What's in a word?
When I think about the word “gift”, I must distinguish in my own mind between the German language and the English language. Then, the word “gift” exists in both languages, albeit with different meanings. It is well-known that German and English belong to the same family of languages, and therefore it is no surprise that there are many similarities between the two. Words like “Vater” and “father” or “Mutter” and “mother” show the linguistic connection very clearly. Now the English word “gift” comes from the verb “give”. Likewise, the German word “Gift” comes from the verb “geben”. The meaning of “Gift” and “gift” were originally the same in a formal sense. If you check your Webster dictionary, you will find a definition of “gift” such as this: “something voluntarily transferred from one person to another without compensation”. This also applied originally to the German “Gift”, but with time, “Gift” came to be associated with the giving of a poisonous drink to another person. Today, the German word “Gift” simply means “poison”, whereas the English word “gift” has retained the meaning of “a benevolent present”, “a token of friendship” or “an expression of love”. I will leave it to the reader to decide if the English word “gift” can have under certain circumstances the undertone of “poison”. In any case, if you have German friends, you might want to avoid the word “gift” during the Holiday Season. If you are exchanging gifts with them, call it a “present”–that’s a harmless Latin derivative.
Minorities and Majorities
My thoughts turn very often at Christmas time to those for whom the season brings not only joy, but also sadness. Surrounded by expressions of joy and festivity, those who have experienced tragedy in their lives find it difficult to participate in the season. But this year, I am thinking more about the difference between minority and majority groups in our society. Although I, as an American living in Switzerland, experienced to some extent being a cultural minority, I was at the same time immersed in a culture with many familiar elements. Zurich was the home of the Swiss Reformation in the sixteenth century, and at Christmas time, Susan and I celebrated the season with other Protestants who had befriended us. So in spite of being an expatriate for many years, I have never experienced Christmas as a member of a minority group, and I can only imagine how it would feel. What if I lived in a culture where I saw bumper stickers that said “Keep the Torah in Hanukkah” or “Keep Allah in Ramadan” instead of “Keep Christ in Christmas”? What sort of experience would Christmas be in such a setting? So I want to remember this year that Christianity has not only a particular history, but also a universal thrust, as the writer of the Gospel of John expressed so well: “...the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth...God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”. The place of worship as well as the cult had become insignificant for John, and therefore he focused on the experience itself. Admittedly, the somewhat existentialist view of John is not necessarily representative of the entire New Testament, but it is an important message to bear in mind at a time when the relationships in our society between minority and majority groups seem to be so strained. Amidst the festivities of the day, remember that the differences that distinguish us are not nearly as great as the bonds that bind us together as human beings.
Wort zur Jahreswende
Das alte Jahr geht zu Ende, und wir treten bald ins Neue Jahr. Der Wechsel von einem Jahr zum andern löst in uns meistens gemischte Gefühle von Hoffnung und Traurigkeit aus. Man verspricht sich etwas Gutes vom neuen Jahr; schon allein das Wort „neu“ tönt hoffnungsvoll. Aber die Unaufhaltsamkeit der Zeit - ich meine, die Tatsache, dass wir wohl oder übel ins neue Jahr treten müssen - dies stimmt uns eher nachdenklich oder sogar traurig. Die Vergangenheit verblasst, die Zukunft kommt unaufhaltsam. Von daher ist das Bedürfnis des Menschen durchaus verständlich, diese Wende der Zeit in Familien- und Freundeskreis zu feiern. Die Wende von einem Jahr zum andern lässt die Zeitlichkeit des Menschen deutlich erkennen und führt unsere Gedanken auf die Vergangenheit und auf die Zukunft zugleich, wie der Name des ersten Monats des Jahres „Januar“ andeutet. Der doppelgesichtige römische Gott Janus galt ursprünglich als Gottheit der Tordurchgänge und eignete sich gut als Gott des Neujahrsfestes, weil er mit seinen zwei Gesichtern zugleich nach vorn und zurück blickt, nach der Vergangenheit und in die Zukunft.
Wenn wir uns von dem römischen Janus leiten lassen und einen Blick auf das vergangene Jahr richten, dann kommen uns viele Ereignisse im persönlichen Bereich sofort in den Sinn – das Glück und das Unglück, das wir erfahren haben, das Gelungene und das Misslungene, das Erfreuliche und das Traurige. Und dieser Rückblick macht uns wieder einmal bewusst, wie das Glück und das Unglück im Leben ständig miteinander vermischt sind. Das Leben, wie wir es erfahren, ist immer zweideutig. Aber trotz der Zweideutigkeit des Lebens wird die Bilanz des ausgehenden Jahres für die meisten positiv ausfallen, wenn wir uns richtig überlegen. Gewiss hat jeder von uns seine schweren Stunden gehabt, aber das Gute hat in den meisten Fällen bei Weitem überwogen, sodass wir voller Freude ins Neue Jahr treten können.
New Year's Thought
The Old Year is coming to an end, and soon we will be entering the New Year. The transition from one year to the next evokes in us very often mixed feelings of hope and sadness. We have hopes of good things happening in the new year, and yet the very fact that, for better or worse, we must enter the new year causes us to reflect upon our lives. The past fades away, and the future comes inexorably. In view of this, it is understandable that we feel the need to celebrate the coming of the New Year with family and friends. The turn from the old to the new year discloses the temporality of human existence and leads our thoughts to the past and to the future at the same time, just as the name of the first month of the year “January” indicates. The double-faced roman god “Janus” was originally the god of the passageway through the gates and is, therefore, very suitable as an image of the New Year’s celebration. With his two faces, Janus looks backward to the past and casts a watchful eye toward the future.
If we take the Roman god Janus as our guide and turn our attention to the past year, we will surely call to mind many events in our personal lives–times of happiness, but also periods of misfortune, successes and failures, joyful occasions, but also times of sadness. Reflecting back on the year makes us aware once again, how happiness and sadness are mixed in our lives. Life, as we experience it, always has an ambiguous character. But in spite of the ambiguity of life, the balance sheet of the past year will turn out to be positive for most of us, if we consider it properly. To be sure, every one of us has had difficult moments, but the good that we were allowed to enjoy overweighed in most cases the times of distress. So let us now enter the New Year with a hopeful and joyful spirit.
The Noble Lie
When one of my daughters was a second grader in Zurich , she came home one day from Sunday School and exclaimed that the teacher had talked about “Notlügen”. Now, a “Notlüge” in German is basically what is known in English as a “little white lie”, except that the word “Not” means a “difficult situation”. So a “Notlüge” is a lie that one tells when one is in a difficult situation and wishes for whatever reason to avoid the truth. The reasons for avoiding the truth can be, of course, quite diverse. There are extreme situations, in which the truth would jeopardize the lives of other persons, and there are totally harmless situations, in which the truth would simply be embarrassing to the person speaking or hearing it. In general, I am not particularly impressed with the concept of a “Notlüge” or “little white lie”, although I recognize that it may be necessary in some situations. However, to tell a second grader that lying is alright in a pinch seems to me a highly questionable statement. On this basis, every conceivable lie of the child would be justifiable! After all, why do children tell lies in the first place? Because they are in a pinch!
In the political realm, the “little white lie” has been taken to a new level in the last 20-30 years. Based on a translation of a passage in Plato’s “Republic”, Leo Strauss, former professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and the intellectual father of the neoconservatives, helped to popularize the phrase “noble lie”. Although I have learned much from Strauss, I disagree with his understanding of Plato, but that’s another matter. A “noble lie”, as it has come to be understood, is one that a politician tells for the benefit of society. The assumption behind the “noble lie” is fundamentally elitist. The public is assumed to be either too stupid or too ignorant to deal appropriately with the truth; therefore, the elite politicians, i.e. the intellectuals who really understand the world, must tell the public “noble lies” in order to further the common interests of the society. So, for instance, when it is argued before the United Nations that there is convincing evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is nothing more than a “noble lie” to benefit a nation of people who are hopelessly incapable of understanding foreign affairs. As in the case of the “Notlüge” or “little white lie”, I recognize that there are extreme situations in which the truth would jeopardize human lives, but to tell a politician that lies can be “noble” strikes me as reckless. Lies may be necessary, but they are never noble. And those who tell them should proceed with the utmost caution.
Je suis Charlie!
The massacre in Paris that left 12 people dead has shaken the entire Western world. The cartoonists of “Charlie Hebdo” who were murdered in cold blood were performing their occupational tasks within the bounds of French law and within the generally accepted context of ethical standards in Western societies. Publications like “Charlie Hebdo” depend on the right of free speech, on the right of the press to express opposing views. So strong a value is this right that people all over the world were expressing their dismay and horror over the tragic event as well as their sympathy for the families of the cartoonists with this phrase: Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie). I am not very often impressed with the statements of our Government, but I found yesterday’s statement of John Kerry in French to be a remarkable expression of solidarity with the French people. At the risk of mispronouncing a foreign language, our Secretary of State expressed a unity of spirit with the people of France that could not have been conveyed in English. Some observers interpret the attack on “Charlie Hebdo” as an attack on Western civilization in general; others see it as an act of revenge against a French publication that has made sport of Islam. Inasmuch as “Charlie Hebdo” is a symbol of free press in the Western world, the two views seem in the end to coalesce. The right of free expression in the press is a value that we are not willing to sacrifice, and those who commit heinous crimes in revolt against this right must be brought to justice.
There is, in my opinion, more to be said about this, but this is not the time to say it. For now, our hearts go out to the French people and especially to the families of the victims. In solidarity we say: Je suis Charlie!
When I read the morning newspaper, I often reflect on the gulf that separates us from our classical heritage; how different was the thinking of a man like Cicero when he wrote about the Roman Republic or when he composed a work dedicated to his son Marcus, which was entitled “On Duties” (“De officiis”). In “On Duties”, Cicero discusses four major virtues, one of which is decorum. In English, we also have the word “decorum”, but the Latin word decorum had a broader meaning. When we speak of “decorum”, we usually mean something like polite behavior or good taste. Although these nuances are also included in Cicero’s understanding, he thinks of decorum as a primary virtue of life alongside justice. For him, decorum means an orderliness and appropriateness of life that always accompanies the striving for justice. In a world in which human rights have become the focal point of moral and political discussion, it is worth remembering that orderliness and appropriateness of life are essential for a stable society.
Today, an article appeared in the “New York Times” about the legality of showing the Confederate battle flag as a logo on license plates. The United States Supreme Court is hearing a lawsuit brought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans who claim that the denial of their right to display the Confederate flag in this way is tantamount to a denial of their First Amendment rights. In my opinion, it would be refreshing to hear such issues discussed from the point of view of appropriateness. Does a display of the Confederate battle flag further peace in our country? Does it improve relationships among groups of differing opinions? Is it really appropriate at this point in time? If there are lingering issues that the Sons of Confederate Veterans need to voice, can we not find some suitable forum for public dialogue? Has meaningful dialogue between opposing groups in our country been replaced totally by slogans on bumper stickers and license plates? Perhaps some reflection on our classical heritage would open up for us new perspectives.
The Voice of the Other
My wife and I recently attended the theater play “The Best of Enemies”. The play is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s book by the same title and portrays the true story of the relationship between a hate-filled leader of the KKK and an African-American civil rights activist during the 1971 desegregation of the schools in Durham, NC. At the beginning of the play, the prejudices on both sides are given dramatic and sometimes almost shocking expression, but as the play progresses, the two main characters are forced by circumstances into dialogue with each other, which slowly alters their perspectives. As they argue over civil rights, each begins to understand and appreciate the position of the other. Each begins to perceive the other as a person, and as they move to the personal level, they are able to give up many of the prejudices that they had harbored for so many years. It is a remarkable play and carries a message that goes well beyond the civil rights issue: Hearing the voice of the Other.
There is a tendency in our society to demonize those whose political and morals views we do not share. We cease to see them as persons, and we condemn them as though they and their prejudices were one and the same. We forget so easily that the things we share in common are much greater than the differences that set us apart. Rediscovering the personal in others would not only be enriching for individuals, but also stimulating for our democracy, and as “The Best of Enemies” so clearly portrays, the path to rediscovering the personal is dialogue. By “dialogue”, I do not mean a “contest of wits” to determine a winner nor the pre-programmed propaganda of talk shows that only mock authentic dialogue. To carry on authentic dialogue, we must accept the limitations of our own thinking about an issue, and we must open ourselves to the possibility that the perspective of the other might be correct in some regard. In short: We must hear the voice of the Other. The outcome of such dialogue can never be determined in advance. That’s what makes it interesting, at times even exciting. Such dialogue requires, however, a good measure of courage. I wonder if we, in our uncertain times, can still muster it.
Of Manners and Morals
I recently saw a book title that caught my attention: “A Short History of Rudeness”. As the author Mark Caldwell points out, there was concern around the beginning of the twentieth century about the state of manners in the United States. In 1900, “Ladies’ Home Journal” published an article entitled: “Has the American Bad Manners?”, and shortly thereafter, there appeared in “Harper’s Weekly” the article “Decay of American Manners”. After the publication of Emily Post’s “Etiquette” in 1922, the situation improved markedly, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century, concerns about American manners were voiced once again.
One could consider the issue of manners trivial. What difference does it really make if I open the door for my wife? Or if I use the proper fork for my salad? Or if I wear my bill cap at the dinner table? Or if I wear a ragged sweatshirt and tennis shoes when I go to a restaurant in the evening? What difference does it really make? Yes, one could consider the issue of manners trivial, were it not for the underlying relationship between manners and morals. That manners are indissolubly linked to serious moral issues was in previous generations understood quite well; it is, however, an insight that has slipped once again into forgetfulness.
Both manners and morals are to a large extent a matter of accepted convention in society, and where there is no accepted convention about manners, morals become a matter of personal preference. Accordingly, the difference between right and wrong becomes a decision to be made by the individual. If something pleases me and doesn’t harm anyone else, then I can consider it to be morally right. In my forthcoming book “Citizens of the Broken Compass”, I argue that there are few moral standards left in our country. Religious conservatives base their views on the Bible; liberals support their views by referring to the concept of human rights and tolerance. Neither position can sustain critical analysis, and in the end, we are left with no accepted convention for morals or manners. Just consider the moral values reflected in Hollywood films and pay attention to the behavior of people around you. What happened to the high moral standards of times past and where are the gentlemen and the ladies today? Lax morals and bad manners go hand in hand.
In the last week of January, a Nashville jury convicted two former Vanderbilt University football players of raping a female student inside a campus dorm. The details of the case have appeared in newspapers from New York to Zürich, Switzerland and need not be repeated here. As an alumnus of Vanderbilt, I am appalled at this occurrence on campus, and I am deeply disturbed that my alma mater has allowed such a thing to happen. In an email letter to the alumni/ae, the present chancellor of the University attempted to exonerate the University itself, claiming that the “heinous conduct described at the trial was not the product of Vanderbilt’s culture”. Quite frankly, I am unconvinced by his statements. The emphasis placed on maintaining the reputation of a private university as well as the ever increasing emphasis placed on achieving success in a brutal contact sport like football cannot in the long run fail to have a negative impact on the conduct of students.
When I was a student at Vanderbilt, football was of no particular significance. Occasionally our team won a game, but only occasionally. The premium placed on winning today has created an entirely different culture on campus. Who seriously thinks that heavy contact sports promote the development in young Americans of the sensitivities necessary for polite and courteous relationships? It would be a mistake, however, to lay the full blame for this incident on Vanderbilt’s exaggerated stress on reputation and sports. The problem goes much deeper than that.
The United States has always been a country with a “rough and ready” culture. The settling of the West was not accomplished by poets and musicians, but rather by tough personalities who did not shy away from violent behavior when it seemed necessary. To be blunter: The US has a long history of violence. In addition to the multiple wars waged in the nineteenth (War of 1812, Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish War) and the twentieth centuries (WWI, WWII, Korean War etc.), there were the lynchings in the South, and the brutality between police and Afro-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, there is something different today. Violence is no longer limited to war, and it is no longer directed discriminately against certain groups. Violence has become an accepted way of life in America. We torture prisoners in violation of the Geneva Convention. We execute mentally retarded criminals. We find violent conduct in Hollywood films entertaining – and the list goes on. The students who perpetrated the violence on Vanderbilt campus are not an isolated case. Such things are happening across the country on university campuses as well as on military bases.
When are we going to admit that we have a serious problem and take concrete steps to improve the situation? It is, after all, our responsibility. Then, to a greater or lesser extent, all of us are complicit in these acts of violence.
I suppose that Valentine’s Day is an appropriate occasion to talk about love. Although we have in the English language only one word for “love”, the classical Greek language had four distinct words with varying nuances. Transliterated they are: “storge”, “eros”, “philia”, and “agape”. The Greek word “storge” refers to the love between parents and children. Parents are supposed to love their children, and children likewise should by nature love their parents. This is a special type of love – one thinks of a mother’s love for her child –, and the Greeks had a special word for it. On the other hand, the word “eros”, from which we get the English word “erotic”, is a type of love that involves a strong attraction between two people; this attraction can be psychological or spiritual, but in most cases, it is physical. That is, “eros” is most often associated with romantic love. “Philia” is the love of friendship; it is the brotherly or sisterly love that binds people together in a harmonious community. Characteristic of “philia” is the willingness to put oneself in the position of the other person and to act in his or her best interest. Finally, the word “agape” refers primarily to Christian love. Actually, the word existed before the Christian era, but it did not gain great importance until it was incorporated into the vocabulary of Christian faith. When we read in the New Testament about loving our neighbor as ourselves, it is the “agape” type of love that is meant. We could call this type of love a divine love because it is the love with which God deals with human beings (“For God so loved the world ...”).
It was typical of classical Greek to make such distinctions as this: parental love, physical love, friendship love, and divine love. On Valentine’s Day, it is traditional to think about romantic love, and pictures of Cupid and hearts on greeting cards abound. In classical mythology, Cupid was, of course, the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection, and he has come down to us as a popular symbol for the love of “eros”. But a good relationship between a man and a woman, especially a good marriage relationship, must involve more than the “eros” kind of love. It must also be based on the love of friendship (philia), which enables each person to act in the interest of the other, and it must have a touch of the godly love (agape), which makes it possible to forgive and to trust.
With these few remarks, Happy Valentine’s Day to my wife Susan and to all those couples who read my “Daily Thoughts”.
A Circle of Violence
Once again, we are reading in the news about an attack on the proponents of free speech. Last Saturday, Omar al-Hussein, a young muslin who had recently been released from prison, attacked an event in Copenhagen that was promoting free speech. The presumed target of the attack was the Swedish artist Lars Vilks who had received death threats for depicting the head of the Prophet Muhammad on a dog. Vilks himself was unharmed, but a Danish film director was killed and three police officers were injured. This attack comes a month after the massacre in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the news media has been quick to draw the obvious parallels.
I find the event in Copenhagen to be particularly tragic because, in my opinion, all parties involved bear some responsibility for the loss of life. On the one hand, I am outraged at the violence of the attacker, and I find absolutely no justification, religious or otherwise, for his conduct. A civilized society cannot long endure if its citizens do not tolerate the opinions of those with whom they disagree. Today, we live in a religiously pluralistic society, and it is imperative that we learn to accommodate ourselves to the diversity around us.
On the other hand, I am troubled that the participants in the event in Copenhagen consider their right of free expression to be absolute and that they are, therefore, unwilling to temper their voices with a genuine concern for others. I agree that freedom of expression is an essential element in democratic societies, but I also think that respect for others is a foundational element in human relationships. Quite frankly, I would find it offensive if a cartoonist portrayed the head of Jesus on a dog. Such provocation is itself a subtle form of violence, and it strikes me in the current world situation not only as unnecessary, but also as totally irresponsible. Of course, the cartoonist will argue that he is defending a democratic principle. That may well be. But what about mutual respect for each other? What about concern for the feelings of others? I am weary of the liberals and the conservatives alike who defend principles to the detriment of actual human beings. Yes, I support free speech, but I am equally committed to mutual respect, to prudence of conduct, and to a concern for the common good.
Bill O’Reilly – Factor or Fraud?
As everyone knows by now, the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has come under attack by the magazine Mother Jones. In the article written by David Corn and Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones, it is maintained that Mr. O’Reilly misled audiences with stories about his war reporting; of particular interest has been his claim that he was in the conflict area during the Falklands war. Mr. O’Reilly has voiced his denial of wrongdoing in the sharpest terms and has announced that he will settle the dispute on his show “The O’Reilly Factor”. Now, one hardly knows how to judge his statement about settling the dispute on his own show; whether this is an expression of hubris or ignorance is difficult to ascertain. In any case, it is the credibility of Mr. O’Reilly that is under consideration, and he cannot act as judge in his own case. As I am sure he knows, the dispute will be settled in the court of public opinion, and even if it is detrimental to his case, actual facts will in the end play some role in the matter.
Noam Chomsky once commented that the elite universities in the States have a primary function in teaching good manners. Seeing that Mr. O’Reilly is an alumnus of Harvard University, I have been a bit disappointed in his use of language in defending himself. Still, Mr. O’Reilly’s manners are not the issue here; under discussion is his veracity. But even this issue strikes me as a secondary concern. The real question is not whether Mr. O’Reilly exaggerated his stories, but rather whether Fox News has promoted a culture of deception that goes far beyond the alleged exaggeration of war tales.
If we step back from the O’Reilly controversy and focus on the network itself, the picture that emerges is not a very favorable one. In my opinion, Fox News has presented over an extended period a distorted view of international politics through its selective reporting and skewed interpretation of data. What has emerged recently, however, goes beyond a mere biased interpretation of facts and involves nothing less than the fabrication of “facts” where actual facts do not support the Fox News narrative. A case in point is the recent claim of Steven Emerson, a Fox News regular who purports to be a terrorist expert, that Birmingham, England is populated primarily by Muslims and is considered in England to be a so-called “no-go area” for Christians. Needless to say, the residents of Birmingham, which is a primarily Christian city, were outraged, and Emerson was forced to apologize for his prevarication.
A simple apology by Mr. Emerson does not, however, resolve the matter, nor will a settling of the controversy surrounding Mr. O’Reilly resolve the root problem of deception in the news media. Whether Mr. O’Reilly is a significant “Factor” in understanding world politics or whether he is simply a “Fraud” concerns me much less than the culture of deception in the corporately funded news services - a culture of deception that is destroying our democracy. No democracy can survive without adequate and reliable information about national and international events. Even if we don’t particularly like the truth, we need to know it. Otherwise, we cannot make responsible decisions for the welfare of our country.
Mother may have been wrong!
“Mother Jones”, that is. I don’t mean that the magazine “Mother Jones” was wrong about its allegations concerning the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Rather, I mean that the authors of the article may have been wrong in assuming that facts would make any real difference to the American public. Fox News, like many other major news services, operates on well-established principles of propaganda, chief among these being unambiguous assertion and constant repetition. Perhaps unique in the case of Fox News is the addition of a strong emotional component.
The principles of propaganda were developed in the context of the psychology of the masses and were understood quite well by the end of the First World War. As far back as 1895, the French intellectual Gustave Le Bon, who was vehemently opposed to the notion of democracy, had done groundbreaking work on mass psychology and had published his ideas in “Psychologie de foules”. Le Bon’s book was quickly translated into English and appeared in London under the title “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (1896). Le Bon had nothing but disdain for the general public, which he characterized as “the confused herd”, and he was convinced that the “herd” was incapable of making rational decisions about political matters. He proposed, therefore, certain basic methods of manipulating public opinion: l’affirmation (assertion), la répétition (repetition) et la contagion (contagion). Pure assertions, constantly repeated and charged with emotion, are the key to manipulating the “confused herd”. It is the emotional element that reaches the unconscious and makes the ideas contagious. In communicating with the public, rational arguments are not only useless, they are counterproductive. Public opinion is moved not by reason, but by emotion. Making emotionally charged, unfounded assertions and constantly repeating them are, according to Le Bon, the surest way to change public opinion.
This is not the place to give an historical account of propaganda in the States. Suffice it to say that the principles of Le Bon were adopted and elaborated by Woodrow Wilson’s “Creel Commission” during the First World War. Following the War, Walter Lippmann, who is considered by many to be the Father of Modern Journalism, developed these ideas further and utilized them not only in his own journalistic endeavors, but also in his advisory capacity for several US presidents.
What all of this means for the controversy between David Corn of Mother Jones and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News can be summed up in the key words of Le Bon: assertion, repetition, contagion. David Corn may have the facts and the rational arguments on his side, but Bill O’Reilly has the opportunity daily (repetition) to make unambiguous statements (assertion) with an emotional fervor (contagion) that will inevitably move public opinion. If Le Bon and Walter Lippmann were right, it is not necessary to speak the truth in order to convince the public. Simple affirmative statements, filled with emotion and repeated frequently, will win the day. What this means for our democracy should be clear to everyone.
Don’t Blame Tom – It was just the Moon!
Everyone has heard the latest news by now. On Monday, March 9, forty-seven Republican senators sent an open letter directly to Tehran, Iran, suggesting that any nuclear deal with the Obama administration would not be constitutionally binding because a future president or Congress could take steps to revoke it. Vice-President Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not only blasted the Republican senators in Congress; he has criticized directly the author of the letter, freshman Republican Senator Tom Cotton, for willfully sabotaging the negotiations.
If we didn’t know the name Tom Cotton before this, we certainly do now. He is the junior United States Senator from Arkansas. Since the English word “senator” is a Latin derivative and is related linguistically to the word “senile”, I usually try to give the senators some leeway for making mistakes or even blunders. But in the case of Tom Cotton, this line of thinking is invalid. Since he was born in 1977, we can hardly attribute to him the usual senility characteristic of senators. The defect in his thinking must lie somewhere else, perhaps in his education. But wait! Senator Cotton is a Harvard alumnus: Harvard College (1998) and Harvard Law School (2002). So his education seems to be not only adequate, but superior. So the explanation for his spearheading a lunatic letter to the Iranians must be found elsewhere.
Now the explanation currently circulating is this: He as well as the 46 other Republican senators wanted to undermine the negotiations with Iran for at least three reasons. First of all, embarrassing President Obama is in any case sufficient reason to draft and send such a letter. Secondly, sabotaging the negotiations would certainly please Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom the Republicans also invited to speak before Congress. Thirdly, supporters of the Likud party in Israel such as Sheldon Adelson – who was incidentally present at the Netanyahu speech before Congress – would be sure to reward such efforts financially during the upcoming presidential campaign. All of this makes perfect sense from a purely political point of view. But let’s not forget that we are considering the actions of US senators, and it is difficult to believe that 46 of them, led by the brilliant young Tom Cotton, would act in such a partisan manner with no apparent regard for the welfare of the nation.
So it occurred to me that the reason for their actions might have something to do with the full moon. The full moon in March fell on the 5th of the month, and the letter from the Republicans was sent to Iran on the 9th. Allowing a few days for the concocting of the idea and the drafting of the letter, we can assume that the senators were already actively engaged in the project on the 5th, i.e. precisely on the night of the full moon. From medieval folklore, we know that lunatics react strangely to lunar variations, particularly to the full moon, and although we live in a scientific age, we cannot exclude the possibility that the people of the Middle Ages were right about this. At least, the actions of the senators would seem to confirm the idea. If my interpretation is correct, it could open up an entirely new line of inquiry into the US-Iran relations. Perhaps, it was also a full moon in 1953 when President Eisenhower decided to participate in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, thus paving the way for the radical Ayatollahs to take control of the country. After all, it’s inconceivable that our President would have done such a thing simply for the benefit of British Petroleum (then the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). Be that as it may, the Iranians have not been very friendly toward us since we overthrew their government. Getting back to the present situation, I must confess: Although I prefer the full-moon explanation to the sabotage theory, it does have one disconcerting aspect. It exposes the Republican senators as absolute lunatics!
Rick Santorum, the former US Senator for Pennsylvania, held a talk recently in The Villages, Florida where I have lived since my retirement. Mr. Santorum is well known for his conservative views on social issues–opposing same-sex marriage and supporting the teaching of “intelligent design” in the school system. Being a devout Catholic, he combined in his speech in The Villages the role of his religious faith with political issues and presented a harmonious vision to the conservatives who share his views. In particular, Santorum mentioned the illness of his daughter Bella and the way in which his faith has helped him and his wife Karen.
One cannot hear about the struggles of the Santorum family without being deeply moved. Their story is a remarkable one and certainly well worth relating to the general public. Compassion for their struggles and respect for their endurance and religious conviction do not entail, however, agreement with the former Senator’s religious and/or political views. For the moment, there are two points of disagreement that I would like to express.
First of all, the conflation of religion and patriotism, which is expressed in his words, will not necessarily further the cause of either one. Historically, we know that the Christian church, for instance, flourished under the persecution of the Roman Empire for several centuries and that the acceptance of Christianity as a state religion had extremely negative consequences for the Church. I find absolutely no reason to think that “the love of God and the love of America” will be any more beneficial to church and state than was “the love of God and the love of the Roman Empire”.
Secondly, the notion of turning back the clock to a former time when life seemed simpler and moral values clearer is–to put it bluntly–an illusion. We may not like the pluralistic society in which we live, but it is for better or worse here to stay for the foreseeable future, and attempts to return to the apparent simplicity of the 1950’s will only create a further divide in our country. Between the 1950’s and 2015 stands the cultural revolution of the 1960’s with the Civil Rights Act, the founding of the National Organization of Women and the Stonewall Riots for gay/lesbian rights. Regardless of one’s political, ethical or religious views, these historical events cannot be simply erased, and we ignore them today at our own peril. If conservatives really want to find a way forward in our society, they need to accept this history as, in some way, their history, to engage the thoughts and aims of these movements and to search for a common ground that will allow us to move forward and heal the divisiveness in our country.
With due respect to Mr. Santorum, I do not think that he has found a viable solution. In the world as we know it, there are only one-way clocks. Time doesn’t move backward.
Five Days from Sunday
Everyone is familiar with the English idiom: “Six ways from Sunday”, and many know the phrase in both of its variations: “Six ways from Sunday” and “Six ways to Sunday”. But the phrase “Five Ways from Sunday” is, to my knowledge, unknown in the English-speaking world.
When I first went to Switzerland in 1975 to attend the university, I departed from New York on Easter Sunday and arrived in Zürich the next morning, i.e. Monday morning about 10:00 am. It was my first trip to Europe, and I had never flown for so many hours. Still, that was only the beginning of the newness with which I was confronted. I couldn’t really sleep on the plane–on a student budget, it was definitely tourist class with the small narrow seats. More disorienting than the long flight was, however, the jet lag. I had heard about jet lag and read about jet lag, but I had never actually experienced jet lag. So when I arrived in Zürich, I was very tired from being awake all night and I had this thing called “jet lag”. Trying to make the best of it, I took the train from the airport into downtown Zürich and then a cab to my hotel. By the time that I reached the hotel, I was starving; so I went down to the street to find the nearest restaurant. It was closed! So I walked a bit farther to find another restaurant. It too was closed! Then I began to notice that all of the shops were closed. With my broken German, I asked someone on the street why everything was closed on Monday morning. To my inquiry, this person responded: “Everything is closed on Sunday”. I said: “But yesterday was Sunday. Today is Monday.” This person, my only source of information at this point, was unrelenting: “No, today is Sunday.” With this, I continued down the street wondering if it really was Sunday. Maybe this jet lag is weirder than I had thought. “I know for certain that I left New York on Easter Sunday”, I thought to myself, “but maybe today really is still Easter Sunday because of this jet lag.”
Until my German improved, I was not able to resolve the puzzle. When I did, I found the answer quite interesting. In Switzerland, there are two Easter Sundays. Yes, on the calendar, it may say “Monday”, but in Switzerland, the day following Easter Sunday is also celebrated as Easter Sunday. As far as I know, Switzerland is the only country in the world that celebrates double religious holidays. Christmas and Pentecost are celebrated the same way, with double Sundays. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when families working a farm could not abandon it long enough to travel into the city in order to attend an Easter service. So, two Sundays were established by law. Some family members would attend the service on the first Easter Sunday, the remaining ones on the second Sunday. The result was: On these occasions, there were only Five Days from Sunday.
Today, this tradition is still observed, although very few people attend Church anymore. Perhaps, one day this observance will be changed, but nothing in Switzerland changes very fast. When you have only Five Days from Sunday, there is not as much opportunity for making changes!
Bread and Circus
In the home of my parents stood an antique bookcase with ornate glass doors, and as a child, I remember seeing on one of the shelves Edward Gibbon’s classic work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. Whether my parents had ever actually read this work, I do not know. Just as it was fashionable at the time to display a large gold-edged Bible in the living room, so also many homes were proud to have Gibbon’s work in view. If anyone in my family had read Gibbon’s work, it was probably my mother who was an avid reader. Be that as it may, on certain occasions such Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the extended family would gather, there would sometimes be talk of the future of our country and speculation about the parallels between Rome and the United States. In all such discussions, the focus was inevitably on the so-called “fall of Rome”, which occurred in the year 476 AD. As I said, these were family gatherings, not academic debates, and the details were of no concern to anyone. The fact, for instance, that 476 AD is a somewhat arbitrary date, and that the “fall” was more of an historical process than an instantaneous event–these details did not comport well with eggnog and fruitcake.
It is not, however, my wish to prolong a description of my childhood experiences, but rather to suggest that the comparison between the “fall” of Rome and the future of the United States is quite beside the point. A much more interesting parallel is to be found between the present state of the US and the disintegration of the Roman Republic in the late first century BC–an event to which Cicero was an eyewitness. The Romans never admitted that the Republic had been destroyed and that they had established an Empire in its place through military conquests. But this is exactly what happened. With the rise of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) in 27 BC, the old Roman Republic with its system of government and participation of the citizens came to an end. Octavian retained the traditional forms of government, but they were emptied of all meaning and power. Without claiming the title, Octavian ruled as an emperor and was regarded as such by the people of Rome. Cicero lived in the last days of the Roman Republic and until his assassination in 43 BC, he wrote frantically about what he observed; he was deeply saddened by what he saw, but he could not alter the course of events.
So what actually led to the disintegration of the Roman Republic? It would be a boon for our “Republicans” in the US Congress today if it could be established that the welfare programs of Rome were its downfall. No doubt, the social programs in Rome became a serious problem. In the late second century BC, there was an influx of the poor from the countryside into the city of Rome; farmers who had once been self-supporting became desperate and crowded into the capital in hope of gaining assistance. Rome responded by establishing grain subsidies for the poor, but with time, the population of the poor swelled and the treasury of Rome was drained. If we stop at this point, we might well make a case for the damaging effect of welfare programs on society as a whole, but the historical truth of matter is more complicated than we have suggested. The poverty of the countryside farmers was–and historians are in agreement on this point–the poverty of the farmers was the direct result of the military expansion of Rome far beyond its borders. The upper class of Roman society reaped extraordinary financial gain from the wars, and the lowest levels of society such as the farmers fell into poverty. Now I ask my readers: Does any of this sound familiar? Perpetual war waged far beyond national borders, an expansion of military force around the world, a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor at home, a annual increase of people falling into poverty, a desperate need for subsidies so that the poor can survive etc. It is nothing less than a disgrace when conservative, warmongering Republicans blame the problems of our nation on the very people whom they have forced into financial straits.
So I invite my readers to consider the parallels between the disintegration of the Roman Republic and the State of our Nation. Long before Rome fell, its Republic was destroyed. By the time that Rome actually fell, no one remembered how great the Republic had been. In the early second century AD, the Roman satirist Juvenalis lamented the fate of Rome and wrote: “How pathetic its people have become! The citizens of Rome, who were once engaged in political discourse and in political and societal decision-making, now content themselves with “panis et circus” (bread and circus). They know nothing of politics and are satisfied to eat and to be entertained by sports. Were Juvenalis living today, he would surely write in his satirical manner: “Who needs to worry about the future of our nation when there’s a Panera Bread down the street and good football game on TV?”
The Wonders of Technology!
As I turned on my computer this morning and checked the breaking news on the New York Times webpage, I read that Bruce Jenner is transitioning to a woman. My very first reaction to this “news” was: Why do I need to know this? Is this really newsworthy? In a world threatened by global warming, nuclear disaster, political corruption, poverty and ignorance, why should I care about Mr. (or Mrs.) Jenner’s sex organs? The very fact that a matter such as this is presented by the New York Times as “breaking news” speaks volumes about our culture. Never were people of a nation so concerned about their bodies as Americans of the twenty-first century. From a never ending list of artificial vitamins and food supplements aimed at improving our physical health to cosmetic surgery aimed at improving our physical appearance, we are obsessed with our bodies. Let the latest wonder of technology appear on the scene, and we are faced with the dilemma of deciding whether we want to be male or female.
In many religious traditions, there has been historically an emphasis on the unity of body and mind (or body and soul), and the path to this unity was thought to be a life of meditation and contemplation. It was even hoped that attaining the unity of body and mind through meditation would lead to a new awareness of the divine presence. But alas! Who has the patience today for meditation?! If we experience a discrepancy between body and mind–voilà– technology to the rescue! If you don’t like the body that you have now, technology will give you another one. Yet, the mind, my dear readers, will remain the same: restless, conflicted, insecure and afraid, as Augustine told us some sixteen hundred years ago.
Would that we as a nation could return to higher values!
The “Quadrennial Frenzy”
What major newspapers like the New York Times call the „presidential election cycle“ was described once by Noam Chomsky as the „quadrennial frenzy“. If the New York Times scores high on the scale of politeness, Chomsky wins the prize for directness and clarity. In his usual blunt and unequivocal manner, he has described what has just begun in our nation: the “Quadrennial Frenzy”. No sooner had Hillary Clinton emerged as the major democratic contender, she is challenged by the corporate wonder from Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina. Well, actually Fiorina is the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, having been politely asked to leave after leading the company into a period of extremely poor performance. Still, her tenure at Hewlett-Packard should not be considered a negative point. If she almost succeeded in destroying a major corporation, she might be just the person to lead our country. In any case, she will be a challenge for Hillary who has her own set of problems.
As if Hillary Clinton didn’t have challenges enough explaining her own record, she must now look over her shoulder to see what Bernie Sanders is doing–or is it “Bernice Anders” as Sarah Palin has suggested? Should Sanders gain major support from progressive democrats, which seems very likely at this point, then Clinton must find some way to appeal to these progressives without offending too many of her wealthy friends on Wall Street. Add the rest of the pack–Cruz, Huckabee, Rubio etc.–to the mix, then turn the whole business over to the spin doctors of the propaganda/advertising industry, and there you have the quadrennial frenzy.
Having observed other such frenzies over the years, I have ascertained that there are three cardinal rules for winning a presidential election: propaganda, propaganda and propaganda. So it is to be expected that our candidates will inundate us during this “cycle” with both negative and positive propaganda. Translated into plain language, this means that we will never really know what the candidates actually think (with the possible exception of the independent from Vermont). Look what happened to Mitt Romney when he candidly expressed his disdain for the American public! Honesty is not something that a presidential candidate can afford. Therefore, my advice to concerned citizens of our nation is this: Take the campaign promises with a grain of salt (do it in Latin if you like: cum grano salis) and give more credence to the actual records of the candidates. Their factual records will tell you more about their future performance than the TV ads etc., which are produced by their propaganda/advertising agents.
Who’s Right about whose Right?
Once again, we are observing the failure of “rights talk” to resolve the most pressing social issues of our day. In an interview last Saturday on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Jeb Bush defended the view that Christian business owners have the right to refuse service at same-sex marriages. Quoting “Huffington Post”: “The former Florida governor justified his position by claiming that not providing a service does not count as discrimination if business owners feel that it violates their religious rights.” Aside from the point that the “feelings” of business owners are from a legal standpoint irrelevant, the framing of the discussion in terms of “rights” is ill-conceived from the outset. Mr. Bush bases his case on the concept of “rights” and extends this concept to include religious views; business owners have a “right” to refuse service to individuals with whom they disagree on certain moral issues. Of course, the obvious question arises concerning the limits and boundaries of such a concept. If I am a pharmacist who believes that it is a sin to “take the Lord’s name in vain” and a customer comes into my pharmacy swearing about his illness, do I have the right to refuse service to him? Perhaps, Mr. Bush would think that I do. Be that as it may, I think that the point is clear. If we take his position seriously, it will be very difficult to define the limits of this “right to refuse”.
On the other hand, the fact that Mr. Bush framed his case in terms of rights seems very natural in view of the position taken by the gay/lesbian movement. The argument for same-sex marriage is also based on “rights”–in this case, it is becoming a matter of constitutional rights. Apart from one’s position on same-sex marriage, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the entire issue has been very poorly framed and very narrowly discussed. To focus on individual rights, whether we are discussing the “right to refuse” or the “right to marry”, overlooks completely the societal dimension of all social issues. Our society is not composed of self-sufficient, self-determined individual entities, each possessing certain rights, but rather our society is a complex network of interlocking relationships. It is, therefore, an illusion to think that same-sex marriage will not affect all of us, and it is also an illusion to assume that the refusal of service to these couples will have no long-term cultural impact.
In short, I think that we are focusing too narrowly on one aspect of the social issue to the exclusion of an interest in the common good. In the end, we pit right against right, and we are left with unanswerable questions. Whose right has priority? And who’s right about this right? The questions are unanswerable because the framing of the issue is wrong. In the whole debate, the concept of responsibility is hardly mentioned, and the notion of civic duty is conspicuously missing.
The Local Drug Store
I went into Walgreens yesterday to pick up a prescription. As usual, it was an unpleasant experience. The Walgreens in the community where I live is always busy. Three windows were open at the pharmacy, but in spite of that, there was a line of 12 people waiting to be served. Above each window stands a sign: Drop off, Pick up, Consultation. Now, if you don’t want to drop off a prescription or pick one up or ask the pharmacist a question about your medicine, then you are out of luck because these windows say explicitly: Drop off, Pick up, Consultation.
My father was a pharmacist and owned a local drug store. It was called “Brush Drug Service”, and in the prescription area, there were neither windows nor signs. Yes, customers would come into the drug store to pick up a prescription or to get consultation, but they would also just stand around and chat with my dad. He knew all of them by name, and many of them knew each other. So it was not uncommon for customers to linger awhile and talk about this or that–the weather, politics, etc. Try doing that in Walgreens! The impersonal atmosphere of today’s pharmacies is nothing short of depressing. Of course, I don’t blame the personnel. The pharmacist him- or herself is working today for a huge corporation and is under enormous pressure to maximize profit–no time to really care about anybody.
When I picked up my prescription, I got the usual courteous smile and the routine instructions. I was asked to type my address into the computer as a means of identification because nobody there knows me. Heaven only knows how much money I spend there, but still nobody recognizes me. I followed all of the instructions, took my prescription and left. It was a totally empty experience, and I always feel worse when I leave Walgreens than when I enter. These are feelings that my grandchildren will never understand because they have never experienced a real drug store.
“Brush Drug Service” was a local drug store in the traditional American sense. Like many of the old drug stores, it had a soda fountain where people gathered for lunch, dessert or a coke. My very first job as a youth was working behind the soda fountain as a–now I’ll find out how old you are–as a “soda jerk”. I can still make a chocolate soda that outshines anything that Johnny Rockets has to offer.
The local drug store was a part of our culture, and our society has suffered a cultural loss because such drug stores don’t exist anymore. We have allowed huge corporations to swallow up everything of value in our communities: the small corner grocery store, the private practice of the physician, even the hospitals, and yes, the local drug store. Everything that bestowed upon our community a personal dimension has been corporatized. And what is even worse: The next generation won’t miss this personal dimension because they will never know that it had once existed.
In Search of the Common Good
To my readers who have wondered why I haven’t posted anything since June, I would like to say that I have been working on the manuscript for a new book to be entitled “In Search of the Common Good: Guideposts for Concerned Citizens”. This book deals with the eclipse of the moral dimension in American society and suggests that the concept of human rights must be supplemented with an understanding of the common good. What the “common good” means and how it is to be applied will be the topic of some of my comments in the coming months.
For now, I recommend Chapter 8 of my book “Citizens of the Broken Compass” which is entitled “Individual Interests and the Common Good”. This book can be ordered through my website or from Amazon.com.
The Violence in Charlottesville
First of all, I would like to emphasize that I do not support or condone violent racial groups like the KKK or the Black Panthers. That said, I think that President Trump was absolutely correct to assert that both sides, the radical right and the radical left, are to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. To be sure, the man who drove the car into the crowd bears the primary moral and the sole legal responsibility for his actions. However, to say that he bears the primary moral responsibility does not exonerate everyone else. Violence is never an isolated event; violence begets violence and violence always occurs within a context. Students in Berkley riot and destroy property. A Trump-hater shoots a Republican Congressman on a baseball field. Hollywood Glowworms (formerly known as “Movie Stars”) call for the assassination of a duly elected President. A violent group confronts a demonstration of White-Supremists in Charlottesville. This is the context in which the man drove the car into the crowd, thus killing a 32-year-old woman in Charlottesville. Of course, the context does not excuse the act of violence perpetrated by the driver of the car. But – as here President Trump is absolutely correct – both the radical left and the radical right are to be blamed for the escalating violence in our country. Unless we want out-and-out civil war in this country, it is time to take stock of our situation as Americans and join together in opposing violence on all sides, verbal as well as physical violence. In short, a bit of self-examination and repentance would go a long way in healing the wounds of the present. Does anyone remember Matthew 7: 1-5?