Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Stay in Bedlam

It's unclear whether we're inmates or visitors, but I think we've reached the place.  Let us go then, you and I, into Bedlam.
It's said Bedlam is another name for Bethlehem Royal Hospital, an institution for the insane which was around for quite some time; the oldest such place by repute.  It's infamous for many reasons, but perhaps it's most notorious because it put the mentally ill or those who were thought to be mentally ill on display, to paying visitors.  It was a kind of human zoo, though those behind its bars were likely never treated as well as animals are in the better zoos we have now.  This post is graced by one of the prints of Hogarth's series of works called The Rake's Progress, showing the decline of a good-for-nothing son of a rich merchant, who ends up in Bedlam, eventually.  Served him right.
"Bedlam" the word as opposed to the institution has come to mean a scene of chaos or mad confusion.  Perhaps it's just me, but this is what I've come to think the politics of our Great Republic has become.  The spectacle is sometimes amusing in a grotesque fashion.  I like to think, and hope, that I'm an observer and not a resident.  I suspect I feel in those moments of amusement something along the lines of what visitors to Bedlam felt--a combination of embarrassment, amazement, distress and shameful enjoyment of the oddities who appear before me as I walk, if a viewer of TV or user of a computer can be said to walk, through the madhouse or rather the madhouses which are Congress and the White House.
How did it come to this?  Was it inevitable that our Glorious Union would come to be presided over by an ignorant, venal lout, and be represented by craven and equally venal lackeys of special interests?  Old Ben Franklin may have been right when he surmised that we would eventually become so corrupt as to require a despotic government.  We have as Chief Executive someone it seems would like to be a despot, is used to being one in his privately-owned business, but I think we're more a plutocracy than anything else.
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell not all that long ago created their very different dystopian visions of what they thought we and our masters might, or were likely, to become.  Neither of those visions, though, envisioned or encompassed a government by the obnoxious, for the obnoxious and of the obnoxious.  How else can we describe those who believe themselves to be our leaders?  Orwell, perhaps, came closer to the truth in his Animal Farm where pigs and humans become the same sad, selfish creatures.
My hopes for the government of our future are minimal.  I have no expectation of greatness or achievement by our leaders.  I merely hope to be left alone.  A solitary confinement, call it, in one of the cells, free for the most part from interference any more invasive than the yammering and posturing we can't escape from, really, in this world where the show is always going on and there is no respite.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Idol Speculation

It's said that successful demagogues grasp more than others the fact that people when part of a group are manipulated not by reason or argument but by an appeal to emotion and the mere repetition of an easily stated proposition or better yet a utterly unsupported assertion that is known to appeal to them.  It may appeal to them for various reasons.  It may be something they desire to be true, it may be something for which they seek assurance, it may be something they want to do or see happen for elemental reasons.

Not surprisingly, those who are successful demagogues are also prized by those they so manipulate.  They say what their audience thinks or better yet wants to think, believe or want to believe.  Also, they relieve their audience from the need to think.  Thinking being onerous, it's easily dispensed with, eagerly put aside.  Why think when all is so clear?  Why think when someone has already thought, and to your liking, on a matter important to you?

Those who manipulate come themselves to be manipulated, though, through the adulation of those they manipulate.  The idol expects to be idolized.  They relish it.  So it becomes necessary to preserve the idea, or claim, or desire, that fosters the manipulation that causes one to be an idol.

Usually, idols fall after a time.  Probably, some other idol comes along.  Or it may be that once the idol provides what the idolaters seek, they lose their usefulness.  There's something else to be sought and that may be provided by someone else.

Charles Foster Kane, Orson Welles' fictional stand in for William Randolph Hearst, learned this and huddled in his Xanadu while he was forgotten.  It's odd, though, that those who idolize when one idol proves unnecessary or unworthy merely replace one fallen idol with another. 

Did those religious who smashed icons and idols believe them to eradicated, not understanding that they merely replaced them with idols and icons of another kind?  It's likely they didn't.  It's likely that they simply convinced themselves that their idol wasn't an idol, not really.  A bare cross was substituted for statuary.  A book became sacrosanct instead of an image.

It's the same in politics and other matters.  There is an unreasoning acceptance of someone or something, replaced eventually by the unreasoning acceptance of someone or something else.
This is the norm it seems in the doings of humanity, for good or ill.

Overpopulation may threaten us for more than one reason, then.  It isn't just that our numbers exceed the resources available.  It's that we are more and more inclined to think and act as a crowd or mob or group rather than as individuals, which is to say in a thoughtless, irrational manner.  We're also more subject to manipulation because the demagogue  has access to us in more ways and may more effectively communicate in manners and through methods unimaginable even to those of the 20th century. 

Are we herd animals?  Have we always been so, or will we become so?  Who will ride the herd; who rides it now?  For how long?

Idols are accepted without scrutiny.  Thus we are where we are.  It's hard to explain in some other fashion why we're here, watching a buffoon capering haphazardly on the world stage like a malicious, mean, petty-minded  child or brat.  But idols fall, and this one will return someday to his own lonely, preposterous and gaudy tower.  We can hope our next choice is less scatterbrained and corrupt, hardly worthy of respect even as a villain.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The Triumph of Barbarism and Religion"

These words appear in the final chapter of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Thus he characterizes what he's described in prior volumes in six words.  It seems a clear statement of his position, very incisive and succinct.  It's something of a pleasure to read such a bold pronouncement from a historian, as the historians of today seem hesitant to make judgments of any kind, victims perhaps of a what appears to be a growing culture of timid ambivalence in Academia.  Woe to those who are perceived as having come to a conclusion, especially regarding anything it is now customary to claim cannot be judged.  Which is a great many things.
It's no doubt inadvisable to come to such a definite conclusion regarding something as complicated as the Fall of Rome (though Gibbon is always a joy to read).  Also inadvisable to attribute the Fall to only two causes or factors.  Barbarians certainly came to rule territory formerly ruled by Roman Emperors, but they did so sometimes as at least nominally the functionaries of the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, which survived for may years after the year traditionally said to be the fall of the West, 476 C.E., or if not as rulers who perceived themselves and were perceived as successors to the Emperors, continuing the rule of Rome albeit in somewhat different ways.  The leaders of those  barbarians were usually high-ranking members of the Roman military, trained by Romans, familiar with Roman customs and civilization.
As late as the 9th century, Charlemagne, (a descendant of the barbarians known to the Romans as Franks) took up the mantle of Rome in the Latin West.  Rome's shadow falls over most of the history of the West, though.  The Holy Roman Empire which Voltaire said was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, survived into modern times, and the Kaisers and the Czars owed their titles, at least, to the Caesars.

Religion in the form of Christianity certainly came to rule in a sense as well, in both West and East.  An intolerant religion which believes itself exclusive, possessing the truth and worshipping the One True God, by its nature seeks to rule the minds and conduct of all.  But it's difficult to maintain Christianity was a cause of the Fall of Rome, as the Christianized Roman Empire of the East continued to exist for roughly one thousand years after the year 476 C. E., although in a continuously diminished form.
What is taking place in our times, however, in the name of a religion and through the efforts of people who can justly be called barbarians, threatens a triumph of the kind Gibbon felt took place in the 5th century.  If Gibbon was right about the corrosive effect of barbarism and religion, combined, then perhaps his statement will be more true of our century than the centuries of which he wrote.
It's difficult to believe that there are heavily armed people who are intent on causing us, by force, to live and think as members of a particular religion did in the 7th century.  What reasonable person living in the 21st century would think that desirable, or even possible on a large scale?  Why return to the distant past?  But then, it isn't merely the time after the spread of Islam that these barbarians reject and want others to reject.  The time before the 7th century is also condemned by them.  Witness their destruction of the great remains of civilizations of the even more distant past.
Here we have the true fanatic at work.  Great efforts are being made to destroy the new barbarians or at least stop their progress.  Well and good, but one wonders, sometimes, whether some of those involved in the effort or their masters have come or will come to believe that it is necessary to fight fanaticism with fanaticism inspired by another, better, religion; or to employ irrational means to fight the irrational.
That would lead to a triumph of barbarism and religion of a different kind, resulting in a state somewhat more familiar to we of the West but I think equally deadly to Western civilization.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Failing Hands

In the past month or so, I've fallen three times.  For no good reason.  That's not to say there's ever a good reason for falling, although I suppose that if it's in the course of ducking a projectile of some kind, that would be one.

The falls weren't debilitating, though the last two may be attributed to a debilitation in the thigh or knee resulting from the first.  They nonetheless serve to remind me of age and aging and, most uncomfortably, of my age and the all-too undeniable fact that I'm aging.

The "failing hands" referred to in the title to this post are those of the dead, said (somewhat unreasonably) by the poet who wrote In Flanders Field to throw the torch, meant to represent their quarrel with the foe, to those others who will replace them in the fight.  I venture to say that the dead have no hands, and that if they can be said to have them they are not failing but have failed entirely.  "Failing" is nevertheless something age can cause hands, and other parts of the body, to do, and "hands" may mean the hands of a clock as well as those of a man, and a clock measures time as it passes and as time passes we age. 

Aging is a curious thing.  It's association with time in the form of clocks is interesting and suggestive.  Clocks run down, and so do we.  Time passes, and we, eventually, pass away.  Why do we age, with time?  Why does age bring with it the successive decrease of strength and vitality and the increase in weakness and vulnerability?  Time's arrow wounds us and that wound is ultimately fatal.

It's disturbing and has disturbed many throughout--yes, I'm afraid--time.  Some it disturbs mightily.  Hemingway, it seems, despaired of life in part because he was unable to enjoy what he felt was good in it.  In his case that apparently included the ritualistic killing of bulls and causing the deaths of various fish and animals.  Be that as it may, though, he could no longer take his part in what was good as he had in the past and this exacerbated his depression and alcoholism and the possible bipolar disorder which ran in his family.

Others have even rejoiced in it, though.  At least, they've purported to do so.  Those have typically been convinced that life is bad in some sense, or a mere sojourn; a temporary and painful journey required for entry into a sublime state beyond the body.  Yeats compared an old man to a tattered coat on a stick, claiming by implication that is all an old man is, unless "soul claps it hands and sings and louder sings, for every tatter in its mortal dress."  I quote that from memory and may be wrong, but it's a wonderful line in a wonderful poem, and seems apt for those who think of life as, ultimately, a burden.

According to Epictetus, we are little souls carrying around corpses.  Another striking phrase.  Stoics as well as some Christians, and others, have thought that our lives as mortals are insignificant in the end.  This makes sense as the Stoics thought that what was divine in us is not our bodies, but the soul which partakes in the divine and is a part of it.  However, the Stoics could not hate the body or our lives as I think Christian zealots did and still do.  The divine was a part of the universe to them, a part of all that lives in the universe as well.  When the body dies and dissolves, that which is divine in us remains as part of the living universe.

What is simply is.  We age, and as Epictetus also said we should do at all times, we continue to do the best that we can with what is in our power and take the rest of what time and age bring as it happens.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

In Praise of Thinking

Those of a certain age may remember Rodin's statute, The Thinker, primarily due to the appearance of its likeness on TV, looming over Dobie Gillis as he thought aloud; mostly regarding his many loves and their loss.  It was an effective narrative device, and one of the show's several charms, topped, of course, by Maynard G. Krebs.

I think much about thinking and its benefits.  I think most about what benefits it would have if it was more prevalent in our remarkably thoughtless times.

I think John Dewey was right, and that we only think when faced with a problem we wish to resolve, a situation we find undesirable and desire to "fix."  Dewey may have caused confusion in calling his theory of inquiry "Logic."  He certainly confused Bertrand Russell who, typically, could think of logic as nothing but the logic with which he was familiar and at which he excelled.  What I think Dewey had in mind was the description of what takes place when we think intelligently of problems we face and overcome.  Logic, insofar as it is instrumental, is a kind of inquiry devoted to that purpose.  It functions within the analysis of a question and in the consideration of a claim.

What seems striking about these times is that we have available to us a great deal of information, more information than has ever before been available and that information is easily accessed by almost all of us.  Yet, we seem less and less able to think about that information, or anything else, intelligently.  It may be that our ability to access information, almost instantly, has encouraged us not to think.  We need only employ our smart phones or tablets or personal computers to find answers.

The unfortunate thing about information is that it may be accurate or inaccurate.  It may be fact or fiction.  It may be mere opinion.  It may be dogma, doctrine, propaganda.  It may be anything at all and used for a number of undesirable purposes.

Sifting through information requires the ability to think clearly and critically, to assess and to judge intelligently.  Without that ability, we're subject to self-delusion or manipulation by others.  As Dewey noted, we only think when resolving problems.  The rest of the time, we're creatures of habit, or daydreamers.  We're at best observers, at worst believers in whatever information we access, uncritically, which we find satisfying.  We accept that information without bothering to confirm or question it in any sense.

This may account for the fact that we seem now more than ever to accept certain information and reject other information, unthinkingly and often it seems regardless of evidence.   For example, those who believe the world is about 6,000 years old do so regardless of evidence (information) establishing that it's much, much older.  They are instead convinced by other information issued by like believers which asserts that the evidence against their belief is incorrect or is motivated by a desire to confuse them.  They'll accept the belief they find most satisfying and reject evidence not only because they're already inclined to do so, but because they don't know how to make intelligent judgments.

The view that it is possible to judge intelligently and decide whether one claim or another is accurate or one course of conduct or another preferable has itself been subject to attack for some time, of course.  This attack has been all too successful, as there are those who believe the idea that we can make judgments or distinguish between right or wrong, correct or incorrect, to be absurd.  If that's the case, why bother to think at all?

The great problem to be solved to remedy these circumstances involves education.  How do we induce people to think critically?  That would seem to be something we should do as soon as possible during the process of education, but how do it?  How teach children to identify premises and assumptions and treat them with skepticism, require support for claims, test possible answers?  Would we even be allowed to do so?  Would parents object if the result would be that their children questioned their parents' cherished beliefs?

Probably not, unless it's possible to accomplish this without offending the sensibilities or sensitivities of parents by teaching a kind of elementary logic without reference to controversial or accepted beliefs.  Logic in the abstract, let's say.  True critical thinking may have to be deferred until college.

Unfortunately, though, it appears colleges have taken to purging certain unpopular views or prohibiting them even from being stated let alone criticized.   Left and Right, liberal and conservative seem to be united in the effort to encourage people not to think, not to consider.  To hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

Sometimes it seems, to this uninvolved spectator at least, that what we begin to see at colleges is a reversion to a kind of scholasticism, a tendency for learning to be based purely on dogma and doctrine and their extension or development subject to imposed limits enforced by faculty and students alike.  It would be appropriate, if this is true, that outside the Academy we see those features of a New Dark Age where thought and conduct is similarly narrow in focus.  But if so we can hope that history repeats itself and that another Renaissance awaits.