How to Live With the Election Results

“Culture is man’s medium; there is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture.” — Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture

According to Ed Hall, American anthropologist and writer, culture is not innate but learned, all of it. Everything in a culture is bound together and culture sets the boundaries that define one tribe or group from another. The odd thing about this is not that we have to learn our culture, but that having learned it we are no longer aware of it. Knowing our context so well we take everything for granted and only pay attention when we stub our toes in the dark because someone moved the furniture. In other words, we only see what we are when we come up against someone who is not like us.


This can be a profoundly disturbing experience, one that sets us back on our heels and causes tempers to flare. Since we learn best through comparison and contrast we should not be surprised when the contrasts between what we think we know about the world, and the way others experience and shape the world, get up in our face. That becomes an ordinance of humility, a teachable moment, an occasion to learn from our mistakes without rubbing out the one who points out our mistakes. 


Amartya Sen, Harvard economist and Nobel Prize winner, explores the presumption that we live in an overarching system which categorizes all of us in exactly the same way. This way can be either religious or cultural, but inevitably it sets us against each other. “A solitarist approach,” writes Sen in Identity and Violence, “can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.” Sen’s reflection on this leads him to the conclusion that when we are assigned one dominant classification  —whether it be religion, or community. or culture, or nation, or civilization — which ignores so much that is essential to our personal identity, the many diverse roles that we play and the interlocking communities we move through — violence is almost always the result. Holding hands and singing Kumbaya no longer works in promoting peace, and the wish to see ourselves as really all the same under our skin ignores the recognition that we are, says Sen, “diversely different (italics the author’s).”


Crises can lead to opportunities for us to learn more about our pluralistic human identities and to use those very differences to wake up and hone our sensitivities. Sen and Hall do not exaggerate when they suggest that our very survival as a species may rely on us understanding those diverse differences, not in seeking to conform us all to one identity. 


This understanding is hard work, very hard work. In fact, some virulent strains in our own culture inoculate us to these exposures. Religion and politics, the two things most avoided in close relationships, seem to thrive on the us-them dichotomy. Since we tend to grow our own identities in proportion to acceptance by our groups, the easiest way, apparently, to quickly build solidarity in the group is to turn it against other groups. That’s a shortcut we cannot afford these days. This is such a natural law of group formation, in my experience, that we may well expect it sooner rather than later in the life cycle of the groups we belong to or desire to join.


Many years ago, in the wake of the Second World War, Gabriel Marcel, the French Catholic existentialist philosopher and playwright, grappled with parallel issues of individuality and freedom. Writing in Man Against Mass Society, Marcel asked what freedom meant in a society which routinely places us in situations that erode our ethics. We have a choice, of course, but we may not always have the means to live out our convictions. There are others who rely on us and for whom we make compromises just to survive to fight another day. In a materialist culture, says Marcel, everything is reduced to commodities and objects, even human beings.


While he could not have foreseen the reach and scope of the global economy of today, he seemed acutely aware of how entangled our convictions and duties are. If you have a problem with the economic conditions that make affordable clothes, food, and electronics, how far will you go to buy only those goods produced in fair  labor conditions? 


We don’t know the future, Marcel says, but it is that very ignorance that keeps us hopeful. By way of revolt against the mass society, Marcel argues that “all philosophies of immanence have had their day (italics his).” And we are called to fight against the idolatries of race and class that they foster. Such a fight, he intimates, isn’t just reserved for those with power, assuming of course, that they haven’t already succumbed to the degradations that go with power over others. He puts it in a sentence: “A man cannot be free or remain free, except in the degree to which he remains linked with that which transcends him, whatever the particular form of that link may be. . . .”


Artists have the possibility of creative action against this materialism more readily than most of us, says Marcel. But he’s quick to note that being an artist brings temptations to startle, to innovate at all costs, to sell oneself to the highest bidder or to retreat into the world of the aesthete. All of us are called to be creators of our own freedom. And the way to that freedom lies through remaining open to others. Materialistic societies like ours, says Marcel, sin against this freedom by excluding as forcefully as possible this openness to others. For Marcel the individual could not claim to be free in a culture which callously excludes some and commoditizes almost everything. 


It’s not easy to reach for the transcendent in a culture that rewards selfishness nor should we presume that our mere opposition to such a culture means that we are open and unselfish. But on the eve of a bitterly fought election perhaps we can remind ourselves that no matter the outcome we may choose the side of the transcendent by learning to listen and to understand those unlike ourselves.

American History

“Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Seneca

When someone in the public eye passes away it causes us to refurbish old memories. Such was the case when Senator George McGovern died at 90 this week, and Jacques Barzun, perhaps our last public intellectual, died at the age of 104 in San Antonio, Texas. Both men were, in their own ways, the last of a kind, the public figure who lives out his or her convictions with grace and irony right up to the end.


McGovern is often remembered as the man who lost to Richard Nixon by a landslide in the 1972 presidential election. Nixon, our most paranoid of presidents, was fearful that George Wallace would take away votes and sought to find anything he could to smear Wallace. The assassination attempt that left Wallace paralyzed took him out of the race and all but assured Nixon the victory. While he sympathized with Wallace in public Nixon privately exulted that the way was now clear. As for McGovern, Nixon’s men explored the possibility of trying to link his campaign with funding from Castro’s government. That particular move proved unnecessary: the country resoundingly rejected McGovern and his liberal politics. Nixon went on triumphantly to a second term in which he disgraced himself and the country by attempting to subvert the Constitution. He avoided impeachment only by resigning on Friday, August 9, 1974.


Nixon’s resignation speech, a rambling, self-indulgent paean to his mother and his lack of money, was picked up by radio by a group of us that day on a windy, rain-swept headland overlooking the sea in the south of Wales. At the time I remember feeling relief that the whole sordid episode was finally over and that we wouldn’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore. 


In moments like that you wonder what alternate history might have been written had McGovern miraculously won. The Democratic Party was never so aligned again with politics that was unabashedly for the rights of women, blacks, the poor, the lame, the halt, and the blind. After defeat McGovern went on to devote himself to the war against hunger in the world. Richard Nixon resurrected himself in time as an elder statesman and at his death was feted by the living presidents of the time. McGovern’s political beliefs seem almost impossibly naive by today’s “whatever” standards. Forty years of Democratic centrism has meant that the party has all but abandoned its constituency of the marginalized. 


History unreels behind us, not so much a transcript of orderly actions, but rather a confession of conflicting desires. We gather it up  occasionally, expecting a confirmation of our cherished memories. We are often rudely shocked by the distance between our present selves and our reverenced past. The passing of George McGovern, himself a scholar of American history, reminds us that there is more to life than Real Housewives and that we learn best from that which we have understood.


Jacques Barzun, in the words of the New York Times’ obituary for him, was a “distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history.” A man who resisted authoritarianism and the dominance of systems, he lived and breathed a liberal humanism that treasured reflection and gratitude for great learning. 


Barzun’s bemused and ironic sensibilities could be read as support for the status quo. In his last major work, From Dawn to Decadence, he notes that “most of what government sets out to do for the public good is resisted as soon as proposed,” and that “The upshot is a floating hostility to things as they are. . . . The hope is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate the new life.” The answer, he suggests, is neither in baptizing the past nor in embracing the new. Rather, “Our distinctive attitude toward history, our habit of arguing from it, turns events into ideas charged with power.” 


Both George McGovern and Jacques Barzun lived with the assurance that ideas matter—profoundly—and that what today seems so new and unprecedented may have already appeared in our past, either as an Angel of Light or of Darkness. What we do with our interpretations will create our futures. 

Running to Stand Still

 “If monarchs have little sympathy with mankind, mankind have even less with monarchs. They are merely to us a sort of state-puppets or royal waxwork, which we may gaze at with superstitious wonder, but have no wish to become . . . .” — William Hazlitt, On Personal Identity.

Why would anyone wish to become president? On the face of it, the highest office that we were told anyone could aspire to and some could attain, is a thankless job. Daily the president is assailed on all sides, sometimes by his own kind, but relentlessly by the disloyal opposition. When he does something that approximates the right thing to do, someone—Charles Krauthammer, most likely—will thunder from the Washington Post and George Will will mutter and mewl. Everything he says and does is subject to the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for “persons of interest” by the FBI or Kim Kardashian. 


Of course, anyone in that position should expect that they’ll be held “accountable”—our favorite euphemism for who is to blame—but the accountability factor often becomes a political football and a blanket term for general dissatisfaction. We don’t often hear that someone is held to be responsible, perhaps because that implies actions governed by ethics rather than just a faux economic term. 


William Hazlitt, writing in the early 19th century, had in mind kings and princes when he disavowed any interest in changing places with them, but his words could apply almost as well with the office of the President. In a way we ask the impossible of our presidents. We expect them to be extraordinary communicators who can talk to anybody—Saudi princes or Joe the Plumber, pizza makers or heads of state. We expect them to have the intel at their fingertips to make a definitive statement on horrific acts that are still unfolding. And we believe that everything that happens between their inauguration and their reelection—or defeat—is a direct result of some action they’ve taken or left out. 


They must be one of us, yet without our annoying and petty grievances. They should be smart enough to solve world economic problems but they shouldn’t be tarred as one of the ’Harvard elite.’ We ask them to maintain America’s dominance by any means necessary but we don’t want to pay for it. We want them to tell the truth but we don’t want to hear it. 


There are a number of reasons why a person might want to be president. First, they want the perks and the power. It’s not the money: the President makes $400,000 per year plus expenses. The CEO of Goldman Sachs made $16.5 million in 2011; John Hammergren of McKesson made $131.19 million in a recent year. But they get the use of a plane, Air Force One, a helicopter, Marine One, a nice place in the country—Camp David—and a tony address in downtown Washington. They’re referred to as “the most powerful person in the world,” and people wave as they drive by in motorcades. 


Another reason is that they might be driven to accomplish what few people do—make it to the top in a profession. If you’re a lawyer I suppose the Supreme Court would be your last and best job offer. Some academics aspire to be presidents of universities, actors to win Oscars, and athletes to compete and win in the Olympics, the Superbowl or the World Cup. And politicians want the White House. Lyndon Johnson ran for the Vice Presidency, not because he wanted it, but because his mentor, Sam Rayburn, couldn’t bear the thought of Richard Nixon getting it. In time and tragically, Johnson got his turn and his term, a position he’d been climbing toward since his early days as a Texas congressman. Bill Clinton found his inspiration in a meeting with President Kennedy as a teenager. Kennedy himself was groomed for the presidency by his father, so the legend goes. 


And no doubt there are those who believe they might do some good, might shape the events of history toward justice or freedom or prosperity. We believe them enough to elect them but we doubt them before they are done. “Why will Mr. Cobbett persist in getting into Parliament?”, asked Hazlitt about a perennial candidate. “He would find himself no longer the same man.” There’s the rub: if you’re man (or woman) enough for the job are you willing to pay the price? 


The price is literally in the millions. Some estimates put the total cost of the 2012 election at over $5 billion, an obscene amount for the return on investment. At least three times a week I get an urgent email from Democratic headquarters: for a mere $3 I can help turn the tide and rout the Republican berserkers. The money will go, I am assured, to paying for ads to refute the latest lies the Romney camp is spouting. Money for truth. . . .


To run, to put yourself and your family through the merciless gauntlet of American public opinion, you’ve got to have a massive ego, strong enough to withstand the constant criticism, supple enough to dodge the blows and yet deep enough to listen to counsel. You have to realize that you ran to make a solid difference in the world, but now it’s not about you, but the myriad powers that be. And if you have anything different to say about it you’d better be sure the mic isn’t hot and it’s off the record. Because you didn’t get there on your own. There are many who put you there for reasons of their own, reasons that will demand a return on their investment. 


But at the end of the day, climbing the stairs to bed like any other person, can you look back on your efforts that day and feel like you rolled the rock up the mountain with purpose and intention? Can you be glad for small victories and brush off the defeats? If you’ve got the ego strength and the humility to realize that the hinge of history may not turn on your command, but you might have pushed the door open just a bit wider for Goodness—then may you sleep well. 

The Moments of Truth

They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another and saying, ‘We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.’ — Luke 7:32, 21st Century King James Bible

When I have a bad day the world does not swerve, is not shaken to its foundations nor rattled to its timbers. This is as it should be. Yet, when Barack Obama has a bad day Democrats gasp and clutch at their hearts, Republicans sneer, and Mr. Mitt comes off a winner. 


The wonder of it all! In the hours that followed the first presidential debate of the season, liberal commentators cried out to their deities, examined the entrails of small animals sacrificed to cast light on the mysteries, and pronounced the President unfit for reelection. With the insight only those blind with fury can have, they looked deep into Barack Obama’s psyche and recoiled at what they saw. Ennui, arrogance, an insouciant desire to hang it all up and knock out a few rounds on the links—it was all there. They shuddered. The President does not want to win! He has thrown the election! My high school debate team could have done better! Alarum!


David Graham of The Atlantic took people like The Beast’s Michael Tomasky, Harper’s Kevin Baker, and unliberal Byron York of The Washington Examiner to task in a perceptive piece which included the great line, “I’m old enough to remember when Obama was running away with the election. It was early last week.” 


Perhaps in a horse-race where the lead changes from moment to moment those backing a particular steed can be forgiven if their hearts freeze in terror when it stumbles. But let’s be real: no legs were broken. This horse need not be put down just yet. 


An hour after the debate I read most of the transcript and I thought the candidates had dealt with some substantive issues. I missed the head-shakes, the downcast eyes, and the pursed lips of Obama, but I also missed the bright gleam in Romney’s eyes as he shape-shifted yet again. 


It’s an interesting experience, reading a debate: it focuses attention on the words and their meanings, not on the gestures, expressions, signals, sounds, and the myriad motions that burn impressions into one’s memory. Researchers in cognitive and perceptual studies tell us that we remember little of what was said but much of what was seen, a fact not lost on political handlers, pole dancers, sales people and senators. 


In a mediasphere formed around images, sound bites, and opinions it might not matter all that much what the candidates think or even less, what they believe in. They are blurred in our eyes, distinguishable only by the captions they are tagged with by the media. Like modernist paintings, they take on the shape suggested by the titles conveniently mounted on the wall next to them. “The new Mitt!” “Obama sags!” “Romney takes command!”


George Gerbner, a communications scholar who studied media effects for decades, believed that the media don’t tell us what to think—they tell us what to think about. They set the agenda; we carry it out and pride ourselves on knowing what’s current. That may not be entirely true anymore. Public figures are primed, prepped, and produced. Like a new line of frozen dinners they come with ingredients listed on the side, a banner with the magic words, “New and improved!,” and attractive packaging. We don’t know what we’ve got until we open it up—and by then we can’t take it back for a refund. This is more than agenda-setting. News organizations used to counter the spin of the public relations people; now they work for them. 


For all the scrutiny that candidates for the presidency go through in the long and excruciating path to election, we may not know much about their souls. We see what we’re allowed to see, hear what’s been scripted, and realize that we’re seeing shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. None of this is deliberately malevolent or deceitful. It’s simply how business works in a contemporary news cycle. 


The best illusions are those in which the audience trusts the illusionist. Oddly enough, it’s the burden, the weight, the power of the idea of trust between the people and their leaders that can, occasionally, elude the barriers set in place. If there’s any integrity at all in the leader the trust of the people will elicit a genuine response, one that will be evident in the moment. The unspoken hope that keeps this experiment going is the belief in those moments of truth.





Gaming the System

“It is impossible to tell which of the two dispositions we find in men is more harmful in a republic, that which seeks to maintain an established position or that which has none but seeks to acquire it.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, c. 1515.

Soon after Paul Ryan’s ascendancy to the Republican Vice Presidential candidacy, he flew to Las Vegas to meet with a hotel room full of wealthy investors. They were there, we might suppose, to look over the merchandise and to assess its value to them in the coming months and years, provided—God willing—that their money and influence prevailed and the American people returned the throne to its rightful owners after a brief hiatus. That such bald-faced dealing goes on in American politics is no surprise. After all, this is the old normal brought out of the smoke-filled back rooms and given a shave, a fresh suit of clothes, some cheery one-liners about “opportunity” and “economic realignment” and made to sing and dance in the public square. We’re used to it by now. And that is what is disheartening about the current grand experiment in democracy.


Those who lean toward the liberal tradition should not congratulate themselves for good taste in morality either, since no one ascends Capitol Hill without having first bowed the knee to Mammon. At least that is what we are led to believe, and without first-hand experience how are we to refute it? There is so much that relies on trust in the political realm that we find our limited supply used up with nothing much to show for it.


We like to think that in electing a person to the Presidency we have first fairly assessed his character. We look to opinions by the press, statements by the candidates, endorsements by the parties, and most especially, actions taken. In the glare of campaign publicity every flaw, every hot mike statement, every photo op becomes a lens through which we might examine them with a critical, if not discerning, eye. 


Cicero, Roman statesman and grand orator, wrote to his brother Marcus in 64 BC, advising him on running a campaign for political office, by counseling, “For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.” Cicero notes that Marcus is courteous and thoughtful, “but you can be rather stiff at times.” No stranger to political machinations and intrigues, Cicero urges his brother to learn the art of flattery, “a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” In other words, even in ancient Rome, the campaign was all about appearances, not about substance.


Cicero is up front and center in this season, especially his letter to his brother. James Carville, former Machiavelli to Bill Clinton, has quoted it at length with approval as an effective playbook for candidate Obama to follow. Others have done so for Romney. The letter appears, with irony, in Lapham’s Quarterly for Fall 2012. Although Cicero may appear calculating by our standards, he was, in his own time, something of a model for public officials. Incorruptible and uncompromising in his personal morality, he nevertheless knew his way around Roman politics and, more importantly, he understood human nature. It is both disconcerting and strangely reassuring that so little has changed over the centuries. 


It’s a game, Cicero seems to be hinting; play it well and you can change things for the better. It’s a utilitarian argument that many a public official, church leader, statesman, and citizen has used to justify bent actions leading to a straight-arrow outcome. But there are two potential outcomes of such actions that cannot be dismissed. 


The first is the polarization of positions, each extreme quick to portray the other in the worst possible light. While the name-calling and mud-slinging is irritating and distracting, it’s not dangerous unless it actually threatens our position in the world. Politicians can kick sand in each others’ faces in their own playground, but when lies are daily compounded with interest on the world stage then it’s time to put the country ahead of the candidates. 

The second—and by far the more dangerous of the two— is that the citizenry, in every generation, comes to realize that politics falls far short of the enterprise it claims to be. Far from advocating on behalf of the people, the elected enjoy the spoils of their war upon the electorate. We’d be touchingly naive not to recognize this, but that betrayal of trust corrodes the very beams and braces that support the structure of government. Realizing this provokes cynicism and indifference. The game is rigged and we find ourselves, like the farmyard animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, unable to tell the pigs from the humans.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau presumes us to be in a social contract and says, “As soon as public service ceases to be the main concern of the citizens and they come to prefer to serve the state with their purse rather than their person, the state is already close to ruin. . . As soon as someone says of the business of the state, ‘What does it matter to me?’—then the state must be reckoned lost.”


Sometimes it feels like we’re living out Yeats’ Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is it wrong to believe in the promise of democracy even though those who would govern us don’t seem to? 

Propagating the Faith in Tampa and Charlotte

“. . . . [B]y keeping a watchful eye on men of extraordinary rank I have discovered that they are, for the most part, just like the rest of us.” — Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship

The Republican and Democratic conventions are over. The confetti has landed and the balloons have popped. The circumstances of the scripted pomp made it possible to see in the faces of the attending faithful both the past and the future: for Republicans a virtual sea of white, for Democrats a fair slice of what America looks like now and shall be evermore. 


Pundits (a Sanskrit word for explorers; now referring to scholarly commentators for media outlets) were surprised at Romney’s modesty and lack of viciousness. Some were underwhelmed by the President’s speech and angered that he didn’t use the occasion to bludgeon his opponents or at least box them about the head and ears. 


We can imagine that such events are carefully scripted to avoid such embarrassments as Clint Eastwood’s amateur hour show, but it is a measure of the political expectations of the day when the President is faulted for a speech that does not promise the moon, but remains firmly planted on this earth. 


I’m not sure where the truth about the state of the country lies, but I am fairly certain that the lies about the country will be stated ad nauseam in the weeks that remain before Election Day. Both sides will endeavor to influence us—the masses—through sophisticated techniques of propaganda. Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, authors of a respected textbook in communication studies entitled Propaganda and Persuasion, conclude their fourth edition, released just after 9/11, with some generalizations about propaganda. Several of these bear repeating for they can serve as litmus tests—if the water turns red or blue as a result, there must be some propaganda about.


Propaganda, say Jowett and O’Donnell, tells people what to think and how to behave. When we get most of our information from the media we become the unwitting supporters of an invisible institution.


Even when it’s clear that we are receiving propaganda, we’ll still react favorably toward it. The familiarity of the message through the constant repetition gives us the comfort of the ‘known’ and creates resonance where there may have been none before.


People form up into opposing camps in response to propaganda and ‘fight’ for their ideological truths. How many candidates for public office offer to ‘negotiate’ or ‘compromise’ or ‘dialogue’ over the issues? Ummmmm. . . . almost one. Most of them assure us they’ll be off to Washington to fight corruption, cut our taxes, and defend our God-given values. 


Media techniques and technologies operate 24/7, compiling research and data that can be mined, filtered, sorted, dispersed, compressed, and reconstituted by simply adding money. Jowett and O’Donnell note that, “People’s predispositions are easily identifiable through market research, making them easy targets for propaganda.” 


Displays of aggression toward the enemy are likely manufactured for internal consumption. The authors add drily that these displays “may not phase the enemy, but they can bolster morale at home.” 


Finally, propaganda may not be an evil thing in itself. It all depends on the context: one man’s assault weapon may be another’s Constitutional right. Propaganda comes in many guises, some of which are closer to the truth than others. The difficulty, of course, is finding the distinction between them.


The authors close with the somewhat world-weary hope that “in a free society, somewhere, somehow, alternative message systems always appear.” 


Montaigne had another take on the matter of political leadership. Having served in public office and been welcomed at the courts of various European countries, he had opportunity to observe the rich and powerful close up. He likens the entourage around public figures to a religious cult and cheerfully observes that “the gravity, academic robes and rank of the man who is speaking often lend credence to arguments which are vain and silly . . . . or that a man who is entrusted with so many missions and offices of state, a man so disdainful and so arrogant, is not cleverer than another man who bows to him from afar and whom nobody ever employs!”


Religious politics, like secular politics, is never far from mind-bending justifications for its follies. There, too, we find fertile land for propaganda, for the very word, derived from a Latin term for propagating or sowing, was embodied by the Vatican in 1622 in the institution responsible for propagating the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. While it was thus originally a positive term it later came to have pejorative connotations through Catholic opposition to Protestantism. 


When a religious institution feels its foundations to be threatened, either by a shift of the theological tectonic plates or the drift of social ethics, it often responds with a swift denunciation of the new and a demand for conformity. Falling into line is never referred to by such a gauche term however; the usual language is for unity over dissension, the preservation of the church as a structure being paramount over ethical considerations. In such ways, the church might actually lag behind society on important issues like gender discrimination, the ordination of women, and the role of women in an institution that has traditionally been supported and sustained more by women than by men. 


Perhaps what we might come to reluctantly is the understanding that since propaganda, like the poor, is always with us, we have ample opportunity to study it and learn its forms and range. In politics, as in religion, there is much at stake, not the least of which is the universal desire for power and status. Propaganda arises from fear, the fear of losing control. Montaigne lightly dismissed such fears by saying, “Most of this world’s events happen by themselves,” and concludes, “The outcome often lends authority to the most inept leadership.” 


But we do not have to leave it up to Fate. In a democracy, however fractious and fearful it is, the hope remains that where people act for the good of all their own needs are most often met. The process is slow, change is incremental, solutions will not be found through vilification or greed, but at some point we can turn around, look back, and see that the dots actually connected. Truth was lived in the struggle.

The Grace of Simple Things

“I believe in all that has never yet been spoken. I want to free what waits within me so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear without my contriving.” — Rainier Rilke, Book of Hours, 1, 12 (trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy).

There are times in our lives when the moment is so deep, so simple, as to be transparent and effortless. Within that moment we sense that the rush of events has subsided and we, quietly grateful, find ourselves turning in a gentle current to gaze first here and then there, and to feel ourselves lifted and set upon our feet on a new morning at the edge of a far wilderness.


Those are moments that one treasures, storing them up for the times when the days turn to rust and the air sears as we sit in the stink of traffic waiting for the light to change. There are never enough of these moments, and in time they fade, although the mere desire for them can conjure up a train of images—some unrelated to the first experience—which gradually take on an iconic weight and bearing. 


I’ve enjoyed enough of these that I can string them like pearls in my consciousness, holding them up to the light and seeing how they’ve changed over the years. There is curiosity in recalling which ones marked stages in my life. They are like ancient buried ships whose mounded boundaries we circumscribe unaware until we gain the heights and look back and down and gradually discern the outlines.


For me, these moments most usually come when I’m alone in the vicinity of strangers or near a lake or river or mountain or beach. I am booked up with a scripture (the Gospels, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada or the Bhagavad Gita), some poetry (Rilke, Blake, Eliot, or Stafford) and some philosophy (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcel or Augustine)—and a fine cup of strong, rich coffee. Setting off for these possible transcendences there is anticipation, but at the very least the satisfaction of a good experience. We cannot plan for these moments but we can be ready for them. 


I had one such experience while on holiday recently, visiting family in Banff, Alberta. Early on a Saturday morning, a time of special holiness for me, I moved through the quiet streets alone in the cool dawn. In search of a quiet shop with coffee, I found one—Evelyn’s Coffee Bar—on Banff Avenue. I was past the door when I noticed it, stopped and backed up. The sign said Saturday, 8 am to 9 pm, but it was 7:45 and the door was open, so I went in, the first customer of the day. 


The only other person was behind the bar, a polite and cheerful young man from the East End of London by the sound of it. With mug in hand I sat in the window that fronted the street and gazed in wonder at the mountain that rose thousands of feet in the near distance. There was morning light all around—I could see it filling in the space between the peaks—but the town was in that blue shade that only exists in the shadow of a mountain that is blocking the sun. Streams of light shot from its shoulders and I knew that in minutes I’d be in the full glare of the sun as it crested the peak. 


I was reading Rilke’s Book of Hours, in a translation I’ve come to revere, in a passage that carried all my longings to create:


“If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.”

By now one or two more early customers had come in. The English barista had been joined behind the bar by a young woman who spoke with a Scandinavian accent. 

“Wot time are we to open?” he asked, as they worked. I could not hear her murmured reply, but he responded, “Cos I wasn’t sure if it was 7:30 or 8:00 so I opened at 7:30 just to be safe.”

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.”

And then the light burst over the peak and in one astonishing moment the street in front of me, the window, my books and cup—everything was shot through with white, pure light, warm to the touch but with hard-edged shadows. 

“I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.”

We move through this world in a sullen daze more often than not. We mind our own business, shuffling through the streets, not meeting the eyes of those around us, drifting like motes in the sun. But occasionally, if we dare to look up, if we glimpse—even in imagination or memory—the trembling, fiery annunciation of the morning, we might just be graced into joy.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.”


Courage Without Calculation

“But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.” — Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.

Courage is the virtue found between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice. Virtue, in Aristotle’s view, could be achieved through reflection, discipline, and practice. Since it did not come naturally to us, it would have to be applied, and that could only come through deliberate conditioning of ourselves. Virtue through habit would become our second nature.


How does one practice courage in this society? Not many of us are called upon to rescue our lambs from a lion nor are we required to go up against a Goliath. Some might argue that it takes a type of courage to navigate rush hour in an American metropolis, but we know that is a limited type of courage, if courage it is. Mostly, it requires steady nerves and a willingness to regard fellow drivers as both weary travelers (to be given the benefit of the doubt) and latent killers, as oblivious as clams to others in their proximity while they chatter on their cell phones. 


But there is a more obvious type of courage which we have seen recently, and as an example of virtue in the classical sense it is without parallel. In the Aurora, Colorado killings several young men reacted instantly to the sight and sound of gunfire by shielding others with their bodies. At least one was ex-military, a young National Guardsman who had served in Iraq and was thinking of signing up for another tour. He saved the life of his girlfriend by throwing her to the floor and covering her with his body. When the shooting stopped and she tried to get up she discovered he had taken a bullet for her. 


Action like that is heroic but not unexpected from a soldier. If anything, it is a testimony to the power of military training that some people react to gunfire by protecting others before saving themselves. That certainly does not diminish his actions in our eyes, in fact, it only reinforces belief that virtue can be trained into a person.


But what is even more remarkable is that several other people—civilians all—did the same thing in those first chaotic minutes. They stood up for girlfriends, children, and others, reacting instinctively without hesitation. This suggests that courage and selflessness were so deeply engrained in them that they did not have to agonize over the decision. It was second nature to them. 


As more details emerge over the next few months other stories of heroism and courage will no doubt come to light. Without knowing these people it’s probably not fair to make generalizations about their actions in hopes of predicting a trend. A lot of things could have played into those instantaneous reactions, but it’s heartening to know that the person next to you in a crowded public space might be a hero-in-waiting.


We often define heroes as people who have done extraordinary acts, like the 9/11 police and firemen who ran into the Twin Towers to rescue people while everyone else was desperately scrambling to get out. Or we think of them as achieving something against great odds, like winning a gold medal at the Olympics. 


But as Carol S. Pearson notes in her book, The Hero Within, these kinds of heroism are rare. “The first is a necessity born out of extreme conditions; the second results from exceptional talent combined with favorable conditions and great effort.” Pearson respects these actions but widens the field to include ordinary people who are called to a heroic journey. They are not generally called upon to handle everything thrown at them: “Rather, it is doing your own part, however humble that might be . . . . It merely requires absolute fidelity to your own authentic path.”


I’ve always believed that we catch a glimpse of our true nature when we’re startled out of the ordinary. Without a chance to duck behind a pretense or put on a game-face we simply react from the inside to the ‘slings and arrows’ of the outside world. It’s easy to see the call of duty as the bolt that shot the Aurora people into action. Immanuel Kant, whose deontological ethics have had a profound effect on philosophy since the Enlightenment, believed that the right action in any ethical dilemma is that which springs from the will, not from calculating the benefits or losses. If they’d stopped to do a cost-benefit analysis as the bullets thudded into bodies around them even more people would have died. 


There is courage that knows the odds and goes forward anyway, such as the soldier advancing into enemy fire. There is courage that simply stays the course when it would be so easy and so comforting to drop the whole thing. And there is the courage that becomes part of our moral DNA, ready in an instant to do the right thing no matter what. At various times in our lives we may need all of them.


If we follow Aristotle’s thinking in these lines, we understand that courage of any sort doesn’t come naturally to us. The wires have been strung but the switch hasn’t been thrown. Or as Jesus put it to his drowsy disciples shortly before his arrest: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”


The Stoic philosopher Seneca exhorts us to learn how to live before we die. Instead of complaining that life is too short, he says, we need to stop squandering our time. If we could have a tally of the years that remain to us, how carefully we would use them! Could there be a more cheerful retort to moral laziness than this? “Life is long if you know how to use it.” 

Just Say No to Bossa Nova?

 

“For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” — Max Beerbohm

The first time I heard the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together performed with flute and acoustic guitar, I was fascinated. My wife and I had just been seated at our usual place in our favorite Thai restaurant and were glancing over the menu, when something caught my attention. Canned music at restaurants is meant to be an unobtrusive soundtrack for conversation, and so this would have been had I not realized with a shock of cognitive dissonance that this was music of the Rolling Stones. You just don’t expect the Stones to show up as Muzak. Not only that, it was the Stones done as bossa nova! The soloist had the kind of breathy voice one hears at high school variety shows where the girls all try to sound like Celine Dion. 
 
No doubt the restaurant owner was sold on the lilting tones of the flute, the gentle thrum of nylon strings, and the pleasingly insipid performance of the soloist. Each song was like the last, resolutely nondescript, a suitable backdrop for dinner guests and the musical equivalent of Gerber’s whipped peas without the tasteful greeniness. 
 
My fascination turned to horror as I realized there was more to come. This was an entire album of Stones’ songs, featuring different bossa nova groups, each one trying to outdo the others in mellowness.
 
Soon I was straining to hear above the contented lowing of the guests and the clink of plates and glasses. I couldn’t turn away; it was like watching someone trip over a cliff in slow motion. And the hits kept coming: Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Ruby Tuesday, Paint it Black, Tumbling Dice. The producers had left no stone unturned in their zeal to cover the classics. I later discovered that this was actually a 2-CD set, available on Amazon, accompanied by gushing reviews that likened it favorably to “mellow goo.”
 
My horror here does not arise from instrumental versions of these classics. Jagger and Richards have turned out many tunes that will stand the test of time on their musical hooks alone. But reflection on the phenomenon of Bossa Nova vs Rolling Stones reveals a callous disregard for what we might call the disposition and provenance of the music. 
 
Disposition refers to the attitude of some object, provenance to the origins of a thing or a person. We understand the attitude of a work of art when we sense that the content is consonant with the form. In other words, the way it’s performed either fulfills its purpose or destroys its meaning. The subject matter demands that it be delivered with the appropriate passion. You just can’t sing Satisfaction as if you were complaining ever so delicately about your margarita. That song howled about the maddening itch of advertising, the sharp pang of unrequited lust, and what it feels like to have no place to stand without being hassled. Keith Richard’s brazen riffs perfectly matched Jagger’s bitter shouts.
 
On the other hand, the provenance of a work of art reveals where it’s coming from. Context carries understanding for those who bother to look. The Stones wrote music that was rooted in the blues, expressed through rock ‘n roll, in an era of jagged social disjunctions. That doesn’t mean their songs are locked in the past, it just means they come from a particular time and place. 
 
Does this leave any room for interpretation by other artists? That depends. In Alan Parker’s film, The Commitments (1991), about a Dublin-based soul band, the veteran session player, Lips Fagan, bristles when one of the younger players adds his own variation to the classic, Mustang Sally. “You can’t do that!” he argues. “You’ve got to play it the way it was written.” Allowing for the fact that you can never play a song the same way twice, this view says that the score is a holy script and you demean the music to play anything but what’s in the original. 
 
But another view says that once a song leaves its composer and makes its way through the world, it stands on its own with new friends in new places. Covers are a staple in music, not just by those starting out, but also by seasoned professionals who honor the muse and the music through their own interpretations. 
 
I think it’s hard to beat Sting at his own game, but one of Washington, D.C.’s own artists, the late Eva Cassidy, came pretty close on her version of Sting’s incomparable Fields of Gold. Recorded live at Blues Alley here in D.C., Cassidy’s version is not an imitation, it’s an interpretation that takes nothing away from the original but can beautifully stand on its own. That’s because she understood the music and the lyrics intimately; she made them alive inside her and what came out was both homage and creation.
 
Joni Mitchell wrote Woodstock even though she missed it. Her producer, knowing how jammed the roads around the festival were, was afraid she’d never make it back to New York for a performance on the Dick Cavett Show. So one of the iconic figures of her generation never made it to the iconic music festival of the twentieth century. Mitchell’s version is hauntingly slow, almost ominous, lean and spare, a kind of elegy of lost youth. Crosby, Stills, and Nash turned it into a defiant celebration of idealism, throbbing with Still’s guitar licks and CSN’s signature harmonies. Their version soars, Mitchell’s lingers wistfully. Both are authentic, the Yin and Yang of a true classic. 
  
Sometimes an artist’s talents in one area overshadow their ability in another area. I’ve never found the Beach Boys’ lyrics to match the grace and splendor of their music. The musical movements of Good Vibrations are truly astonishing, yet the lyrics are lame.  
 
In 1965 Paul McCartney recorded Yesterday in a London studio with just an acoustic guitar and a string ensemble. In 1999 it was voted the best song of the 20th century by a BBC2 poll and in 2000 it was voted the No. 1 best pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone. It’s been covered in 2,200 versions and remains one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music. I’ve heard numerous versions that are genuine interpretations and others that are tin-plated embarrassments. The difference is palpable. 
 
Sometimes an artist creates a version of another person’s song that is revelatory more of the performer than the song. Bob Dylan’s Christmas album of 2009 was a surprise to many, not simply because he’s Jewish, but because it didn’t fit their view of him. Every Christmas I’m usually done with the songs and hymns long before they’re mothballed for the rest of the year. But when I heard Dylan’s versions of these familiar favorites I was touched. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas comes off as sappy and sentimental after about two weeks in the seasonal rotation on-air, but Dylan’s scratchy, gentle, and poignant version rings true to me, the gathering up of grudging affection from an aging troubadour. 
 
Needless to say, all this is subject to individual judgments. We speak of “having taste” and usually mean not just that someone has preferences but that they have “good” preferences. Can something so subjective, so vulnerable to individual associations and meanings, ever find a standard that everyone could use? David Hume thought such subjective values could be verified by experts over time. Kant believed that we could arrive at a usable standard through reason, and Schopenhauer thought that the truth of the music was in its ability to reveal us to ourselves. 
 
If you’re a music doctor come to heal others through your ability to reveal truths about music, this is your malpractice insurance—the notion that whatever moves us is our truth. It can’t be refuted and doesn’t need to be. 
 
It’s humbling to realize that our standards for quality in music are as varied and numerous as there are people. But it’s also fascinating to see that we make such judgments effortlessly— at the speed of sound. We know what we like and we don’t have to agonize about it. What I hope for myself, however, is a spirit that opens more willingly to the new, cherishes the old, and nurtures creativity.

A Meditation on Violence

“The most intrepid valor may be employed in the cause of the greatest injustice.” — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.


The horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado at the Batman premiere, exposes afresh the great divide in this country over the “right” to bear arms. I put quotes around the word to suggest that the matter is not settled.

The gunman entered through the exit down by the front of the theatre near the screen, apparently wearing a flak jacket and holding a weapon. It is a measure of the surreal nature of our current forms of entertainment that some in the audience actually thought he had been hired by the theatre for the premiere. Eyewitness accounts say he fired into the air and then began methodically shooting people, shell casings raining down on the head of one young woman who had flung herself to the floor almost at his feet. 

We can imagine how the slight distraction of the late arriver quickly gave way to panic as bodies fell and people screamed. It is worth meditating on this scene in our imagination because this is the result of choices we have made. 

This event, like other massacres in recent memory, was not a crime of passion. It was deliberate, planned for, premeditated, thus it could not be predicted nor could it easily be stopped. The shooter used a weapon that is designed to exert maximum force in the shortest possible time for the greatest possible damage to living creatures. It is painfully obvious, yet bears repeating, that this is what guns are for. 

Colorado, like other states, allows its citizens to carry concealed weapons, so that the law-abiding can protect themselves and their loved ones from the predations of people like this shooter. And judging by many comments on news stories about the shooting, a lot of people go to the movies packing weapons. In the interest of always being prepared for the wildest of contingencies the pre-movie conversation might go like this: “Okay, let’s see. . . . we’ve got the popcorn, the giant size Butterfingers, the gallon of soda and. . . honey, your Glock or mine?”

Thus, while one man plans to kill at the movies, others prepare to kill there too. One is a psychopath, the others are normal people simply exercising their Constitutional right to bear arms—to kill if they deem it necessary. While the consequences may be the same—people shot dead—we make a distinction between the intentions: in one case malevolent, in the other case heroic. Or so we tell ourselves. 

The issue of gun control is a litmus test that many politicians face at one point or another. Most of them pass it with flying colors because they won’t  go up against the NRA and its millions. And in the meantime assault rifles are available and handguns are cheap. Common sense would suggest that most people are concerned with their families, paying their bills, maybe having a nice afternoon with the kids at the movies. They don’t think about packing weaponry because for most people in this country life goes on fairly uneventfully. Episodes like this one are extremely rare, although news coverage burns them into our reptilian brains to the extent that we may come to believe we are under siege.

I am not belittling the horror of this event nor am I suggesting that people have no cause to be wary. But events like this reveal the disconnect between our ideals and our prejudices. Democracies like ours have at their bedrock the twin values of personal autonomy and toleration. The first creates the need for the second; the second is frequently strained by the stridency with which the first is asserted. When autonomy outguns empathy everybody loses. We feel threatened by the very freedom we demand when others exercise their freedom. So it stands to reason that if we live in fear despite our many freedoms, then something is seriously  wrong. 

Violence begets violence says the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others, many of whom died because they did not take up arms against their brothers. Was it worth it? Yes, because the very fact that we can view non-violence as an option means that their witness had an effect through time. 

The strongest protection against shooting each other is to regard the other’s life as our sacred trust. Such a viewpoint demands courage and determination, virtues that must be believed to be seen. That’s the best solution, but it remains a matter of personal conviction. Yet, we have every reason to teach and persuade to that end, to create a society where this becomes the norm.

Since we humans don’t have a great record at doing the right thing for its own sake, the next best approach is to punish those who do wrong and reward those who do right. Oh. . . yes . . . we’re trying that right now.

In the grand scheme of things we’re undergoing some kind of moral evolution over the centuries. But it’s one step forward, two steps back, none of it guaranteed, and our last century stands as the bloodiest in human history. Given that, you’d think we would try to give ourselves a timeout, maybe hide some of the sharper objects while we learn some basic moral lessons. At the very least you could expect that we’d rise up in revulsion and ban assault weapons. How is that an infringement on someone’s rights?

We’re addicted to violence and we need an intervention. We don’t seem to have the will or the desire, as a nation, to pull together. It takes a manufactured war and a constant campaign of fear to get us in line, but even that hasn’t worked. What does work, apparently, is our insatiable desire for vicarious violence. For the few among us who cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, the sharp jolt of our mediated mayhem can create for them visions of invincibility. Perhaps they see themselves as avengers of wrongs or heroes of a twisted justice. 

For the rest of us, the steady accumulation of images of violence, like an IV drip, has entered our bloodstream. It renders us passive, uncritical, unwilling to stand apart and critique our own behavior. Violence understood is not violence condoned but neither is it taken for granted or passed over lightly. 

The underlying irony to this whole tragic episode is that Batman fights without guns. He relies on his wits, his strength, and a limitless supply of technological marvels. He knows the lure of power and the lust for blood, and he fights the inclination to justify evil in the name of good. As Adam Smith notes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Amidst great provocations, apparent tranquillity and good-humor may sometimes conceal the most determined and cruel resolution to revenge.” 

We are no more doomed to a constant cycle of violence than we are promised a sunlit paradise without any shadows. But we can make some choices that can change our lives. That much we can do.