LA Observations I: the Beach

For most of last week, I was visiting a very sick friend and his wife in Los Angeles.  I think it’s right to keep them in the background of these reports, though I cannot overstate how generous they have been to me in the 30+ years of our friendship, and how that has continued on this visit.  But, because they live in a condo on the beach in Marina del Rey, let’s start with the beach, because that was where I started each morning of my stay there.

You need to know this: when I was born, my parents lived in one of the great beach counties of the world, Cape May County, New Jersey.  I have been a beach boy since then.  In the Air Force, a lot of my enlistment was spent at Eglin AFB, Florida, just north of Fort Walton Beach.  Our duty day was from 3:00 A.M. to 8:00 A.M., 7 days a week, and after it was over our little 6-man squadron rode the military bus to the beach, there to remain until sunset.  The beach there was like the world’s largest sugar bowl in color and texture, though the Gulf water was usually placid.  In advance of a storm or even a hurricane, a few Hawaiian guys and myself would venture out and body-surf in the rambunctious breakers while the sun bathers stood at water’s edge and shook their heads.  Then there was the nearly 4 year time in Redondo Beach, California, one block from the beach, plus 2 years on Wake Island, a place where no part of the island is more than 600 yards from the Pacific Ocean.  The last 35 years in Kansas City has sometimes seemed like a cruel nightmare that never ends, and never permits me to live the life my inner self agrees with.

The first thing I noticed on this LA beach was that I was just about the only person without shoes on.  And that was consistent with the next observation; most everyone else had an agenda, or a specific goal in mind being there.  They were intent on making forward progress at some prearranged pace and nothing would dissuade them.  In retrospect, there was only one other solitary person who seemed as aimless as me.  I should have proposed to her on the spot.  There were a few families, mostly speaking Latin-inflected languages, and they were also aimless, and I thought of them as my comrades in some way, and always paused to watch them play by the water.  Maybe they didn’t know that I was playing, too.  Mine are the inner games of an old person who still loves to splash and taste the saltiness, but there’s more to the game now.  Those lucky kids are forming the self that will never forget and never disavow the feelings and sounds they are unknowingly absorbing now.  They will be a part of who they are forever, just as they are with me.

The runners in the $200 shoes and the $100 earbuds and music systems are only coincidentally at the beach, at the edge of the world’s greatest ocean.  They could be at a track or on the street or on a treadmill.  Running 7 miles faster than the last time is the only meaningful experience worth noting.  Gloria (the wife of my stricken friend, and a very dear friend in her own right) and I had a brief talk about this before my first morning’s walk.  Her therapist thinks it would be useful for her to do things just for the experience of doing them, and nothing else.  He called them, “being in the moment.”  Of course, that is exactly what I wanted from a walk on the beach, but Gloria is something of a worrier.  Walking along the beach would just be a wet place to fret.  She could do that in the shower, and get clean as a bonus.  I realized at that moment, and continue to realize in the days since, that my life’s strengths or weaknesses, and I’m not sure which, are described by my willingness to enjoy the moment as it presents itself and ask for little more from it.  As I sit alone, eat alone, drink alone nearly every night, maybe that one aspect of my character has hidden antisocial, or at least antiromantic, aspects that send women running in the opposite direction.  It would be a crushing realization to discover that one of the things that most truly make you who you are and brings calm and balance in your life  also sends women shrieking and guffawing toward some lummox with a 6-pack of Bud Light and a KC Chiefs cap.

More from the beach later in the week.


Rage Against The Machine

Before there was Rage Against The Machine, there was Dimitri Shostakovitch.  Unlike contemporary members of RATM, Shostakovitch was up against a real machine that killed you if you were critical of it, not permit you to live a lavish life of ingratitude.  Stalin ran this machine, and millions of unmarked graves testify to the consequences of even appearing to, or being mistaken for, raging against his machine.  These thoughts arose Sunday afternoon as I was snatched out of my humdrum life by a performance of his 5th symphony, the final notes of the 2013-14 season by the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern.

I suppose the question I am raising is whether that symphony by Shostakovitch represents a rage against the criticisms written against him by the Stalinist press, a capitulation to it, or neither.  And maybe the further question about whether raging against any machine makes a lot of sense.  During his lifetime, the stirring and heroic-sounding 5th symphony must have sounded like a capitulation, or at least a canny heeding of the criticisms raised in the middle 1930s about his use of excessive dissonance and unwillingness to demonstrate “socialist realism” in his works.  In this symphony, and also the 10th, I hear bitterness, despair, and deeply hidden mockery, but not open defiance.  Stalin’s machine would have preferred cheerleading of the glorious socialist ideals, and its glorious leader, but, failing that, would settle for morbid resignation, which was not likely to provide a ticket to the gulags, in most cases.  In his posthumously published autobiography, Shostakovitch sets the record clear about the symphony, and his decision to choose satire and subterfuge in certain of his compositions, while providing the requisite claptrap in others, such as the bombastic 7th symphony meant to celebrate the heroes of Leningrad, though written in advance of the famous 900-day siege of the city in World War II.  And even in that symphony, meant, in parts, to depict the brutality of Hitler, it is open to interpretation whether the actual brutality to which Shostakovitch refers is that of Stalin.  So maybe we should conclude that Shostakovitch chose to Snark Against The Machine.  Does that make him morally suspect?  Are the only options open rage or whimper?

The authority of Dylan Thomas seems to imply that, and clearly sides with rage.  In the case of old farts like me, rage, rage, against the dying of the light.  Well, I don’t know about the rest of you old farts, but I don’t like some young drunk telling me that I am required, for the good of my soul, to rage at evening’s end.  I know the light is fading, in a way that Thomas probably did not.  I’ve lived 73 years through growing light and growing darkness.  It makes as much sense to rage against the dying of the light as it does to rage against the tides,  or ad hominem fallacies (I threw a nice one in a few lines up to see if any of you was paying attention).  The machine of nature is something only immature romantics or contemporary Republicans seem inclined to rage against.  It’s a losing proposition, and if rage is intended to have any consequences beyond one’s own self-righteousness, an act of futile narcissism, like starting a blog at the end of one’s life, there ought to be some realistic wager that changes will proceed.

Personally, I am glad Shostakovitch didn’t rage against the machine.  Had he done so, he surely would have disappeared and left us devoid of the chilling 10th symphony, most of the preludes and fugues, and half the string quartets.  The expressive content of the 20th century would have never had those gaps filled by Sibelius or Copland.  And, like Mozart and Schubert before him, we would have wondered what startling, or moving, or redundant sounds might have issued from the last half of a life cut short; a premature exit into that good night, like that of Thomas himself.

But maybe the larger question concerns when rage is something that makes sense.  And if it doesn’t, should we indulge it anyway?  This is not the blog of a young man, so this will not be the answer of a young man, even the young man I was a half-century ago.  I think Shostakovitch gives us the answer — my answer — and Thomas does not.  And that answer is consistent with the Stoicism of the philosopher Epictetus I have come to admire in the past twenty years.  Rage against the processes of nature is foolish futility.  Learn about nature, accept its direction, come to grips with its verdict.  And you will come to love it, as you may be able to come to love the dying of the light.

However, you might ask, what about Stalin and his machine?  There was nothing natural about that, and I would agree with you.  Then why not rage?  Two reasons, one from Epictetus and the other from Shostakovitch.  The former cautions us that the activities of another person, while mutable, are not mutable by me (or you, reader, unless they are your activities).  All the rage against Stalin did not change what Stalin was intent upon doing.  All the Rage Against The Machine by RATM did nothing to derail whatever the machine is against which they directed their rage, though it did leave all the band members financially secure while the machine continued to widen the economic and political gap between those who are helpless and those who are not.  Affect what you can affect.  What is that, then?  What is inside you.  And that is the lesson of Shostakovitch; don’t rage against the machine, create against the machine.  Creation is not capitulation.  Capitulation is a term favored by those who also favor the fallacy known as False Dichotomy.  Creation is in a different category from wins and losses, except that it might be claimed that one who creates always wins.


Corrupting the Youth Some More

Not long after posting yesterday’s entry, a few other thoughts occurred to me on this subject.  Partly these thoughts came about because of a thoughtful and sympathetic response by my friend and colleague, Theresa, and partly through the general process of rumination that besets my life.

One important difference between me and Socrates, other than the obvious one of philosophical competence and prominence, is what youth we actually have a chance to corrupt.  In ancient Athens, only the male youth of wealth and privilege would have time, or would be encouraged, to pursue philosophy as a student of some great man.  Actually, Aristotle remarks that there were a couple of women as students in Plato’s Academy, disguised as males, and the contemporary Plato scholar, Dave Reeve, has written a delightful short dialogue about them, called The Naked Old Women in the Palestra.  Good reading.  But they were the minuscule exception.  It would be a big deal if the upper class youth were corrupted, since they were something like the guardians of tradition for the future.  The youth of the tradespeople and slaves had no such role, and may have been deemed already corrupted by the nature of their social standing.  The upper class youth were important in Athens, and corrupting them was important.  Socrates alludes to this early in the dialogue Euthyphro, when he praises, at least in general terms, the indictment against him filed by Meletus.  There, probably sarcastically, he praises Meletus for looking out for “the young shoots” as he calls them, and desiring to protect them from whatever forces of corruption menaced them.

What are the young shoots like I menace in my community college classes?  They come from families much like I came from, and many from much more modest circumstances.  Middle-to-lower class, some being the first family members to attend college, they are much different from the youths Socrates lollygagged around with in the marketplace.  And, reflecting on today’s virulently top-down social and economic system, which also translates into a top-down political system, my students are powerless.  Or, at least that’s the way it seems.  In talking with them outside of class, few vote, or are inclined to do so.  Their aspirations reach no farther, for the most part, than owning a home with a boat on the lake for summer drunkenness.  How could they possibly be a threat to the powers vested in our political/economic system as it now operates?

The author (authors?) of Cyborgology, to which I referred yesterday, may have hit upon it.  Participation.  The current order needs the youth I fail to corrupt adequately to participate in in the sham economy and the sham democracy foisted upon them by our purchased officials and those who profit by the laws they cobble together.  And that leads to a point not derived from reading what other have read but thinking about a truly insane phenomenon in contemporary academic life: student debt.

The true crisis that mounting student debt represents is recent, but it has been serious since the Reagan era.  While it appears insane to burden citizens with a lifetime of debt for a marginal education, perhaps it does make sense to one segment of the population.  If universal higher education has become something mandatory for Americans who have an expectation of success, education has always had its dark side.  That’s what the critics of Socrates recognized.  Education can put funny ideas into a person’s head.  They may begin to question the expectations society has placed upon them if they are to become responsible citizens.  They may even begin to question whether there is a god, or that capitalism is the only viable economic system, or that cable TV is the biggest bargain on the face of the earth.  How can the cost-benefit ratio be skewed to the greatest benefit to the powers in place with the least cost in terms of risk of non-participation?  It’s simple.  Force people, through massive indebtedness, to remain anchored to the economic system for most of their productive lives.

The top-down social system of ancient Athens is not much different from contemporary America.  The leisure to go to plays and study philosophy was only available to the upper class in that time because of the powerless masses, enslaved in fact or metaphorically, keeping the system producing for the benefit of those at the top.  In our time, the lawmakers that continue to reject an increase in the minimum wage are merely guaranteeing the wage slavery of those too powerless to escape.  And those who try to escape to the community college where I teach then get thrown back into the same servitude they seek to escape by incurring unconscionable debt.  The system thrives for those at the top.

Let me return, finally, to my original question from yesterday: have I corrupted the youth in my time as a philosophy teacher?  The answer seems bleaker than ever.  What would corrupting them look like from this perspective, rather than the Socratic one?  Get off the grid?  It would take money.  Refuse to get an education?  That just trades one form of slavery for another.  The system is rigged at the bottom, so maybe accommodating yourself to the system is futile, which only leaves changing the system.  Marxian revolution?  Never say never.  But maybe some sort of grass-roots community like Annabel Park is working to form might be the first step.  Socrates approached the task one Athenian at a time.  He had no ultimate effect, and was executed for it.  Perhaps individualism, the bastion of philosophical thought, must tumble first.


Corrupting the Youth

It is dawning on me that one of the least productive activities in retirement is second-guessing the past.  Are there things I didn’t do but should have?  Yes.  Are there things I did and wished I didn’t?  Yes.  Are there things I could have done better?  Yes.  Was I an ass too frequently?  Yes.  Was I noble too seldom?  Yes.  Yes to it all.  But it’s past; let it go.  I find that facile advice comes more easily when you perceive there is enough time to right the wrongs you committed and blot out regret with action.  

This subject came up yesterday in a discussion with my dearest friend, Chris.  He is five years younger than I, and of Western Kansas German farmer stock.  The picture of robust health and with as inquisitive a mind as I have ever encountered.  But on Tuesday, he had open-heart surgery to duct-tape a leaky valve.  When he and his wife got home, I greeted him even before his adoring dog, Jake.  As we talked all afternoon, he nodded off from time to time, and only with Chris would I not suspect it to be a subtle criticism of the conversation he was enduring.

We both like to travel, and prefer to do it independently.  His big regret was that he had never learned a foreign language so that he could interact with the people and their culture without an intermediary.  Chris is a great interactor, a word that spell check tells me does not exist.  It does now.  He is fast friends with a Chinese friend of our Lao-He, even though neither of them knows a word of each other’s language.  To see them together, but out of earshot, you never suspect it, since they very clearly are communicating.

My contribution to what might become our own private little regretfest was that, while there were omissions in my life that would forever remain incomplete, there are some moments in my life that were so extraordinary that savoring them had the effect of making the regrets dissolve from my consciousness.  I mentioned visiting The Great Wall, three times.  Most westerners have never been there once, and each time I go the effect on me is physical, emotional, intellectual, and very personal.  Regrets turn out to be pretty puny when compared with that.

So, you ask, when does he start giving us the steamy stuff about corrupting the youth?  Let me tell you, I wish I had something for you in that regard.  But I don’t, in the tawdry way you might leeringly imagine.  Come on: how could leeringly not be a word?  Maybe WordPress is a little too prim for my purposes.  But here’s what I do have.  It comes about through the minor tempest caused a few weeks ago by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with a softball-pitching devotee.  Tyson, who has given a rebirth to Carl Sagan’s great series, Cosmos, decided to offer some gratuitous slander in the direction of my discipline, philosophy.  His main gripe, in comparing philosophy to science, his turf, was that philosophers get so tied up in endless questioning and obsessing about language that they (we) just don’t ever accomplish anything.  For all our pedantic questioning, when do we ever come up with an answer?

The philosophy blogs I frequent quickly lit up with defensive posturing and incredulous whining  And that was just the tenured professors.  Actually, there were some excellent, well-reasoned defenses of the usefulness of philosophy, the best that I saw being from Massimo Pigliucci in the blog Scientia Salon, here on WordPress.  The author is learned in both the sciences and philosophy, which beats Tyson by one.  However, the response I most like, and the one that sticks in my craw, came from robinjames, a philosopher, in the section called Cyborgology, on the web site The Society Pages.    

Taking the example of Socrates in his trial, the thought is that the “job” of philosophy, or what philosophy is all about truly is corrupting the youth.  That’s what we should be doing, not all the “‘splainin'” (Tyson’s term) that science does so well.  The behavior of Socrates in his trial, behavior that sometimes seemed downright puzzling for someone trying to be acquitted, was precisely to be found guilty as charged.  That he was so beloved by many in Athens might obscure the fact that he was a philosopher, and corrupting the youth is what we do.  And when we become too beloved, or too chummy with the mainstream, or become an icon found on t-shirts and bags like Chairman Mao, we betray ourselves and the life we claim to revere.  Socrates saved himself by showing the unsavory, obnoxious side that is inevitable if you are a source of corruption.

The Socratic question is also a personal one, summoning the dull pain of regret once again, a regret the vistas of the Great Wall cannot blot out.  Before the hemlock finds its way to my glass, can I say I have corrupted the youth I touched?  The brightest of them are intent on giving their minds and bodies to the machine Socrates despised.  I have done nothing to dissuade them, it seems.  If I have not corrupted at least one, my life is but a vanity with a pension at the end.  


Rattles, though faint

August of 2013 was my last post.  Where was I?  I’ll begin to answer that by telling you where I was this morning.  It’s like amnesia therapy; tell us what you did this morning and maybe you can work your way back to cogency.  That may be asking too much of a blog, but I’ll try.

This morning, I decided to drive the one hour to just east of Lawrence, Kansas, to pick asparagus at John and Karen Pendleton’s farm.  This is not a new career venture as a seasonal agricultural laborer.  The Pendletons have a farm where you go out in the fields and pick what is available, paying for what you return to the barn carrying.  Other than ticks.  No charge for them.  I retrieved both green and purple varieties of asparagus, and speckled trout lettuce, much beloved of Jackson Pollack, I would guess.

I went out there alone, and that’s where the real story begins.  I’ve tried to get any number of friends to go with me, and the urgency in my requests always hinged upon how brief the asparagus growing season was, and how heavenly the flavor of freshly-snapped spears would be.  But everyone is busier than I, and now I am beginning to understand that fact is a part of the meaning of retirement.  It’s not that I don’t like or even function well in solitude, but it’s not the way my life is optimized.  It was a nice morning.  Yuja Wang played her sexy little fingers off on the car’s CD player both coming and going, and I even got to flirt with a young mother and her two children picking in the field close to me.  Pleasant enough.  But pleasant enough doesn’t cut it.  I haven’t more or less taken care of myself this long just to be minimally alive.  I want to thrive, and extensive, cold, impersonal solitude is that.  It’s just maintaining vital signs, itself a misnomer.

So that’s where I was this winter; maintaining vital signs and feeling as unvital as it is possible to feel.  One might think that the mere whisper of the topic of suicide would send some of you to report me to the mental health police, and the rest to plan an immediate intervention.  I’ll risk that.  Of course, I’m not thinking of suicide, and I know that because I have thought about suicide.  “Thinking of” suicide I take to mean contemplating the act itself and making it a genuine possibility at some point; “thinking about” suicide I take to mean analyzing and evaluating the act from the widest possible viewpoints.  I have been doing the latter this winter, and writing about it now is partially prompted by the fact that my father would have been 99 this month, and that he hanged himself in June of 1975.

My thoughts on this matter have been greatly influenced by the most recent writings of philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.  I have taught a course dedicated entirely to those works for several years at my college, but next week I will turn in the final grades for the final iteration of that wonderful experience.  His writings, especially in “Reasons of Love,” describe and work through meaning in life and how it is found and cultivated.  His view, and I think he is right about this, is that love gives meaning to life more than any other component; love turns mere living into thriving.  And a crucial element of love must be self-love, a love of what Kant seemed to disparagingly term “the dear self.”  But love, whether of one’s dear self or of something else in one’s landscape, is not a matter of emotional response, or rational analysis, or even moral commitment.  It is a matter of the will.  In philosophical terms, it is volitional.

So, in thinking about life and its meaning for me, and its inevitable end, whether hastened or natural, I focused more on what it is like to will one’s end before its time, and whether that was a kind of continuity of willing life, or somehow contrary to it and antithetical.  And seen that way, the latter answer seems stunningly correct.  If willing is an integral part of the process of loving, then willing an end to living is also willing an end to loving.  I am far, far from ready to do something like that now.

But the trap, I believe, at least for most successful suicides, is that they think of suicide before they think about suicide.  Perhaps my father was that way.  He ministered so lovingly and tirelessly to others for so much of his life that he never prepared himself to be in the straits that he guided others out of.  And suicide was a taboo subject in that era, especially in religious atmospheres.  Maybe it still is.  If you don’t work your way around the conceptual and volitional issues concerning you own life, and its end, you may succumb to personal or emotional pressures and consider and act on suicide before understanding it more completely.  I was gratified that I could find some of the best advice about death from the author from whom I found some of the best advice about life, and love.

Though my personal life is a shambles of bad choices and mismatches, that’s not all there is to love.  I was reminded of that last night on the deck around 7:00, as the sun slid behind trees in the west, the temperature fell into the 70s, and most sounds were muted and utterly normal.  A basketball dribbled hesitantly around the corner.  Children playing peaceably.  Birds coming in for their last meal before sunset.  An indolent breeze hardly troubling the newly-sprouted leaves on the maples.  As I said recently, I am a wealthy man.  Were a woman I loved softly nestling one of my hands in hers as I sat there, I would be wealthier still.  But her absence does not impoverish me enough to make the rest of it meaningless.

That’s where I was.  It was not a pleasant place, but it was a productive place.  And, in the words of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful song, “I’m Still Here!”



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.




Tocqueville vs. Levy

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!


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He thinks!

                He ruminates!        

                                        He cogitates!

                                                                He contemplates!


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.