February 28, 2017

1. Ohio or California?

Imagine if your family owned a business in Ohio, a business that was started by your grandfather in 1930. Your business originally manufactured typewriters, but in 1990, with demand for typewriters declining, you began manufacturing surfboards. You considered moving the business to California, but your brother said, “All of our employees are here in Ohio, all of our buildings and equipment are here, let’s stay here. We can talk to our California customers by phone, and we can transport our surfboards by truck.”

So you stayed in Ohio. But with each passing year, it became clearer that there would be many advantages to moving to California, so you never stopped considering that option. Your brother, however, always pointed out the high cost of moving to California.

This is the situation that we’re in with respect to religion. The old monotheistic religions aren’t entirely convincing — no one believes that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. But we can’t bring ourselves to move to a new religion because we’ve built such an elaborate monotheistic structure (churches, traditions, moral codes, etc.), and because the prospect of building a new religion is daunting. The very phrase “new religion” bothers us — it seems that a religion should be ancient, established, time-tested.

And so we linger in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, knowing that these religions don’t represent the future, knowing that, in the long run, we should move to a new religion. As Mill said 150 years ago, “the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion,” and therefore we need “some faith” that people can “really believe.” Or as Nietzsche put it 125 years ago, “God is dead.”

When Einstein saw conservative Jews at the Wailing Wall, he said, “[These are] men with a past but no future.” In other words, they should sell their property in Ohio, and move to California. They should wean themselves from the old monotheism, and build a new religion.

2. American Decline

Interesting essay in Commentary magazine about economic and social decline in America. The author, Nicholas Eberstadt, works at the conservative think-tank AEI, and has written numerous books, including Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (2016).

Eberstadt’s essay deals with American decline since 2000. The full title of his essay is “Our Miserable 21st Century: From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States.” Eberstadt says that Trump’s victory was a shock to the American elite, to the coastal elites; they didn’t realize how much discontent there was in the U.S.

Eberstadt says that the unemployment rate is now just 4.7%, hence some people think that the U.S. is at full employment. But the unemployment rate only measures unemployment among those who are actively seeking work. The real story, Eberstadt argues, is that many Americans have stopped seeking work, have dropped out of the labor force.

The exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) ....If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.

Though much attention has been paid to men who drop out of the workforce, Eberstadt notes that for women, too, the job market since 2000 has been difficult: “The 21st-century U.S. economy has been brutal for male and female laborers alike.”

Eberstadt says that men who drop out of the workforce don’t usually do volunteer work or religious activities or childcare. Rather, they watch TV, surf the Internet, etc. And many are addicted to pain medications (opioids): “Nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts — an army now totaling roughly 7 million men — currently take pain medication on a daily basis.”

The best book on the opioid epidemic? Eberstadt says it’s Dreamland, by Sam Quinones. Quinones says that, a few years ago, 11% of the population of Ohio “were prescribed opiates.” Opiates are often bought with government money, often bought through Medicaid: “For un-working Anglos (non-Hispanic white men not in the labor force) of prime working age, the share enrolled in Medicaid was 48 percent.” It’s shocking to consider how much government money is spent on opioids.

How do these people obtain food and housing? Many receive disability benefits: “Of the entire un-working prime-age male Anglo population in 2013, nearly three-fifths (57 percent) were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability program in 2013.”

Eberstadt mentions a “short but electrifying 2015 paper” on rising death rates among middle-aged whites, especially those without college degrees. Many of these deaths are from suicide, drug overdose, and cirrhosis of the liver (from alcoholism).

Those addicted to opioids rarely turn to crime to finance their addiction: “America’s nationwide opioid epidemic has not been accompanied by a nationwide crime wave.” Eberstadt calls this “one of the bright trends for America in the new century.”

On the other hand, the U.S. has a high rate of incarceration: “In 2013, roughly 2.3 million men were behind bars.” But those behind bars are only a small fraction of the “criminal class”: “The cohort of current and former felons in America very nearly reached 20 million by the year 2010.... That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.” These statistics don’t count felons who aren’t caught, or who are caught but not convicted, so the true size of the “criminal class” is even larger than Eberstadt says, perhaps close to 30 million.

Eberstadt says there are few studies of the criminal class; we don’t know much about what happens to felons after they’re released from prison. But given what we know about the work-force, addiction, etc., we can suppose that many former felons struggle. “We can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.”

Trump’s victory was caused by widespread discontent, and this discontent was caused partly by the “nationwide undertow” against social mobility. “The chances of surpassing one’s parents’ real income have been on the downswing and are probably lower now than ever before in postwar America.” Many Americans feel that their prospects for the future are bleak.

There’s been much talk lately about economic inequality, but Eberstadt says that the real issue is economic insecurity. If you have a job, and a small but steady income, you probably won’t care much whether the top 1% has 30% of the nation’s wealth or 60% of the nation’s wealth.

One of the biggest obstacles to spiritual growth is success, pride. If many Americans have a feeling of failure, this suggests the potential for spiritual growth. Spiritual growth doesn’t necessarily mean church, it may mean contact with nature, or meditation, or a yoga class, or a book group.

In some respects, I’m part of the coastal elite, and in other respects, I’m part of the non-working white males; I have a foot in each camp. Though I had a marketable skill (database programming), I wasn’t able to market that skill, I wasn’t able to attract customers. Perhaps I didn’t have the right personality, perhaps I didn’t have enough drive.

Once I called a Providence businessman, a commercial realtor, and asked him if he needed help with his website. We chatted briefly, and then he ended by saying, “I’ll call you.” I was encouraged by that, I thought “Mike is going to call me.”

After a few minutes, however, I realized that “I’ll call you” is a polite way of saying, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” which in turn is a polite way of saying, “Don’t call me again.” Perhaps this is why people drop out of the work-force: they can’t bear being told “Don’t call me again,” they can’t bear the humiliation of seeking work, they feel that nobody needs them. It was a clever marketer who designed that famous recruiting poster — Uncle Sam pointing at you and saying, “I NEED YOU for the U.S. Army.” Everyone needs to be needed, and many Americans feel they aren’t needed.

3. Michael Sandel and Democracy’s Discontent

When I was an undergrad at Harvard around 1980, I took a class in political philosophy (“Justice”) taught by Michael Sandel. Sandel was then in his late 20s, he wasn’t well-known on campus, and there were only 10-15 students in the class. As the years went by, however, Sandel became one of the most popular professors at Harvard, and his class in Justice attracted more than 1,000 students. Wikipedia says that this class is “one of the most highly attended in Harvard’s history.” It became a TV series on PBS, it was broadcast internationally (through the Internet?), and even became a hit in China. Sandel gives lectures in foreign countries that are attended by more than 10,000 people.

I saw an old BrianLamb interview with Sandel. Sandel speaks clearly, and he’s enthusiastic about his subject. He believes in the importance of building community, and in the importance of debating the common good; he’s often called a “communitarian.” He doesn’t think politics should be a debate about the rights of separate individuals. Lamb was asking Sandel about his book Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (1998). More recently, Sandel wrote Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can’t buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

I became interested in Sandel when I saw an ad for a Sandel lecture. The ad suggested that Sandel had foreseen Trump:

Two decades ago, in his book Democracy’s Discontent, Michael Sandel warned that, absent a stronger civic republican spirit, liberalism would collapse, giving way to “those who would... shore up borders, harden the distinction between insiders and outsiders, and promise a politics to ‘take back our culture and take back our country,’ to ‘restore our sovereignty’ with a vengeance.”1

Perhaps Sandel realized, two decades ago, that nationalist-conservatives like Pat Buchanan were tapping into voter anger, tapping into a feeling of disempowerment, dislocation. Buchanan was a harbinger of Trump. Voters felt that they were being controlled by a global economy, an economy that even the national government couldn’t influence, much less the local government.

Sandel says that a similar situation existed in the early 1900s, when a national economy emerged, an economy that local institutions were powerless to influence. One of Sandel’s heroes is Louis Brandeis who, in the early 1900s, tried to control the new national economy in order to build community spirit. (Sandel grew up in Minnesota and California, then attended Brandeis, then earned a Ph.D. at Oxford.)

Sandel believes that democracy requires a “civic republican spirit.” It requires debating the common good, and pursuing the common good, not just separate individuals pursuing their separate interests. Democracy isn’t just about counting votes, it’s about civic engagement. Though he would call himself a liberal, Sandel is critical of liberalism that’s rights-based and individualistic (he calls this “procedural liberalism”). He wants a civic liberalism, a communitarian liberalism, a patriotic liberalism.

Sandel is a fan of Aristotle, who wanted an engaged, civic-minded populace. Sandel is less fond of modern philosophers (like Locke?) who are preoccupied with individual rights. Sandel has a soft spot for Hegel, who viewed society as an organism, not a collection of separate individuals; Hegel believed that, in a fundamental sense, human beings are members of a community.1B Sandel doesn’t think that government should be just an impartial referee between individuals, he doesn’t think that government should be indifferent to moral and religious questions. Sandel thinks that government should cultivate community, should be concerned about the character of citizens.

One might say that Sandel is a conservative because he shares the conservative preoccupation with moral and religious issues, with virtues and values. But Sandel criticizes conservatives for advocating a free market, regardless of the market’s impact on the community. For example, if Walmart destroys downtowns, and erodes community feeling, Sandel would say “Stop!” but conservatives would say, “Government shouldn’t meddle with the free market.” Sandel believes that we should put the citizen first, the consumer second. If we have shopping malls, but not public assemblies, democracy will wither.

One might compare Sandel to Leo Strauss. Both are concerned with moral issues, both admire Aristotle, both are ambivalent about more modern philosophers like Locke, both believe that political philosophy is an important part of philosophy — perhaps the most important part. Both jump into political questions without first addressing religious questions, without first asking, “Does God exist?” But Sandel and Strauss have different views of Hegel: Sandel praises Hegel for emphasizing civic spirit rather than individual rights, while Strauss criticizes Hegel for making morality and truth historical, variable, rather than timeless, absolute.

One might contrast Sandel with Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argued that community spirit is a distraction. The important thing, in Kierkegaard’s view, is spirituality, which is a private thing, a matter of faith and conviction. If one has strong convictions, one is prepared to stand alone against the whole world. In Luther’s words, “Here I stand, I can no other.” For Kierkegaard, the important thing isn’t community, but strength of character, the strength to stand alone.

It is quite impossible [Kierkegaard wrote] for the community or the idea of association to save our age.... Nowadays the principle of association [is] an escape, a distraction and an illusion.... The principle of association, by strengthening the individual, enervates him; it strengthens numerically, but ethically that is a weakening. It is only after the individual has acquired an ethical outlook, in face of the whole world, that there can be any suggestion of really joining together.2

One might also contrast Sandel with Nietzsche. Nietzsche favored an aristocratic political system, and criticized democracy. Nietzsche felt that an aristocracy (a leisure class) could appreciate and create culture. Nietzsche felt that culture has only flourished where an aristocracy has existed — ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, etc. Sandel seems to have no interest in what Nietzsche called culture, and Nietzsche would have no interest in what Sandel calls community.

Sandel is a fan of Robert F. Kennedy. Sandel says that Robert Kennedy understood the importance of community. Robert Kennedy complained about how crime and welfare affect character, community, and citizenship.

Sandel says that in the 2008 campaign, Obama inspired many Americans. But once Obama became President, the lofty hopes were disappointed. Obama became technocratic, and too often left values out of the discussion. Obama’s bailout of big banks in 2009 troubled both the Left and the Right, and gave birth to the OccupyMovement and the Sanders campaign (on the Left), and the TeaParty and Trump (on the Right).

Sandel says that, if progressive parties don’t offer inspiring ideas, there will be a moral vacuum, a vacuum that will be filled by strident nationalism. Progressive strategists should say, “It’s not only the economy, stupid.”

Sandel’s Harvard lectures are lively, interesting, funny. It’s easy to see why they’re wildly popular. He asks the students about moral issues. For example, he asks,

If a trolley car loses its brakes, and is careening toward five workers, should you steer the car onto a side track, where one worker would be killed? [Most students said “yes.”] What if you were watching the trolley car from a bridge, and you could stop the car, and save the five workers, by pushing a fat man off the bridge? Should you push him? [Fewer students said “yes.”]

Everyone has an opinion on these questions, so they spark a lively discussion. Sandel tries to connect these questions to philosophical theories.

These moral dilemmas have little to do with actual life, and little to do with philosophy, but they fit into a classroom environment. One might call them a mind game, another way in which academia distorts philosophy. Philosophy begins in wonder, as Aristotle said, but these moral games don’t provoke wonder, and real philosophers rarely play these games.

Sandel discusses the ship Mignonette, which sank in 1884. Four people survived the sinking, took to a lifeboat, and after a couple weeks, began starving to death. They killed and ate a boy named Richard Parker, who may have been unconscious and near death. The three survivors were saved by a passing ship, brought back to England, and tried for murder. Sandel asks the students, “Was the killing of Parker justified? Should one life be sacrificed to save three lives? Or is murder always wrong?”

I discussed the Richard Parker case in previous issues. Since I’m not interested in moral dilemmas, legal dilemmas, I never discussed whether Parker’s killing was justified. I focused instead on whether Poe had foreseen — by prophetic means, occult means — the death of Parker. This is an aspect of the case that Sandel doesn’t mention, probably isn’t aware of, and probably wouldn’t be interested in.

Arthur Koestler ran a competition in The Sunday Times, in which readers were invited to send in the most striking coincidence they knew of. The winning entry pointed out that in Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, decades before the Mignonette sank, four men are cast adrift... and draw lots to decide which of them should be sacrificed as food for the other three. The loser was the sailor who had proposed the idea: the character’s name was Richard Parker.

When Sandel was discussing the Mignonette, one student said, “Cannibalism is wrong.... That’s just my opinion, others will disagree.” Sandel stopped her and moved on to someone else, because she had spoken an inconvenient truth. Sandel doesn’t want to admit that everyone has an opinion on these issues, and it’s impossible to determine which opinion is right. And even if all 1,000 students agreed, it’s unlikely that such reasonings would influence people in the real world, people who were actually starving to death.

Sandel’s classes deal with moral and political issues. He rarely mentions religion, he ignores the ultimate questions. Has he ever pondered whether God actually exists? Has he ever lost a minute of sleep over God’s existence? Has he ever concerned himself with the arguments about the existence of God? Moral and political issues are profoundly affected by our views of God and the universe, but Sandel tries to deal with moral and political issues while ignoring the ultimate questions.

Sandel deserves credit for noticing that contemporary Americans ‘don’t have good stories to tell about who they are, where they’re going, where the country’s going, etc.’ But Sandel doesn’t realize that the lack of ‘good stories’ results from the lack of strong religious convictions. We can’t create good stories if we ignore religious issues, ignore the ultimate questions.2B

When Brian Lamb asked Sandel when Aristotle lived, Sandel said “third century BC,” but Aristotle lived in the fourth century BC, and anyone who understands Greek history would know this. When Lamb asked Sandel if Aristotle were married, Sandel said he believed Aristotle was a bachelor. But Aristotle was married, and anyone who studied Aristotle closely would know this.

Sandel’s world isn’t the literary world, it’s the public arena. Harvard’s motto is Veritas (Truth), but Sandel aims at Community, not Truth. Sandel is fond of traditional monotheism, not because it’s true, but because it fosters morality, community, and tradition.

Is the old-fashioned intellectual going extinct — the intellectual who’s concerned with truth, with pure literature, with immortal literature, the old-fashioned intellectual who cares whether God actually exists?

4. Miscellaneous

A. Can you name one renowned philosopher who worked inside an academic institution? The only one I can think of is Hegel. Hegel is the exception that proves the rule because his writing is so obscure that it’s almost unreadable; only someone who’s being paid would write such books, or read such books. Hegel’s writing has none of the virtues that we find in non-academic philosophers — none of the humor of Thoreau, none of the poetry of Nietzsche, none of the intimacy of Montaigne. As I said in an earlier issue, putting philosophy into academia is like putting animals into a zoo.

B. I came across an English writer named E. F. “Fred” Benson. Benson is best known for a series of novels called the “Mapp and Lucia” novels, which “feature humorous incidents in the lives of (mainly) upper-middle-class British people in the 1920s and 1930s, vying for social prestige.”3 Benson’s ghost stories were praised by Lovecraft, who said, “Mr. Benson’s volume, Visible and Invisible, contains several stories of singular power.”4 Benson’s story “The Bus-Conductor” (1906) deals with a premonition of a fatal crash; it was turned into a movie called Dead of Night (1944).

In addition to fiction, Benson wrote biographies of Drake, Magellan, the Brontë sisters, etc. Benson was a great athlete, perhaps the best figure skater in England. He came from a prominent family: his father was the Archbishop of Canterbury, his siblings were writers and scholars. (E. F. Benson should not be confused with E. C. Bentley, who’s known for the mystery novel Trent’s Last Case.)

5. Movies

A. I saw the new Rachel Carson documentary, a 2-hour PBS documentary. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Very moving. If it were shown in a theater, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. It discusses Carson’s bestselling books, including Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us.

I missed the Carson documentary when it was on TV, so I saw it through the Internet. PBS only makes such films available on the Internet for a few weeks, then they tell you, “This film is no longer available online. Buy the DVD.” PBS has a vast archive, built with tax dollars and donations, but they don’t make it available for free. They claim to be promoting knowledge, but they make it difficult for the public to access their archive.

B. I saw the acclaimed movie Manchester by the Sea (2016). I recommend it, but not enthusiastically. It’s known for being gloomy, for focusing on life’s downside. John Podhoretz calls it, “an uncompromising and deeply serious piece of work.”5 It has a lot of “time shifting” — in other words, it moves back in time, then forward. (Pulp Fiction has apparently made time shifting de rigueur.) Some nice scenes of the New England coast.

C. I saw a Dutch movie from 2008, Winter in Wartime. It’s about a teenager’s adventures during the Nazi occupation. It was very popular in the Netherlands. Full of action, never a dull moment. Gets your attention with an intricate plot rather than with dazzling effects and graphic violence. Good movie.

6. Ten Poetry Readings

John DonneThe Canonization3:34
Andrew MarvellTo His Coy Mistress2:34
LongfellowA Psalm of Life1:34
HardyChannel Firing1:59
Banjo PatersonIn the Droving Days5:01
John McCraeIn Flanders Fields1:35
Edna St. Vincent MillayThe Little Ghost1:15
E. E. CummingsMaggie and Milly
and Molly and May
Robert LowellSkunk Hour2:26

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. The ad was in the Harvard Gazette. See also this website. Click here for Sandel’s talk at Davos.

Click here for part of a paper that I wrote in Sandel’s class. Since I was under Nietzsche’s influence, the paper begins with a quote from Nietzsche. My title, “Hegel Contra Liberalism,” was influenced by Nietzsche Contra Wagner. back

1B. Hegel wrote, “Patriotism is often understood to mean only a readiness for exceptional sacrifices and actions. Essentially, however, it is the sentiment which, in the relationships of our daily life and under ordinary conditions, habitually recognizes that the community is one’s substantive groundwork and end.” (The Philosophy of Right, #268) back
2. The Present Age back
2B. David Brooks wrote a column about the need for a “national story”:
One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history. For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.... It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.
3. Wikipedia back
4. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. The Guardian recently discussed Benson’s ghost stories. back
5. Weekly Standard back