It seems logically inconsistent for me to call the blog “Death Rattles” and use sunscreen while on vacation.
The above link will connect you to a Word document containing a memoir of my participation in the original March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Since I am returning for its 50th anniversary next week, I’ll post my impressions and feelings of them later.
Sunday (July 28) was a lovely day. It started out with my granddaughter, Hayley, being in the house for the first time in over a month. We went to Headrush Roasters, a coffeeshop friends Eric and Nancy Schneider, so that I could sit in for my first installment as their philosopher-in-residence from noon to 2:00. On the way, we swung by midtown to retrieve Jessica Lopez, former student of mine and now good friend. After all the philosophy was wrung out of me by 2:00, the three of us went north to Kearney, Missouri, to muck about in the garden William and I maintain on his fertile property, escaping with potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and the ubiquitous spaghetti squash we inadvertently planted. However, this is not meant to be an agricultural blog.
On the drive back, talking to Hayley and Jessica, somehow the conversation moved to the topic of the display of emotions. What I confessed to them, I shall now confess to you. The subject may have arisen because I was curious about Hayley’s seeming impassiveness during all the times we have been together this year. But it may have come up by another avenue. One point I made is that I have a rich, active, and deeply felt emotional life, but I feel it has no means of satisfactory expression. Most of the people in my academic life are either too young to have more than a simplistic emotional life, or have no interest in knowing or sharing my feelings on anything. Blue River, the college where I taught, has the typical male dunderheads in the faculty, and married females who seem to see letting me be some kind of emotional colleague as something outside the boundaries. In fact, in MCC generally there is too much nervous talk about boundaries and little about what boundaries immunize you from.
I use humor, intellect, and profanity in class to keep the dirty little secret that I truly care about my students and their lives. And my colleagues quickly stereotype me and discard me in the bin of their label. The point I was making to Hayley and Jessica was that I felt very deeply the need to express my emotions about lots of elements in my life, but something seems to prevent me. And I know what that is. It may be peculiar, neurotic, bonkers, or all of the above, but I need someone with whom to share my emotional life. Now maybe that’s something everyone recognizes as important, but for me it seems to rise to the level of mandatory. My emotional life seems to dysfunction without someone in my life so intimate, though not necessarily physically intimate, that there is nothing inside me I dare not expose. Being married, from 2006-2012, to a woman whose English skills were rudimentary, at best, and seemed to have an even more elementary emotional vocabulary, seems to have embedded in my limbic system, by necessity, a program of No Exit.
As a philosopher, I wonder whether the necessity I have recognized in my own case is conceptually necessary, or sufficient. Must emotions be expressed in order to be legitimized? And does the observational recognition that they exist in you suffice for this? I know it doesn’t for me, but am I some sort of aberration? It wouldn’t be the first time. And does the (to me, at least) abstract expression to no one in particular — kicking the car, or pounding the car hood — express a particular emotion in a satisfactory manner? Again, for me it doesn’t. I need someone with whom I share a two-way connection of great trust and intimacy — that wonderful word again — in order to have those feelings really mean something, to me. Of course, it would be great if my emotions made some sense to the other person, but I think that might be too much to ask. But somewhere between no one and my emotional twin lies a land I want to explore, but when I reach out my hand to tread that path, it only grasps emptiness.
Early this summer, I set a task for myself that it now seems unlikely that I will complete. I wanted to reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which I had taught as a part of KU’s Western Civilization Program for the last four years of the 1980s, alongside “American Vertigo,” by Bernard-Henri Levy, a 2006 retracing of the steps of the original trek with more current comments. I also chose the complete, unexpurgated two-volume Vintage Books version, with all the footnotes and commentary needed to bog down a game effort at completion.
I’m nearly halfway through, so here’s an initial report. Both of them started off badly. Tocqueville (should I, in an attempt at familiarity, call him The Tocquer? Saves letters.) drones on about the structure of local and state government in this new democracy, and I suppose it was necessary for his European readers, but I’ve never met a city council I wanted to hear more about. Levy was even worse. His opening chapter, titled “En Route,” seemed more like an ungainly rant, intended to situate himself on the critical left. His style can get pretentious, at least when it can be identified as having any style at all.
But I forgave them both, and things improved somewhat. Levy seems to have gotten a few things out of his system, and the clear and surprising insights that never fail to make reading Tocqueville rewarding bloomed again and again from what initially seemed to be very infertile ground. An ongoing point that Levy seems to be making, from this mid-point of the narrative, is one that Tocqueville didn’t, and could not have been expected to, but it has brought me to the verge of actually thinking.
Levy notes that we are a museum-crazy culture, and he is not amused. OK, maybe at the Jerry Lewis Museum, but after all, he’s French. An online search revealed no actual building identified as The Jerry Lewis Museum, though there was a wholly online site billing itself as such, but appearing only to be a retail outlet for DVDs and memorabilia. There is, however, a Jerry Lee Lewis Museum in Louisiana, one I am unlikely to visit. It would be fitting, I think, were it curated by a 14 year old girl.
Levy appears to regard askance our tendency to throw together baskets of artifacts with a common theme and call it a museum, and I agree with him. Kansas City alone seems to have nearly fifty such repositories, though he seemed to think Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame for Major League Baseball, a particularly apt example with its grandiose ambitions that only highlight the mundane nature of what it is commemorating.
And he also sees it directly connected to American Democracy, and the democracy that Tocqueville observed with such touching clarity. This frantic cultural attempt at leveling proceeding at the same time as an equally frantic attempt at political and economic disequilibrium, seems natural and comforting only to those who pretend the latter aren’t happening. The American electoral process deifies the trivial, the mean-spirited, the ignorant, and when the concept of the museum can incorporate the dregs of culture, it must mean that democracy is working. Right? The ordinary sits on the same pedestal as the profound. Equality triumphs. One man, one vote; one piece of crap, one museum. Kansas City’s PBS station, KCPT, has a very popular self-produced program, “Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations” devoted to just this phenomenon, and the participants treat the subject with gentle, wry respect, somewhat other than Levy’s attitude toward celebrating the mediocre. I’m with him on that, too.
Every ball of yarn has a museum, along with every discredited mayor of Possum’s Flatulence, Arkansas. You think not? There’s a Museum of Ineffective Insecticides, proudly displaying rusted cans of Raid and Black Flag from yesteryear, or currently being sold at Dirty Don’s. A culture that believes this believes every school essay deserves an A, everyone who remained awake for part of high school deserves to go to college, and everyone deserves to have their self-esteem incessantly propped up by academic boosterism.
As a nation, we need to find a way to value the valuable, even if it means disvaluing, and discarding the trash. Levy sees this inability as one of the gagging canaries in our cultural coal mine. Every semester, I quote an American president, LBJ, in each of my classes. I usually have to explain who LBJ was. I sometimes have to clarify what an American president is. After he declined to run for a full term in 1968, and after Richard M. Nixon was elected, he left the White House and spent most of the rest of his few remaining years at the Johnson Ranch. One day, he was sitting with a visitor, his former Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights, Nick Katzenbach, watching a televised speech by Nixon. As Katzenbach reveals in his memoirs, a few minutes into the speech, LBJ turned to him and declared, “Nick, I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.”
I tell my students that the goal of taking a philosophy course, but it should be the goal of all education, is to make it possible for them to leave the classroom and tell the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit. The teacher shouldn’t tell them the difference and have them memorize it. That would be of little help. They need to adopt, understand, honor, and use the tools that they can employ to that purpose. Levy thinks we’re far from that possibility, and we should see that as a challenge to our culture. If you listen closely, you can probably hear a Bobcat starting to break ground on The Museum of Chicken Shit, somewhere on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, financed by Frank Perdue. There’s bound to be a Super 8 Motel nearby, so make your reservations soon, and bring all the family!
HEADRUSH ROASTERS ANNOUNCES:
Come See the Amazing Performing
All before your very eyes!!
Bring your unique philosophical questions to him on the Last Sunday of each month from noon to 2:00 P.M., and prepare to be astonished!
(Note: astonishment may result from evasion, use of big words, changing the topic, as well as a relevantly perceptive discussion of the topic in question) Tipping discouraged.
Accept no substitutes! Insist on only a genuine philosopher for all your needs pertaining to rationality, ethical priorities, and The Good Life. And only at Headrush Roasters will you find a genuine philosopher, retained by the owners for all your philosophical questions in need of clarification.
* The role of philosopher is being played by an actual living philosopher, Dennis Lowden, recently retired from MCC-Blue River, having taught at the University of Kansas, Baker University, Rockhurst University, and Avila University, and a member of the American Philosophical Association.
Last night, while our neighborhood exploded with enough ordinance to supply the rebels in Syria for the rest of the year, I closed the windows and turned up the sound on my home theater to listen to Charles Ives’ “Holidays” Symphony, conducted, and spoken about, by Michael Tilson Thomas. I’m a big fan of the music of Ives, mainly because it both makes me listen carefully, and rewards me for listening carefully. Most contemporary music, whether pop or concert, requires the first but seldom delivers the second. Ives delivers.
But, since it was the evening of July 4th, thoughts of Independence Day (not the movie, and not the movement of the Ives symphony by that name) were still littering my mind, as the residue of the day’s fireworks was littering my lawn. It seems to me, as it has for many years, that Ives is the greatest of all American composers, no matter the medium. Last night, I stumbled upon another reason to reinforce that estimation. Some would disagree and point to Gershwin, Ellington, or Jay-Z as deserving that honor, but I don’t agree. The music of Ives, alone of all those mentioned and many more unmentioned, doesn’t just accompany American democracy, it illustrates it.
The “Decoration Day” second movement of the symphony I listen to is a good example, but you can find it everywhere in his music: the orchestral set “Three Places in New England,” the Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord,” with movements named after four of the famous families of that town, the second and fourth symphonies. This list is not exhaustive. Often the music collides, with different keys, different timbres, different rhythms, and Ives never pretties it up for us. He lets it collide and work out its own destiny in its own way. It’s messy, noisy, disorienting, and more exhilarating than sex with Ziyi Zhang. OK, I’ve never had sex with Ziyi Zhang, but my fantasies supply the data that Ms. Zhang herself would not permit.
So what’s this got to do with American democracy? Everything, you dimwit! And I’m the dimwit who took 72 years to figure it out. The diversity that is America, and that we are wise enough to allow to play out publicly, for all to see, comment on, and participate in, is the kind of chaos in search of order that typifies much of Ives’ music. It’s hard work listening to Ives, since you sometimes wish he would just be Brahms and settle things through a predecided structure. I think that’s one of the problems with politics today: Brahmsian solutions being proposed for Ivesian problems. Republicans want a tidy cadence, a simplistic and banal answer that sounds good to them but is irrelevant to the situation. Tax cuts, spending cuts, eviscerate help to those who are not rich, destroy regulations on business, impose religious morality on laws governing all society. Kempt solutions for an unkempt world. And I think many on that side of the ideological spectrum think that’s precisely it. A disordered world needs, first of all, to be put under control, disciplined, managed.
But the heady untidiness that is America won’t sit still for such outmoded irrelevancies. Each new immigrant adds to the cacophony, just as each new instrument Ives introduces adds something else for your ear to cope with. And so you do, or you shut it off and put on your old Lawrence Welk vinyl, or pirate some L’il Wayne. They’re both the same, when you realize it. They offer a formula instead of a challenge, and most of us, most of you, don’t want a challenge, you want to be soothed. But democracy isn’t soothing, as recent events in Egypt illustrate. Democracy is the mess; governing is loving the mess, respecting those in the mess, and always remembering that the compass points toward general directions, and that’s the job of governing, too.
Charles Ives finds ways to do all of this in his music, but to do that he had to be willing to embrace ambiguity and see it as a fact of musical life. American democracy is ambiguous because the players are always changing, clashing, each trying to shout louder than the other. The job of governing is not to be a part of the shouting, nor to marginalize the shouters who piss you off. Sometimes, in an Ives symphony, you just wish half the orchestra would pipe the fuck down so you could hear the lovely, soothing violins. But the music of Ives is not like that and the democracy that is America is not like that. We have to work it out together, as one crazy chaotic orchestra, letting everyone play the tune he or she must, or we end up with Brahms, or Burma, or Boyz2Men.
It seems to happen with me at every patriotic occasion or holiday. Inevitably some public or private person declares loyalty to our flag, or military, or ideals, or president, and I usually wish I could ask them why. It’s not that I am disloyal to my country or what I take it to represent, morally. I voluntarily served four years of military service during the Vietnam era, vote in every presidential election, and try to stay informed about national issues. I even communicate with my senator upon occasion. But I’m still grappling with the meaning of loyalty as a concept, and I’ll just mention the one area that seems most confused and difficult for most people to understand, though most don’t seem to try.
There seem to be three important elements to the concept, two of which seem to have been covered by the ancients. One is the question of how one develops loyalty; a second is the question of what kinds of actions demonstrate loyalty. If loyalty is a virtue, and by nature an admirable one, then it is likely developed by methods similar to other virtues: by disposing oneself to behaving loyally and then getting in the habit of doing so without having to be prompted by anything other than situation to which your disposition correctly responds. And, as far as the second element goes, Aristotle’s splendid circularity seems to be all most people need in the way of explanation. A loyal action is that action committed by a loyal person. Both these approaches sound insubstantial and insufficient, but I don’t want to argue against them right now. I think there’s a much more important element generally left unexamined.
What deserves loyalty? My son-in-law in Oklahoma, Scott, only drinks Budweiser, and often tends to drink a lot of it. When I visit him and my stepdaughter, Kim, I often bring a case of Kansas City’s fine Boulevard Pale Ale to give his palate a treat. But his palate doesn’t want a treat, or if it does, he is deaf to it. He’s a Bud Man. Other people might describe themselves as Ford Men or Women, Chiefs fans, Tea Baggers. The question I struggle with is whether, by its very description or categorizing as a virtue, or at least a trait desirable to possess, are there any restrictions on what you plausibly can be loyal to, or is it utterly subjective. I strongly lean toward the former, but a part of those struggles I mentioned revolves around how to argue for restrictions on conceptual grounds. Let me try to clear away some underbrush.
Aristotle described the virtues as benefiting the one who possesses them, or practices them. Who or what is benefited by Scott’s loyalty to Budweiser? Depending on how we might describe what Budweiser contributes to his life — though I can attest to what it often brings him early on the morning after — is Budweiser the only, or best source of that benefit? It would be hard to argue that it is. But it would be easy to argue that Scott’s loyalty to Budweiser benefits Budweiser. If Scott unthinkingly consumes that one brand, refusing all others when there is a choice in the matter, Budweiser has no more burden other than to make certain Norman, Oklahoma is saturated with retail sources of its product. I assure you that it is. The same is true of Ford, or the Chiefs. Jesus! The Chiefs! They are a great example of reaping the benefits of loyalty without having to offer a product that even cracks the level of mediocrity. Bad quarterbacks, bad coaches, cynically unresponsive management, and still season tickets get renewed by subscribers who would invariably describe themselves as “loyal.”
Are Chiefs fans getting screwed? Of course. They are paying for a product far inferior to some earlier iterations, as well as contemporary alternatives around the league. But is their loyalty being betrayed? Or, are the Kansas City Chiefs not the sort of entity that deserves loyalty? If the latter is true, as I believe it is, then the fans are not being betrayed on the basis of their loyalty, but on the basis of their financial gullibility. If the fans are loyal to the Chiefs, they have betrayed themselves and their characters by misplacing something precious and important and focusing it on an object unworthy of it. The same analysis could be brought to Ford, Budweiser, and Fox News. What misplaced loyalty to all these objects requires is a short-circuiting of the rational process of criticism. The short-circuiting occurs at two levels: a failure to understand what loyalty expresses about yourself, and a failure to be sufficiently meticulous in choosing what object to express that part of yourself to.
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt would likely describe it as love, and I think he’s right. There is a kind of intimacy connected with loyalty. You make yourself vulnerable when you publicly declare something so revealing as your deep connection to something outside yourself. That’s why loyalty can’t come about through commercial pressures, or peer pressures, or hormonal pressures. I think loyalty is a deep expression both of who you are, and who you wish yourself to be, on your best day. When I taught Epictetus in the Intro course, I used that concept “on your best day.” That’s what loyalty, and conscience, and self strive to do: to help you live each day in search of it coming close to your best day. And I don’t care who you are, if, on your best day, you mindlessly guzzle Budweiser or rabidly toot for the Chiefs, you’re truly one sorry sumbitch. You need to look deeper, and then aim higher.