Greek flesh, modern dreams

April 14, 2015

greek modern

We of the 21st century are a people of the dream, engaged in constant self-transformation.  The dreams we pursue are usually of better, sometimes of different.  If I am poor, I want to become rich.  That’s the American dream.  If I am an outcast, I demand equality.  That was the dream of Martin Luther King.

If I don’t like my body or my face, I’ll assert my right to change them.  If I don’t like my sex, I can change that, too – and expect all around me to adapt to my new identity.

Limits are never acknowledged.  Costs are equated with injustice.  We believe reality to be soft and pliable, a construct that can – and should – be easily deconstructed to harmonize with the desires of the will.

Yet there’s a penalty to be paid for embracing the proposition that reality must conform to private dreams.  We often feel uncertain of who we are or where we stand.  We are distrustful of spin from politicians and the media, afraid of “identity theft” and false-identity web predators, desperately hungry for authenticity, fixity, clarity – elements of that reality we, with our modern dreams, have claimed to transcend.

Worse:  because billions are dreaming the same dreams, they collide with one another, block one another, and force the dreamer to awaken to the fact that he is a limited, bounded creature most of whose hopes will never come true.  In past times, that was a truism that suffused human existence with sadness.  In ours, it is cause for much frustration and shouting.

A people of the dream will be condemned, always and necessarily, to the Age of the Rant.


I’m presently researching the works of the ancient Greeks, and I have been struck by how fundamentally unlike us they were on this question.

The Greeks felt reality as a crushing weight on their shoulders.  Transformations required divine interference, and were seldom happy occasions.  King Midas and his donkey’s ears, inflicted by the god Apollo, can stand as a fairly restrained example.

The world was ruled by “fortune,” “the gods,” or “necessity,” so that even the most cruel and unjust events formed part of a mysterious moral balance.  Truth was thus to be accepted on its own harsh terms, not ours.  Spin and propaganda were considered insults against the sacred order of things:  hubris.  They would bring down retribution.

Oedipus was innocent in his motives.  He belonged to the most applauded modern category:  victimhood.  Yet Oedipus never spins his story, never plays the victim, but proclaims with a certain pride, “Of all men, I alone can bear this guilt.”

The Greeks, arguably the most brilliant people in history, were unwilling to imagine themselves other than they were.  They were a people of the flesh:  and it may be useful to explore the conditions that shaped their identity.


To begin with, Greek city states were miniscule.  You could get a quorum of the Athenian assembly with only 6,000 citizens.  Most cities were much smaller than Athens.  Your nation was like your neighborhood:  it was impossible to get lost in the crowd.

Greek life was lived outdoors and in public.  Citizens exercised naked and marched next to one another in the battle line.  You knew where you stood with everyone else.  Everyone else knew where you stood, too.  Fakery was futile.

The classical Greeks are often portrayed as idealists rather than realists, but what we call idealism to the Greeks meant mastery at an extraordinarily high level of excellence.  This ideal rested on reality:  truth was beauty, and truth was given, not dreamed.  For the individual, this must have meant a tragic foreclosing of possibilities.

The Athenians of the time of Pericles abounded with genius, but lacked silence and solitude.  Public life swallowed the private person to an extent that makes Jeff Jarvis look like a desert hermit by comparison.  Purely personal expression, beyond very tight boundaries, was frowned upon as subversive and quickly punished.  Socrates suffered this fate – so did his beloved Alcibiades, a very different personality.  The oracle’s admonition, “Know yourself,” translated into something like “Understand your limits and live within them.”

For that there was a good reason.  Existence was precarious.  City states were poor and weak, war was a constant, and defeat often meant that your city got wiped off the map – the men massacred, the women sold into slavery.  Thus the state’s survival had to be ensured before personal business could be attended to.  Every male citizen was a soldier, no matter how refined his intellect.  The playwright Aeschylus was a hero of Marathon.  Socrates was admired for his endurance while on campaign.

Consider the contrast with modern life.  Our actions are cushioned by political and economic developments that would have astounded the Greeks.  We hand off to others the power to run our government, the duty to fight our wars, then we expect, as a birthright, to enjoy personal security and affluence.  When we fail, we suffer a spell of individual unhappiness:  nobody dies.  So it doesn’t really matter whether we are right or wrong about the nature of reality.  We can afford to dream.

In the unforgiving environment that shaped the Greeks, getting reality wrong was fatal.  The stories they told harped constantly on that theme.  Whoever dreamed of happiness would be rudely awakened.  Whoever rose too high would be brought low.  Dream bowed to fate, and fate, they knew, was perverse.

A profound sense of tragedy, impossible for the modern mind to comprehend, darkened every aspect of Greek life.

Because we float as transient tourists over a playground world, we come to crave authenticity.  The citizen of Athens or Sparta enjoyed a totally authentic existence, but felt pinned to the earth by his own flesh.  He had conquered political freedom, first of our species to do so – but individually he was a prisoner shackled to that cruel jailer, fate.

From Plato to the Stoics, Greek moral philosophy can be understood as a series of desperate attempts to escape into metaphysics from the narrow prison of reality.


elgin 07-1

Study with an innocent eye the youthful faces that stare at us out of the Elgin Marbles.  They are exquisitely beautiful, but stamped with the sneer of cold command.  They lack something – some quality we latter-day people of the dream find essential to social life.  They seem devoid of sympathy.

The agony of truth and the aspiration to mastery were expressed by the Greeks in an unparalleled burst of genius, but also, and regularly, in sickening displays of brutality.  Our Athenian, for all his brilliance, celebrated his victories with a massacre of enemies.  He abandoned his imperfect offspring to die – a state policy of Sparta’s, heartily endorsed by Plato.  It was Plato, Athenian aristocrat, archetype of the philosopher (“lover of truth”), who recommended cross-breeding citizens “like watchdogs” for desirable political characteristics.

I think the outcome of this biological program would have looked much like the young athletes of the Elgin Marbles.

In the end, I believe, the Greeks became what they most condemned, and failed by their own measure.  A pitiless realism was an unrealistic arrangement for community life.  The triumph of the flesh meant war to the death against all rivals, internal and external.  In their moment of greatness, as individuals and as a people, the Greeks were stuck with what they were.  It was impossible to advance, to move beyond.

No nation equaled them in talent, or could defeat them in battle.  That didn’t matter.  Like all doomed tragic characters, Greek civilization destroyed itself.


For us, danger threatens from the opposite direction.  Our lives are personal dramas.  We are endlessly fascinated with our internal states.  Reality, as I have noted, is expected to yield without a struggle to our emotional requirements:  that’s the millennial dream of transformation.  When the world fails us, we are outraged, and in our rage we smash and batter at whatever happens to be in our way, without a thought for consequences.

Already truth is becoming alienated from facts.  We want reality to be as we command it to be.  That is another way of saying that we, too, are escaping into metaphysics, though in a far less rigorous and innovative way than the Greeks.  They were system-makers, while we just play at make-belief.

The modern dream was once – maybe still remains – a mighty engine of progress.  Unlike the Greeks, we could move beyond ourselves.  We could rise higher and reach for private happiness without incurring hubris or deserving punishment by god or man.

But reality is our common ground.  The flight into fantasy ruptures every social bond and leaves us vulnerable to those who, in the Greek manner, feel earth-bound and flesh-bound, and play the game of life authentically, for keeps.  Our viral outrage, torn loose from reality or any tolerance of the human condition, must in time transform the dreamer into his own assassin – the nihilist – and the dream of self-betterment into a nightmare of barbarism and bloodshed.

Andrey Miroshnichenko’s review of The Revolt of the Public

March 18, 2015

Andrey Miroshnichenko is the author of Human as Media, a book I have cited often in this blog.  He and I became connected as fellow scholars who turn out to have an astoundingly similar perspective on the impact of media on politics.  I say astounding because we wrote our books in complete isolation from each other yet arrived at almost exactly the same place, used many of the same words, and even reached for the same obscure citations (Ortega y Gasset being a favorite).

Andrey and I take the similarities to be meaningful.  We think we are on to something.  We may even be advancing on that phantom, truth.

Andrey has just produced a brilliant and thoughtful review of The Revolt of the Public.  As old-fashioned bloggers used to say:  read the whole thing.  It’s worth it.

For those who want a foretaste, here is Andrey’s version of how he and I came to recognize each other as kindred spirits:

Reading Gurri’s book was for me a particularly fascinating experience, because of the many overlaps between his ideas and those presented in my book “Human as media. The emancipation of authorship.”(Miroshnichenko, 2013). Gurri and I were not familiar with each other’s work until I came across his book and wrote to him. Our understanding of the present moment is so strikingly similar that we both turned to the same, regretfully obscure, “mass man as a spoiled child” quotation taken from Ortega y Gasset (Ortega y Gasset, 1930).

We have since discussed this similarity in our analysis, and we agree that if two independent researchers can see and describe their subject so similarly, that subject in all likelihood has been correctly portrayed. I find this to be an exciting development, particularly since neither physics nor math are involved; there are no “objective” laws of nature applied… Or are there? In the age of accelerated information, the social-informational sphere is so mediated by technologies and so alienated from an observer that it can probably be caught by an inquisitive mind like something “physically given”.

As might be expected, he and I don’t agree on every point regarding the great media-driven transformation of social and political life – what I have called the crisis of authority.  But I find his disagreements to be the most interesting aspect of the review:  they are fascinating, instructive – and probably correct.

Gurri has researched the manner in which the Fifth Wave influences politics. But at some point, with growing Internet penetration, media ceases to be just a factor of the political process; quite the reverse, political processes become internal parts of the media environment.

The review concludes on a thought-provoking note:

Societies accustomed to the conditions supported by broadcast-style, top-down media – i.e., the Fourth Wave, according to Gurri – including those societies that just recently began to experience those conditions, have suddenly found themselves sinking in the Fifth Wave, which is the environment of engaged media, where everyone has the technical capability to express publicly their personal reactions.

This new environment has thus far emancipated technical authorship for about 2.5 billion persons. Considering the spread of information technologies, the “normal” rate of Internet penetration, and population growth, we can predict that number of emancipated authors who can communicate reactions beyond their physical circle will reach 8-10 billion within the next 30 years.

We are at the moment in the middle of the explosion of mass authorship. Books like Gurri’s Revolt of the Public are extraordinarily helpful and necessary if we are to understand the present and prepare for what is to come. The next wave of turbulence caused by emancipated authorship is coming, and it will not be Tahrir-like. The likelihood is that it will develop the characteristics of the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Ferguson, Missouri, the first hints of which could be observed in the London riots of 2011. These future collisions should be analyzed in the context of media ecology as well as of political science.

Go read.  Now.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Morality for a conventional animal

February 18, 2015



How We Got Stuck in the Funhouse

What is is less important to us than what ought to be.  The reason is simple.  We judge the one by the other.

At the elemental moment of experience, we impose a moral scale on reality.  This is unavoidable.  We can’t possibly stand outside ourselves.  Even those who seek God in revelation must do so through the dark mirror of their humanity.  Even for them, man is the measure of all things.

If morality is the judge of reality, the question would seem to be what system of morality brings the greatest justice or completeness to the trial.  This has been a reflexive tic of educated persons in my lifetime:  the judgment of morality, ending always in a guilty verdict and the death sentence.  In the rush, a step has been missed.  The old morality lies dead by our own hand, yet the superior alternative is nowhere to be found.

Those marching toward that land of milk and honey were lured into a conceptual funhouse from which they never emerged.

We can’t transcend the world to judge the world.  We need a moral standard to discover a superior morality:  but in that case, the decision is already made.  Once I need a standard to find the standard I get lost in an infinite regress.

The fine spirits of my generation took the verdict against morality for granted, but this reflected a sense of the historical moment, the zeitgeist, and beyond that the oppositional herd instinct of the intellectuals.  A positive alternative was lacking.  A platform from which to condemn the old morality was lacking, so the accusers made strange gestures toward universality and science, and ended exactly where they began – appealing to the old morality they had discarded as if it were a universal or scientific truth.

German and French philosophers paved the road to the funhouse.  They dismissed reality as mere convention, and repudiated convention as a mask for exploitation and abuse.  But this indictment could only be derived from the most conventional of moral precepts, directly descended from Christianity.  The philosophers were looking for an Artist-Tyrant beyond all morality but instead found the middle-class parson who had troubled their childhoods.  They spoke of authenticity and existential freedom but they were stuck in the funhouse, going round and round.

The rest of us followed without a moment’s hesitation.  That’s the seductive power of style and fashion.


How Convention Trumped Perfection, and Always Will

We have been driven to the edge of moral dementia by the uniquely modern quarrel with convention.  In the past, convention was just the way things were done.  To us, it’s the curse of history – a masked lie – a magician’s cloak dropped over reality to conceal the immorality of power.  We think ourselves worthy of lives that are perfect and true, and we look on our existing social arrangements with a ferocious loathing.

Those who dispensed the lethal injection to the old morality intended to clear the ground for an authentic moral order.  But nothing is happening.  The world-historical clock remains stuck at a minute before midnight, while the new dispensation refuses to be born.  Such an absurdity can be explained only in the context of history, which is to say of tradition and convention.

In principle, morality and convention differ sharply.  The one aims for high ideals, the other for compromises so we can get along.  Morality is absolute and universal, convention relative and local.  Morality commands “You shall not kill,” but convention finds many reasons to do so.

The sophisticated and super-educated of our times, in their simplicity, believed they could rip away the veil of convention, and dwell in a world ruled by lofty ideals.  Behind the veil, however, they found – nothing.  That world does not exist.  It has never existed.

Functionally, the gap between morality and convention narrows to the vanishing point.  We are born with certain behavioral predilections.  This has been called the moral sense but is really an instinct for rightness in social encounters.  It resembles the language instinct in being a generic endowment “tuned” to the specific idiom of the community.

The mechanism for moral tuning is imperfectly understood, but seems to involve observation, imitation, and powerful emotional tags that convey the feeling of right and wrong in many settings and circumstances.   In this manner, ought becomes enthroned at the gateway of experience.

Abstract principles play no part in the tuning process.  They are supplied after the fact:  that “all men are created equal” was to Jefferson a self-evident description of reality, rather than a newly discovered axiom from which all justice must follow.  Once articulated, such principles get absorbed into the moral language – but the fit with the community’s ideals of behavior is always imperfect, always riddled with exceptions.

Any attempt to formulate morality, like geometry, from axiomatic principles will necessarily fail.  The cause of failure isn’t our fallen state or conspiracies by billionaires.  Geometrical morality must fail because ours is a deeply conventional species.  If we rip away convention we slip insensibly back into convention – never pure morality.  If we deny the legitimacy of history, we set in motion a tragicomedy of unintended consequences rising out of the depths of historical causation.

That describes our present condition.  We have rebelled against history and failed, and now we are sick with vertigo in that funhouse of unintended effects.


Conventional Morality and the Morality of Convention

The strictures of convention must be treated with great care, not because they are right in every instance but because they tap directly into potent emotions.  When displaced, these emotions can explode into nihilistic violence.  The twentieth century, a long experiment in the trampling of convention, invented the killing fields and the extermination camp.  The new millennium, at war with history, seems to be staggering in the same direction:  we are the first to crash commercial aircraft into skyscrapers.

Syria 2015

Syria 2015

But this is a call to caution, not to fatalism or moral inertia.  Conventions change:  they must, if they are to adapt to a highly unstable human and technological environment.  The break with the past is always difficult, often traumatic.  Many of the conventions that have evolved since 9/11 and the emergence of social media would have been considered dueling offenses by our great-grandfathers.

The only meaningful question before us isn’t whether the old conventions were superior to the new, but how on earth we can arrive at such a judgment.  The way out of the funhouse, for those who wish to leave, consists of discovering the authority or criteria that entitles us to call some aspect of conventional morality right or wrong, better or worse.

The pleasure principle and its obverse, the precautionary or victim principle, are applied by default in the public arena.  Both pointed the way to the funhouse.  We have been pleasured and victimized by special pleaders into a state of utter bewilderment.

Morality consists of behaviors found to be successful and right in the past.  “Successful” means that the behavior binds the individual to the community.  “Right” means that it moves in the direction the community has set for itself.  All this is given.  We confront morality from childhood as a series of tragic choices, by which we amputate our most urgent desires so we can learn to live with others.

But there are choices.  Without repudiating morality or veering from the historic direction of the community, we assert ourselves.  Moral boundaries fit no person perfectly:  in a gray uncertain hour, each of us must cross the frontier.  Many do so out of selfishness.  That is almost always a false step.  But morality can judge morality.  Convention can oppose convention.  Human nature, our native sense of rightness, will set boundaries beyond which no social arrangements can function.

Motherhood is an ancient moral ideal for women.  Success in the pursuit of an interesting career is a more recent ideal.  Choices must be made.  Something will be lost.  So long as the pleasure principle has been discarded, so long as the community’s perspective has been considered, an individual is free to wrestle with her private circumstances.  Her path through the wilderness will be her own.

Independence is a necessary condition in a democracy.  Sustenance is necessary for life.  Dependence on government handouts will threaten personal freedom, but may ensure survival.  Choices must be made.  To the extent that the individual has risen above a childish self-indulgence, he is free to make a call.

The same is true of private choices like abortion and of more public decisions like a stand on gay marriage.  History and the community must have their say.  Selfishness can play no part.  Beyond that the individual must search his private store of wisdom, and judge.


The Amorality of Government, and Who Is Responsible

Conventional morality is nothing more than the sum of such judgments.  It isn’t tidy, but it allows free range to trial and error, success and failure, and so opens the way for our moral thinking to evolve gracefully with our changing circumstances.  It is also morality as actually practiced in an open society, as opposed to our fond geometric illusions or the circular condemnations of the philosophers.

The top-down approach that unleashed a torrent of rights and prohibitions for political power to impose has conspicuously failed.  Absolutist zeal is no match for the hardness of reality – or the digestive capacity of history.  The lost highway of radical transformation dead ends in disorientation and nausea.

Morality works on a more human scale.  Modern democratic government, for example, connects to office-holders, factions, and voters, never directly to morality.  A president or an attorney general can act immorally.  The same can be said of a bureaucrat or a voter.  Government, considered objectively, is just machinery.

While it’s true that convention pertains to community, and reality, and history, responsibility ultimately must always take the form of a personal decision.  The only legitimate player in the moral drama is the individual.

In praise of (my) ignorance

January 21, 2015


The truth – the whole truth – lies beyond the reach of the human race.  God may perceive all of reality at a glance, but the rest of us are doomed to a point of view.

Science, the modern form of revelation, deals with a limited set of facts and relationships.  Its truth is esoteric, partial, and passive.  Research can deliver a life-saving vaccine:  but caring about human life is a moral proposition, unprovable by scientific methods.  The brilliant scientists of Nazi Germany perfected the jet engine, rocket propulsion, and the mass production of murder at Auschwitz.

Truth isn’t up for grabs, of course.  It isn’t socially constructed or invented by evil white men.  If you believe that, stand for just a fraction of a second in front of an onrushing truck.  The world can kill you.  We learn that lesson early, or we are crushed by it.

Truth is perspectival.  I can see you only from where I stand – never as you see yourself, never as others see you, never totally, never absolutely.

Being human, I perceive truth under a specific aspect:  that of my perspective.  So I know a bit, but I miss a lot.  Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building is a radically different experience from street level.  In each case, we think we know what we’re looking at, but we miss a lot.

To speak with absolute certainty is to strike an affectation.  I find this to be the comic failing of our moment in history.  A great revolution in information and communication has placed all authority in crisis, yet people tend to speak in dogmatic assertions, as if they have access to the whole truth.  They concede that you and I are blinded by a point of view, and miss a lot:  but not them.  Since “them” means us, any discussion quickly takes a sour, theological turn.

The translation of the Bible into the vernacular spawned a host of sectarian prophets who insisted they alone understood its message.  In our time, the unprecedented dispersal and democratization of information has had a similar effect.  Facile minds are amazed by how much they know, and find easy patterns, and preach to the multitudes the one true way in politics, or economics, or war and peace, or food consumption, or social relations.

Latter-day sectarians think they own the lever with which to move the world.  But the reality is, they don’t.  They believe they can ordain the future.  But they can’t.  Failure is inevitable but always interpreted as betrayal.  Truth then becomes something ordinary people can’t handle:  a murky conspiracy, the rule of secretive vampires.

Much of the anger consuming our public debates pours out of a conviction that truth really is up for grabs – that nothing exists unless powerful people wish it so.  As an explanation of the world, this is largely self-refuting:  every accusation must be understood to be a manipulation, around and around.  But as an exercise in shifting blame for failure and moral inertia, it’s emotionally satisfying.

An age of affectation feigns to see through the truth:  but we are still clueless children playing games in the street, while that truck, loaded with randomness, bears down on us.

Accepting that truth is perspectival doesn’t entail wobbliness of any sort.  It entails humility.  It’s a sharp reminder of the human condition.  Every day I must wrestle with the angel of doubt.  On every question I am forced to measure, dismayed, the vast abyss of my ignorance.

I’m an analyst.  I spout assertions all over the place.  Should I hem and haw and qualify?  That would be indigestible.  Should I assume the mantle of authority?  That would be dishonest.  Is there a middle ground?  Probably, but it would mean absorbing as many different perspectives on the subject as my limited mental bandwidth can hold.  That’s time-consuming and hard.

Is the payoff worth it?  Much of the time, the effort seems disproportionate to the output.  I labor mightily to get at truth, but deliver a point of view.

Yet all this turns out to be healthy:  possibly for me, certainly for us.  Humility is the beginning of true science, the foundation of what Karl Popper called the open society.  Ignorance invites tolerance:  I want to get to where I’m going, and your directions, though contrary to mine, may actually take me there.

I don’t need a mystical feeling of fraternity to hear you out.  I just have to remember that the world is very large, and that I am small.

Failure, too, becomes a source of enraged cynicism only if I presume a right to God-like infallibility.  Failure is information plugged into the one process that has ever propelled the human race forward:  trial and error.  This method isn’t called “trial and glory” for a reason.  In human affairs, most things fail.  We then have a choice:  learn and advance toward the light, or scratch the itch of wounded vanity and blame the world’s injustice.

Nor is this choice in any sense determined.  If ignorance is infinite, so are the paths that lead to truth.  We decide on direction.  As an analyst, I decide.  Reality contains an element of freedom, and for this reason acquires a distinctly historical flavor.  (The universe, without changing a single atom, resembled a clockworks in the eighteenth century, a folded sheet in the twentieth, a crazy dynamic system today).

Truth comes with a history and a genealogy.  Those who aspire to an unchanging realm of perfect certainty misunderstand the human adventure, which is a great migration into the unknown.

Christ, Christianity, and Christmas

December 23, 2014

nativity 3

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of the man the Greek gospels call Jesus Christ:  that is, “Joshua the Savior.”  He is worshipped by Christians the world over as the son of God, but all acknowledge his humanity, and it is the human aspect of Jesus that I would like to consider.  No man has had a larger impact on how we understand right and wrong, or on how, in consequence, we wish to behave.

It is remarkable how little we know about Jesus, and how well we know him.  We don’t know when he was born.  December 25 is just a convention, probably borrowed from the Roman carnival of Saturnalia.  We don’t know what he looked like or what he sounded like, though in an age of face-to-face persuasion his physical presence must have been charismatic in a literal sense, and his voice (Life of Brian notwithstanding) must have carried over the multitudes.

He was a middle-class boy, a carpenter’s son from the hilltop town of Nazareth – a place with a view of the far distance.  Those who watched him grow up there apparently considered him a perfectly normal person, and couldn’t imagine he would amount to much.

He was a wonder worker.  While he lived, that was the quality that set him apart from other men, and gave weight to his words.  There was a hidden power in the carpenter’s son, a force that could be felt even in the hem of his cloak, and it allowed him to bring the dead back to life, and give sight to the blind.  In our rational age, this claim has been a source of embarrassment to some.  Thomas Jefferson famously tried to write a gospel without miracles, which is like rewriting Moby Dick without the whale.  Others, less well disposed (see Life of Brian, above), have ridiculed without mercy the miraculous side of Jesus.

From the perspective of morality, the wisest take on the subject comes from the 1953 movie, The Robe.  In it, crazed Emperor Caligula takes the skeptic’s position, screeching, “Do you expect us to believe these stories that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand… make the crippled walk and the blind see again?”  To which Richard Burton, playing the tribune who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus, replies:  “It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, Sire.  All that matters is that there’s no story that he made anyone blind.  There’s no story that he made anyone a cripple or ever raised this hand except to heal.”

Jesus was a teacher, a rebbe.  He interpreted Scripture and Law in the synagogues of Galilean towns – including Capernaum, where a very fine synagogue of that time has been discovered.  Often, he went beyond the letter of the law, to what he maintained was its true intent.  He thought, along with many in his day, that a great upheaval was coming, and he preached a moral transformation to make Israel worthy of God’s judgment.

The wealthy and the powerful, the lawyers and intellectuals earned his scorn:  they were “whitewashed sepulchers,” brilliant outside but full of corruption inside.  Like his miracles, the anti-establishment side of Jesus has been a problem for comfortably established Christians.  His condemnation of the rich surely inspired modern-day socialists and Marxists:  there is a sense in which Marxism can be understood as a Christian heresy.  But one shouldn’t make too much of this.  Jesus saw in poverty a glorification of the spirit, whereas Marx, a materialist, wanted to abolish poverty.

Jesus was probably the first pacifist.  He taught, “Resist not evil.”  This too was an exaltation of the spirit over physical power, and it is, I confess, the Christian doctrine I find most troublesome – though one, luckily, that has yet to be implemented in any Christian country.

I said that most people think they know Jesus well.  If we were asked to wrap up Jesus in a single word, that word, let me suggest, would be “forgiveness.”  He offended the orthodox because he forgave law-breakers, and affirmed that God forgave them too.

Today we live in harsh times, with videos of beheadings and sexual predations just one click away from one’s monitor.  But we can form no idea of true harshness:  of the unforgiving nature of the ancient world.  Even the best and noblest of the ancients, like the Athenians, showed scant acquaintance with compassion.  Everyone believed in winning.  Everyone equated greatness with goodness.  To be poor was not only a misfortune but a disgrace.

That this world is beyond our comprehension is due entirely to Jesus.  He introduced into human morality a nobility far loftier than any imagined by the Greeks (though glimpsed, it may be, by Socrates, who reasoned that it was better to suffer wrong than to inflict it).  The strong, we now believe, exist to protect the weak.  The rich, we make certain, are taxed to support the poor.

The human spirit isn’t always, or even usually, enriched by winning:  those who retain their dignity in great adversity, those who suffer well, are the spiritual equivalent of conquistadors.  First among these was Jesus himself, who cried from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  I don’t know a more moving question in religion, or a more frightening insight into the loneliness of the human heart.

In imitation of Jesus, we seek to forgive.  Being human, we often fail:  we bear grudges and look to even scores.  But unlike the Athenians of old, we feel this behavior is petty, ignoble, unworthy of a moral adult.  We know too well how much forgiving we each require, and we hope our community – which is, ultimately, the human race – finds the generosity of spirit to wave away our transgressions.  In the physics of morality, we move upward only when others are raised above us.

Happy birthday, Joshua of Nazareth.

Capitalism and its discontents

December 9, 2014

anti-capitalist protest

Two observations kept intruding on me as I read Deirdre McCloskey’s magisterial take-down of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The first is how fortunate we are.  Americans today stand on the crest of that colossal upsurge of wealth McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment, which has made us 900 times richer than our forebears in 1800.  This is unprecedented in human history – and it doesn’t even account for qualitative improvements, like streaming video on a wall-sized, high-def TV or my ability to communicate through this blog.

The second is that most people seem to feel the opposite of fortunate.  They are unhappy, they are disgusted with the system that has placed all that wealth at their feet, they want more, they want less, they want different.  From the airless heights of the French intelligentsia, where Picketty hovers effortlessly, to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where mobs are burning down neighborhood stores, everyone is in a mood of repudiation, everyone condemns, attacks, secedes.

This too is unprecedented in history.  Malcontents in the much poorer societies of the past rarely blamed the system.  They never proposed alternatives, probably because they were unable to conceive of any.  Spartacus aimed to lead his army of escaped slaves out of the Roman Empire.  He had no interest in establishing a Freedmen’s Socialist Republic.  The great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages were spasms of violence and destruction.  The peasants craved revenge, not a new order.  Wat Tyler, closest thing to a political radical in the period, became enraged during negotiations, attacked the Mayor of London with a dagger, and was cut down by the king’s men.

Anger drove the underclass to insurrection – but pure negation isn’t much of a program.  Once the spasm was spent, the rebels had nowhere to go, and they were exterminated in every instance.

The possibility of revolution – of an alternate system, conceived in somebody’s head, imposed on the real world – appeared at a fraught moment in time:  the intersection of Enlightenment faith in the rational reordering of society with Romantic contempt for human life in the pursuit of noble ideals.  By 1848, Marx could write that the “specter of communism” haunted Europe.  The substance of the apparition was mostly dreamed up by Marx himself, but in 1917 it materialized in Russia and began a career of devouring humanity that is not quite over yet.

Communism wasn’t the only phantom at the capitalist feast.  Fascism, National Socialism, anarchism, syndicalism:  all shared a visceral loathing of “bourgeois” existence and the wish to replace it with a more heroic alternative.  The poor and the working classes did not participate in this system-making, any more than had the slaves or the serfs before them.  Inventing anti-capitalist systems was a bourgeois sport.

Marx came from a rabbinical family.  Lenin’s people belonged to the bureaucratic elite.  Mussolini’s father was a well-educated blacksmith, his mother a teacher.  Hitler rose out of the Austrian petite bourgeoisie, Stalin out of the Georgian equivalent.  Mao was the son of a wealthy farmer.  The same was true of Pol Pot, who studied radio electronics in Paris.  These were not the wretched and exploited, desperate for any alternative to their miserable lives.  They were all creatures of the Great Enrichment.

The most implacable enemies of capitalism were the pampered children of capitalism.  It would be a kindness to say that they turned against the system only because they were for a wonderful, if imaginary, ideal of society.  But we know this to be false.  In this late hour of our late age, we know revolution to be a fever dream.  The specter of communism, as an alternative system, was exorcised in 1989 and 1991.  By then, all other alternatives lay in the dust, defeated.  Capitalism has stood unconquered and unchallenged, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty, since 1991.

Yet the feeling of revulsion has, if anything, intensified.  The attacks and repudiations have multiplied.  Capitalism has lifted much of the human race from its ancestral misery, but it is above all to be condemned by its chief beneficiaries as a moral abomination.  Thomas Picketty tells us so.  Barack Obama tells us so:

So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed… this increased inequality is most pronounced in our country, and it challenges the very essence of who we are as a people… The problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years… The decades-long shifts in the economy have hurt all groups:  poor and middle class; inner city and rural folks; men and women; and Americans of all races.

All those who wish to return to 1970 – or 1950, or 1920 – raise your hands.  There have always been people who romanticize the snows of yesteryear, but this strikes me as a new pathological reflex.  Something about capitalism nauseates a large class of thinkers, commentators, politicians, academics, artists, writers, moviemakers, and entertainers who participate in the system and know perfectly well that there are no alternatives.

The question is what.

Capitalism has been accused of ruthlessness and inequality, but all systems that preceded it were far more ruthless and unequal.  Greed is also a red herring.  I imagine that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a runaway best-seller, has made a fortune for its author, who now stands in the same unequal relationship to other economics professors as do corporate CEOs to their employees.  Is Thomas Picketty a greedy man if he chooses to keep his money?  Is he a blood-sucking speculator if he invests it in the stock market?

Anti-capitalism sometimes resembles the anti-Semitism that has been so often associated with it:  a hatred of people who succeed when right opinion holds they shouldn’t.

But I want to put forward another possibility – one that is rarely considered.  Modern capitalism, properly understood, is a matrix of practical and ethical rules that place the burden of the future, with all its terrors and uncertainties, squarely on the shoulders of the individual.  To be a capitalist means to have internalized the “bourgeois virtues” McCloskey believes were responsible for the Industrial Revolution.  The effect is personal responsibility over future risk.

Capitalism in practice isn’t the implementation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Its towering figures are far from Christ-like:  they might be rampant nerds like Bill Gates, or visionary jerks like Steve Jobs.  But all who are in, big and small, stand on their own two feet.

Capitalism – together with its twin sister, liberal democracy – means childhood’s end.  We stand, for better or worse, as adults, liberated from the tutelage of priests and emperors, lords and kings.  Our actions have consequences.  We are now players in the cosmic drama and have achieved what is sometimes called “human dignity.”

Predictably, it was the old elites, the churchmen and the courtiers, who first drew up the charges against the capitalist class later accepted by Marx and Picketty:  that they were greedy, that they put on airs, that lending money was an activity best left to lesser beings like the Jews.  The rise of the capitalist was experienced by the old regime as a monstrous violation of the natural order, children suddenly running the household.  Here was the source of the gag reflex.

This infirmity has taken two distinct forms in the modern era.  The anti-capitalist movements of the last century raged against social rules and conventions, and despised the bourgeois for his self-restraint.  They craved the right to settle scores, the freedom of the assassin.  “We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism:  speculators must be shot on the spot,” Lenin ordered.  Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” followed the Al Capone template.  Behind the romance of revolution lurked the grim impulses of violent criminals.

The dominant critique of capitalism today, however, is an updated version of the courtier’s complaint.  It asserts that the human race is not yet out of its infancy, and must be protected from its own decisions.  The new protectors are experts and bureaucrats who act on scientific principles.  The future is revealed to them alone.  They are the adults in the room, and they are able to see, at a glance, that capitalism is a screen for swindlers who profit from the innocence of the people.

President Obama began his administration with a plea that we “set aside childish things,” and the burden of adulthood in a nation of troubled minors has been felt in every word and deed of his since.  He does not believe that we stand on our own two feet.  He does not believe that we will figure out how the broken bargain of capitalism has “hurt” so many of us.  He’s certain that future risk will destroy us unless he intervenes with a firm parental hand – for example, by checking up on our credit card bills and seeing off the bad company we keep.

He is not alone.  The pope, for one, agrees with him.  Thomas Picketty and so many others agree.  If they are right, both capitalism and democracy are doomed.  If they are wrong – and, almost certainly, they are – then we had better hope that their callow gestures of disgust and theater of repudiation don’t wreck the Great Enrichment, and induce a self-fulfilling disaster.

Campus Zeitgeist, then and now

December 8, 2014

In 1965:

naked students


campus rape protest

Cause and effect?  Neo-Victorianism?  Who knows?


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