public duty.  One is not "bribed" by speech.

So, apparently, money as speech may be restricted when it is not speech.  This would seem to serve to raise questions regarding whether money is in fact speech.  Can money when used to influence politicians be speech when a quid pro quo is not demanded, but not speech when it is demanded?  If it is a thing of value in the latter case, why not the former?

But it also serves to establish what money really is in the context of politics.  It is a means by which influence is obtained and exercised, regardless of whether we call it "speech."  It's not possible to contend that the Justices of the Supreme Court are unaware of this fact.   What SCOTUS seems to be saying is that when money is used to influence public officials, its use is improper, but only in limited and very specific circumstances.  In other circumstances, it is protected by the First Amendment.

Perhaps the majority feels that the very rich, who are indeed a minority, must be free to contribute to politicians, political parties and political causes in a way others cannot in order to protect themselves from the very sizable majority who are not very rich.  If so, the honest assertion of this view would be appreciated and even honorable, in a sense.

If that is their view, though, it would seem that the odd legal conclusion that money is speech is rendered unnecessary.  But when it comes to influence, the rich have no problem getting their voices heard, but not through speech.  Speech is not required for influence, but money most certainly is required.  The influence of the rich will not be thwarted by that of the 99% by any means, and will never be thwarted by them, not because money is protected speech, but because money is spent.

In a system so dependent on money, speech strictly speaking is of little relevance or consequence.  That would seem to be the primary problem with characterizing this as a First Amendment issue.  It is one of power and influence, and where power and influence are concerned, the rich are substantially better equipped than the majority will ever be. 

It's true that the rich have always been better able to influence, if not control, our politics than others.  So that they continue to do so is not remarkable.  What is remarkable to me, though, is the way in which the law is being used to support their influence.  In the past influence was exercised more directly in one sense but also stealthily.  We were less inclined to extol their influence, even inclined to downplay or hide it.  That's no longer the case.   Now we claim that their influence, indeed their greater influence, is required by the Constitution. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Hobby Lobby Case: Cui Bono?

Every now and then I feel wearied if not sickened by the law and the profession to which I belong--which I chose, in fact.  This is indeed the life I've chosen and have led for decades, and little involving the law or its use by lawyers and their clients surprises me now.   For the most part I honor the law and the rule of law in particular.  There are even lawyers and judges I honor.  But there are instances when the law is misused and grossly misinterpreted, primarily for ideological purposes in these dark times.  It seems to me that we see in the efforts of Hobby Lobby to exempt itself from a mandate of the Affordable Care Act such misuse and the potential for misinterpretation which could have serious adverse consequences.

The exceedingly wealthy David Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby, has apparently claimed that God owns that for-profit corporation.  That is a claim that some would consider sacrilegious and which some like me would consider to be at the least in the nature of an insult to the Deity, if indeed the Deity could be insulted.  But let's assume that Mr. Green, for reasons which are no doubt interesting in themselves, sincerely believes that God is the majority (if not the sole) shareholder of a corporation which seeks to make money from the sale of assorted knick-knacks and craft items.

That's rather hard to assume, however.  If Mr. Green believes in a God which is reasonably similar to the God most believe in, i.e. one that is all-powerful, the creator of the vast universe, all-good, perfect, needing and lacking nothing, it would be incredible for him to believe that such God would have any interest in owning Hobby Lobby, or anything else, or in making money.  If we credit Mr. Green with even a rudimentary intelligence, he could not think the Deity to be so petty, so limited, so mean.

So a cynic like me is inclined to wonder whether this litigation is simply yet another effort to vanquish Obamacare, in this case by cynically maintaining there are aspects of it which are contrary to religious beliefs accorded protection under the law.  In other words, I wonder whether the insertion of religion here is tactical only.

However, it appears that those who, in fact, are the legal owners of Hobby Lobby are religious and believe that they are on a kind of Christian mission to make lots of money in a particularly Christian way--a way which is so very Christian it would, presumably, allow the rich to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven regardless of the fact that it would be easier for a camel to go through (or thread?) the eye of a needle.

Assuming arguendo that the legal owners of Hobby Lobby believe that their employees' acquisition and use of contraceptives (and other "sinful" uses of insurance monies) is an affront to their religious beliefs and prevents them from exercising those beliefs, significant questions remain.  In what sense can Hobby Lobby the corporation (and not, I think it's appropriate to say, the property of God the Great Investor) be said to hold such beliefs, let alone to exercise them, in such a manner as to be entitled to an exemption in this case?

For-profit corporations are, of course, "persons" under the law, generally speaking.  But are they persons holding religious beliefs, exercising religious rights?  If so, are these beliefs and rights being exercised by them in their employee relations (hiring, firing, granting benefits to employees) or when they make money, sell or acquire or own property or assets?  Are corporations religious persons only as to certain things they do, or all things?

The legal fiction of corporate "personhood" was developed to provide a shield or veil behind which a corporation's owner was for the most part protected against liability for corporate conduct.  It is a device by which the corporation is very deliberately distinguished from those who own it.  Here, though, the owners of a corporation are trying to more completely associate the corporation with them at least as to their religious beliefs.  It's likely they are not inclined to accept that their corporation is so like them that they should have liability through the corporation, however.  So, presumably, the corporation is separate from its owners in some respects, but not in others.  The corporation and its owners may share religious beliefs, but would not it seems share liability or assets.

Is it possible for the law to accept that corporations hold religious beliefs and exercise such beliefs for certain purposes only?  Is it possible for the law to provide that corporations hold and exercise religious beliefs only in the case of certain religious beliefs?  There are quite a number of religious beliefs, not all of them consistent, not all of them the product of the same religions, and some of them may well be inconsistent with recognized law.  Should those holding such religious beliefs be entitled to form corporations or other legal entities which would thereby be exempt from the law--not just this law but any law?

The law has no business becoming involved in such considerations, and we must hope that the Supremes and others will comprehend the results of inviting religion into corporate, labor, property and other law in this fashion.  Fear of the resulting legal mess and its implications for the separation of Church and State are the primary reasons for such hope.  But it is also interesting to consider just who would benefit by a victory for Hobby Lobby.  In other words, cui bono?

Obviously, it would benefit employers and owners of employers.  It's difficult to establish that professed religious beliefs are not held, or are held loosely.  Assuming religious beliefs should play a part in the law, what is to prevent employers from claiming religious beliefs once they are seen to be tools by which they may lessen the burden of regulation?  Of course those opposing Obamacare, or perhaps any form of national health care, and those many who hold the President in contempt and oppose Democrats in general, would benefit as well.  As would those who feel there should be no separation of Church and State.

Whatever one's opinion of this President may be, his opponents have an obligation to be responsible in their opposition--even in their opposition to national healthcare which, for reasons not entirely clear to me, they seem to think an example of tyranny.  I'm inclined to think their opposition is often less than rational, and is more a question of money and political power than anything else.  Because their opposition is thoughtless, they have become reckless and care nothing regarding the consequences of their actions provided they disturb the President and his policies.   This effort to ascribe religious beliefs to corporations and other legal entities is very reckless indeed, and I suspect those who support it neither understand what the long-term consequences will be if the litigation is successful, nor do they care what those results may be. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fear and the Stoic

A follower, or admirer, or even someone merely interested in the Stoic philosophy should consider its application in the case of the more visceral of the emotions.  I think this is required for an honest appraisal of the effectiveness of stoic practice and of the validity or appropriateness of the philosophy itself.

Of course "visceral" may be deemed to apply to all the emotions to the extent they're not founded on reason.  However, for purposes of this post, I use "visceral" to refer to those emotions which are peculiarly intense; irrational, certainly, as are other emotions, but also having characteristics which are significantly physical or result in physical symptoms, as it were.

I think one of these emotions is fear, particularly where fear manifests itself in such conditions as cold sweats, nausea or an "icy" feeling in the stomach, and even (I suppose it must be said) trembling.  In my case and apparently in many other cases, such a fear is the fear of heights.  Not that I'm overwhelmed by a beautiful vista enjoyed from a secure location high on a hill or mountain; certain of my encounters with high places have actually been enjoyable, particularly when I'm accompanied in my encounter by an alcoholic beverage of my choice.  But in some circumstances, my fear of heights can be paralyzing.

I went zip lining recently, in Jamaica on what's called Mystic Mountain.  This interesting pastime is not one I've pursued in the past, and it wouldn't be accurate to say I pursued it in this case.  Rather, I made a decision to "zip" despite the fact that I feared doing so.  I wasn't surprised to find that I felt fear while doing so as well.  I also felt fear while enduring the agonizing ride up to the starting point of the "zip" on the very high, disturbingly slow, ski-lift or ski-lift equivalent which is the only means of transport available to prospective "zippers."  Slowly making a steep ascent sitting on a kind of thin bench with nothing to hold onto but an appallingly small metal bar as one dangles in the air is, for me, a terrifying experience.

Well, I managed to endure the terror of the ascent and zip lining as well, and am in an odd way pleased at my endurance.  Whether I will ever zip line again is an open question.  But there is something good about overcoming one's fear; something satisfying in any case.

Now in enduring these experiences I made an effort to apply stoic practice.  For example, I reminded myself that whether the ski-lift would function properly, and whether the lines on which I zipped would or would not break, were things quite beyond my control; I reminded myself that Epictetus noted that how and when we would die, as die we will, are also beyond our control; that death is not a thing to fear; that height should no more be a source of fear than any other characteristic of our necessary interaction with the rest of the world, with nature.

It's possible that these considerations contributed to my endurance.  But the fear most certainly was present as were its "symptoms" although those symptoms were not severe enough to render me helpless or a gibbering wreck, and I think that but for white knuckles and a notable rigidity, and a demeanor which would have been, at best, grim, I did not appear significantly distressed.

It may be that I haven't devoted enough time and effort to the kind of "spiritual exercises" one sees in the thoughts and sayings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but I speculate that my fear of heights will never be eradicated by being a Stoic, or at least attempting to be a Stoic.  I think it's fair to say, however, that stoic practice has eradicated or at least rendered minimal my emotional reactions in other cases, i.e. in those cases which don't involve my fear of heights, but which stoic practice has established to my satisfaction should not be allowed to disturb me.

Perhaps the fear of heights and similar fears must be distinguished from other feelings.  Perhaps such fears are based on considerations or conditions which are, so to speak, immune from Stoic philosophy.  I'm not certain of this, though, as Epictetus at least evidently said with some frequency that it should be a matter of indifference whether, e,g., the emperor kills us or incarcerates us, and it would appear the fear of death is for many of us the equivalent of my fear of heights.  So one may infer that to Epictetus the ideal Stoic, the Stoic Sage, would in some manner have extinguished such fears and other "visceral" emotions of feelings.

My thought at this time is that such fear cannot be extinguished; however, it's possible it can be restricted, limited--endured.  To the extent the Stoic philosophy may promote such endurance, however, it is valuable even when applied to those fears and emotions we feel so powerfully "in our guts."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cosmos Redux

Some of us have fond memories of the original, Carl Sagan Cosmos.  As will happen in such cases, some of us wonder why it has reappeared, now narrated by notorious planet-killer Neil deGrasse Tyson.  When the ship of the imagination was piloted by Sagan, Cosmos was a personal voyage.  Now it is something called "a spacetime odyssey" which may or may not be an homage to Kubrick/Clarke's masterpiece, but sounds rather stale.

The first episode, if I may call it that, struck me as uninspired.  Particularly galling was the cartoon segment involving some of the story of Giordano Bruno.  The style of that segment was disturbingly reminiscent of some of the animated features I watched with my daughters when they were little girls, perhaps most of all Disney's Hunchback.  It seems that more of this style of animation, combined with the annoyingly simple narrative which seems always to accompany it, awaits viewers of the series.  This is unfortunate.  Cartoons seem an inappropriate manner in which to communicate the remarkable nature of the cosmos.  The music was insipid as well.  I found myself missing Vangelis' electronic stylings.

While it is possible to criticize the medium in this case, however, it is not possible to deplore the message.  Much has happened since the first Cosmos, including the growth of knowledge of the universeMuch more can be told, therefore, than was told to us in the original.  I hope that telling takes place.  But even the repetition of what was told back then would be useful now, as in many respects we in this Great Republic at least are probably more ignorant of science and the vastness of the universe and its great age than we were when Sagan was the skipper. 

We even flaunt our ignorance, in some respects.  We take pride in demanding that creationism be taught in our schools, in claiming the universe is a mere several thousand years old, in engaging in the kind of antics engaged in during the Scopes trial.  Tennessee then is too similar to Tennessee now.  Whether or not it will penetrate our seemingly willful disregard, we should be reminded of the insignificance of our world and the time we've spent on it.  We should be required to see our colossal arrogance for what it is.

The only good part of the sequence regarding Bruno was the statement that "your god is too small."  We have very small gods indeed, which perhaps is to be expected of our very small planet, but is also to be expected given our lunatic belief that we are the sole or primary concern of the divine creator or sustainer of the almost unimaginably large universe.  Perhaps this Cosmos will serve to raise some questions about the little gods we worship. 

It also seems that this odyssey, like the prior voyage, will emphasize the benefits of science and the use of the scientific or experimental method.  This emphasis may be needed in these dark times, when we are plagued not merely by fundamentalists in religion but also be those who have made careers out of maintaining that science and the methods used in science are no better than any other answer or approach to problems and issues. 

It is of course delicious that the series comes to us via the Fox Network, the news section of which has become a kind of propagandist for rampant religious fundamentalism and anti-science.  But with Fox it's difficult to say just what is or is not really thought by those in charge.  I suspect they are playing us, or at least some of us, and will do and say and broadcast whatever is required to make money; that, after all, is its function.

So it's to be hoped this Cosmos will thrive and be watched, and become a kind of icon as did the original.  I'm not sure it will, though, as Tyson doesn't seem to have the weird charisma Sagan possessed--he was a sort of highly-intelligent Mr. Rogers, talking to adults about wondrous things.  Too wondrous, perhaps?  That probably depends on us.  Little gods for little minds, and we've believed in them for a long time, and still do.  We may just be too little.