Stay Engaged: The Duty You Owe to Self, Family, and Nation

 

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Image Credit: By Christopher Violet For Chronicle Review

I’m not sure about you, but my daily dose of news can be quite depressing. I find myself more and more reaching for the TV mute button. Generally speaking, political scandal and sensationalism are what sells, or attracts viewers, and so our media outlets just keep up a steady barrage. And we can’t get away from it either. Our morning shows give us the bad news over coffee; our 24 hour news channels keep our blood pressure elevated throughout the day; and then, for our commute home, the array of vitriolic talk radio programs stoke our road rage. All this negativity has become a major kill joy. So the question becomes, for any discerning mind wanting to stay informed but avoid stroking out, choking someone out, or dying from alcohol poisoning, how might we manage this?

I recently read about a guy named Erik Hagerman, who decided he was done with politics and all the bad news. He decided, literally, to cut himself off from pretty much all the news, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The crassness and depravity were just too much for him to bare. So for over a year now, Hagerman has been successful at staying joyously uninformed about what’s going on in the world. And, yes, he feels great! But he’s also officially clueless. So you understand, Hagerman lives by himself and has no children, so he’s got tight control over what he takes in, a situation, if you’re thinking about a similar project, to bare in mind. But then, we must ask, I think, if Hagerman’s way, a total black out of bad, unwelcome, or disturbing information, is really a good idea to follow?

I too have sometimes wished I could live as if the outside world didn’t matter, but alas that option isn’t realistic or very smart. Consider this: Hagerman bought 45 acres of land on the site of a former Ohio strip mine that’s been reclaimed by mother nature. He wants to restore this land and sees his efforts as “penance for the moral cost of his [news] Blockade.” His mission is to care for this land, restore it, and then leave the nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. Great! I love the idea. How green of him. But let’s consider the potential costs to Hagerman by not staying informed, and not being able to connect the dots. So Hagerman is working away on his land and not paying attention to the news or the political climate of his nation or county, and then suddenly he discovers, via construction vehicles, that a petrochemical plant has been approved next door to his land. His life’s work is suddenly looking pretty grim, ruined actually. While Hagerman was burying his head in the sand, his neighbors were rallying local votes and paying off politicians for the approved purchase of their land so they could get rich. Hagerman is now a victim, in large part, by his own making. Responsible citizens must be active, least they be unexpectedly victimized by forces (other people pushing their agenda or interests) working to impose their will at our cost. That is just how the world works, and is exactly what can happen when you don’t stay informed, be an active citizen, and, critically, vote at election time. Voting may not save you, but by not voting, and not understanding the issues when you vote, you’re surrendering without any fight at all.

But let’s back up for a moment. The reason our news outlets have so much disturbing news is because, well, there actually is plenty of disturbing news folks. With that said, there is obviously the spin that various media outlets put on the news—politically speaking. That’s the source of much anger and discomfort, I realize. But it’s not true that all media outlets put the same amount of spin on their news coverage or commentary. There actually are news outlets, journalists, and editors who try hard to preserve their intellectual and journalist integrity. You just have to pay attention and be open-minded enough to see that. But here’s a hint: If you think your favored news outlet, especially your preferred TV news outlet, is the best, most accurate one out there and all the others are bias, you’re probably living in a bubble, which makes for a good chance that you’re misinformed on a variety of issues. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I care about seeking the truth and solving problems, making a better future for me and my family, while also reasonably protecting my interests, or am I just going to be a cheerleader for the politics (and tribalism) I uncritically prefer, regardless of the ruin it may inflict on me, my family, or my country? So many, it seems, prefer the bubble, the tribal identity and loyalty. And that’s one big reason why our current politics is so dysfunctional. We each, remember, have played some part in why this is happening.

So instead of the Hagerman way, or the passive acceptance of your own bubble, I suggest you adopt a deeply critical mindset about news and information in general. You probably think you’re doing that now, but for the most part you’re probably not thinking critically, you’re just rearranging your prejudices. We rarely take the time to step back from the words, the salesmanship, and truly examine the ideas thrown at us; to ask ourselves important questions and follow, honestly, the twisting path of its implications. Remember, that just about all communication is an argument of some type. Whether it’s a TV commercial or a talk show or a politician, all of them are trying to get you to buy something. Just like, hopefully, you wouldn’t squander your money on things you don’t need, don’t uncritically accept—or buy—what anyone or any organization, business, or political party is pushing. They know your weak points and they exploit them. They know most of you don’t have time to research the issues, and they’re counting on you being impulsive, a party loyalist, a tribalist hearing the whistle, and not necessarily knowing what your long term interests truly are. We’ve all heard the saying that “we need to have the courage of our convictions,” and this is indeed an important virtue. But I would argue that it’s equally important, if not more so, that we have the courage to question our convictions. This is a much rarer virtue from my experience. It takes a higher courage, which, unfortunately, seems in really short supply right now.

So first, my suggestion is that you don’t tune out from it all, but that you adopt the attitude that every organization, every politician or news station, to some degree, is always trying to sell you something. So, like a good consumer, you stay tuned in to the market, but with a critical distance from all the attempts to incite you, to provoke you to buy. Some of the goods are clearly junk or nickel plated nonsense. It’s easy to recognize, if you’re paying attention to the sales job and you know your own mind. But some of it is more pernicious and hard for us to discern, because it’s packaged to appeal to our emotions more so than our good sense or intelligence. Good salesmen know that capturing your emotions will often shut down that critical, often skeptical, debate going on in your head. Do your best to check your emotions and see their arguments and heated rhetoric for the simple sell job it is. Your job is to always ask yourself if what you’re hearing—being asked to buy, believe, or vote for—is truly the best thing, the higher thing….if, of course, that’s what you’re truly about in this life. That’s a question only you know the answer to.

Second, try hard to understand what your true interests are. I know most people think they know what their interests are, but my experience has confirmed over and over this is simply not true. Simply put, unless you can connect the dots you don’t know where they lead. And if you don’t know where they lead you’re just as likely to be supporting something that actually hurts you rather than helps you and your family. Try to connect the dots and do the best you can to see if the path those connections are making best serves you, your family, your community, and your nation. How many of us have discovered AFTER digging into the details of something, we’d long thought was benefiting us, our family, or our society, had actually been screwing us all along! That lesson applies not just to money and services, but to ideas and politics.

Stay engaged, know what’s happening, be deeply critical of information, be honest with yourself, and know what your true interests are. This is a duty you owe yourself, an obligation you owe your family, and your nation.

We Need True Visions of Greatness

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:

Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.

Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.

Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.

The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.

In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.

For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.

Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.

We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.

The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.

The “Bourgeois Culture” Controversy

Recently Professor’s Amy Wax and Larry Alexander wrote an op-ed about Bourgeois culture and how, in their view, the measure of American social decline mirrors our societies falling away from Bourgeois cultural norms. Their piece has generated a small controversy that has highlighted some the problems within some of our universities.

Now if you’re asking what is “Bourgeois” (pronouced: boo r-zhwah), it’s a French word, which means, being French, it has no validity, is weak, and will flee at the first sign of a fight—which is your belief if you’re an American right winger. If you’re a left winger you pronounce the word correctly with your best French ascent and then apt your best attitude of distain for everything it stands for.

But putting humor aside, Bourgeois is the French word for middle-class culture, its norms and its values. Whatever you may feel about it, the striving to join the ranks of the Bourgeois has been in a large part of what the American dream has been all about. So along with French toast, French fries, and dear God thank you, French wine, most Americans have enjoyed tasting it!

Here’s how Wax and Alexander describe Bourgeois cultural norms in their op-ed:

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

On it’s face, I find it very hard to disagree with them. This seems valid in a straightforward and obvious way and I think it’s confirmed by the experience of most adults. Now there is more to Bourgeois culture than this, but the above is the basic social script as Wax and Alexander see it. As academics, Wax and Alexander did some research, made some observations, developed some ideas, and then presented their opinion. The main point of Wax’s and Alexander’s piece is that not all cultural orientations (unlike Bourgeois) are as good at building the solidarity and the economic dynamism that viable democracies need to thrive.

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

The above quote was quoted by critics as insensitive and somehow proof of Wax’s and Alexander’s violation of saying and thinking something you’re not allowed (by their standard) of saying or thinking. I am perplexed at their reasoning, but so be it. Whether you agree or disagree with everything they said (above) or the way they said it, Wax and Alexander diagnosed the problem and concluded that a re-embrace of Bourgeois norms would significantly reduce our societies pathologies. That’s their opinion! And so they conclude:

But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.

As I said, Wax and Alexander are academics. So doing research and presenting their findings, analysis, and opinions are part of what they do and it’s exactly what college professors should do. This generates debate and discussion; the forge of free societies. It challenges ways of thinking, and sometimes challenges our belief that new ways of thinking and acting are somehow better than old. Simply put, sometimes they’re not.

Again, while I may take issue with some minor points Wax and Alexander made, I find it hard to disagree with much of what they said. I’m open, however, to counter arguments and fair criticisms and would enjoy hearing them respectfully argued. Wax and Alexander have taken a lot of heat from some quarters on the left over their piece. Some of the criticisms have been downright hostile, and plenty from fellow academics and university student groups. If you believe Wax and Alexander are wrong, that’s fine. Make a reasoned and respectful argument as to why you think their wrong. But don’t assume bad faith or resort to character assassination and make demands from institutions.

Sadly what we’re seeing is a culture or university subculture where it’s not just about parrying the argument and having a rational debate, but about destroying the writer(s) or professors personally. Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the promotion of identity politics within the universities. This has aided in the rise of a grievance centered culture on campus. We have many on both sides of the political spectrum, to be sure, who have no problem engaging in some form of intimidation when confronted with ideas they find offensive. But right now we have a real problem with this at some of our universities in this country, the very places we shouldn’t be having a problem with debating ideas…even one’s we strongly disagree with.

For the sake of academic freedom and the flourishing of our democratic culture, I hope universities will strongly push back against this strain of intellectual and social intolerance and affirm their place as institutions of free thinking, debate, learning, and tolerance.

Being Bigger on the Inside

The sad state of American politics, especially the degraded state of the Presidency, has made this quaint little story about personal character, as told by John Maxwell in his book The 21 indispensable Qualities of a Leader, very pertinent to our times:

A man took his young daughter to a carnival, and she immediately ran over to a booth and asked for cotton candy. As the attendant handed her a huge ball of it, the father asked, “Sweetheart, are you sure you can eat all that?”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” she answered, “I’m a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

That’s what real character is—being bigger on the inside.

A short little story that says so much.

Modern Life Works Against Community & Trust

This past Sunday, the Washington Post had an interesting piece by Bill Bishop. If you don’t know Bishop, and you have an interest in understanding American’s current social and political problems, then I suggest you pick up his book The Big Sort. It really is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10 years. It’s was a fascinating read.

In this past Sunday’s piece, Bishop looks at why our trust in institutions is at such a low level. In 1964 roughly 75% of the American public trusted their government to do the right thing. By 1976 that trust level was down to 33%. A big swing in 12 years. Now, during that period we had the assassination of 2 major national figures, civil rights unrest, a major political realignment, an unpopular war, and the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. But while all of these things may have added to a decline in trusting government, they aren’t, Bishop argues, the real story here.

Bishop points to two big trends in recent history. First, the decline in people trusting their government parallels a “falling trust in nearly ever institution,” both public and private. So it’s not just the government we’re talking about here, we need to be clear on that. Second, this trust deficit, though maybe not as bad as it is in the U.S., is a trend across most industrial democracies. So it’s not just America either.

Americans may have less trust in their government, but they’re also walking away (no longer trusting or wanting to be involved with) from organized religion and many other civic associations that use to serve in helping unify us. Bishop sees expanding diversity, the welfare state, and rising wealth as social engines that have brought about an “Enlightenment Individuality” in our society, which in many ways is inimical to the maintenance of community and trust. More than ever people are “artists of their own lives,” shedding traditions and cultural norms. While this is liberating in many ways, it’s also, when taken in the large, socially disrupting because it weakens social cohesion.

The interesting point, from a historical perspective, is that this trend is something much older than we think. Where ever there is an intersection of commerce, wealth, culture and diversity, you will have this pull toward “negation.”

As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions. “Not a tradition which escapes challenge, not an idea, however familiar, which is not assailed; not an authority that is allowed to stand,” historian Paul Hazard wrote. “Institutions of every kind are demolished, and negation is the order of the day.” This was the Enlightenment, a turning away from tradition and an anointing of reason, scientific inquiry and individualism.

And so while some people may point to Donald Trump as the personification of a movement against the so called “establishment,” it’s far more accurate to say he’s simply riding a wave, a historical trend that has little to do with him at all.

Bishop finishes his piece by saying there really isn’t anything we can do about this. Personally I think he’s wrong on that point. It will take, as William Hazlitt said, “a lot of fine writing,” strong leadership, good will and good government, all things in very short supply right now, to push this long term trend in another direction. But it can be done.