Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Whatever happened to our sense of right and wrong

Murdoch says the key is to meditate on the good and the beautiful
Photograph of Hampton Beach, Christmas Day 2014
CC Jean Stimmell

When I was young, success was not being rich but being a person of good repute: honest, hardworking, and willing to help others. We were taught stories in school about how presidents should be honest and of good character: stories about how George Washington confessed about cutting down the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking 3 miles at night to return 6 cents he had overcharged a customer.


In addition, we  held religious stories in common, like it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of an needle that a rich man to enter heaven. Now, however, we have elected a rich man as our president, who is an inveterate lier and serial adulterer, cheating even the contractors who built his hotels and casinos. Yet he is revered by much of working-class America and applauded by religious conservatives.


This decline in morality is the result of many factors. Two immediately come to mind. The first is moral relativism, advocating an “anything goes” attitude, personified by Trump and his supporters. Interestingly, back in the 1960s, conservatives were blaming  “leftists” in our universities for promoting such decadence.


However, those college professors were not advocating that all truths are equal. What they were saying is that when you look closely at a text or a society, it soon becomes apparent that the truth people see depends on where they stand in society. A current situation that illustrates this divide is Black Life Matters protesters versus the police: Each side makes a different claim on what is true.


Of course, 1960s hippies have always been blamed for pursuing an “anything-goes” morality. But one could make a strong case that we were experimenting, searching for a new caring, person-centered morality, as opposed to the existing patriarchal model that dropped atomic bombs on Japan and killed millions of peasants in Vietnam.


Another signal event that helped usher in our moral decline happened 50 years ago this month when Milton Friedman, a leading economist, wrote his “free market manifesto that changed the world.”⁠1  In essence, he said, forget about morality and ethics. In no uncertain terms, he asserted that business has no responsibility for the welfare of its workers or to society; it’s sole responsibility is to make money.   He call to arms spread like a virus.


Spurred on, in part, by his manifesto, the 1980s became known as the“Decade of Greed, ” personifying  avarice and an anything-goes attitude, according to Time Magazine.⁠2  Meanwhile our society continued to become more secular with fewer  people going to church. I don’t know if that is a lagging or leading indicator.


The contagion has now spread until it is the only game in town. Everything has become transactional. Forget the Golden rule: if a transaction is good for a company or individual, jump on it, no matter what the consequences to others.


From this brief history, it is evident that Trump is not the cause of our downfall, but a symptom of a distressing trend.  I’ve  been mulling what has gone wrong and and what can be done to reverse the trend. Retrieved from dusty history, I came across a remedy: “The Sovereignty of the Good” by Iris Murdoch, first published in 1970.


Murdoch, a novelist and moral philosopher who recently died at the age of 100,  fought against the cultural relativism, turning back the pages of history to not her idol Plato: he was a true believer in an ultimate reality, although he thought most could only access it in low resolution, as shadows on the wall.


This trancendental reality, Murdoch says, is The Good, something we are all familiar with “by instinct.“ “The ordinary person understands some things are better than others.”⁠3 But to clearly apprehend what is good, one must work at it, like you do with any other endeavor. For example, to become good at mathematics: you must be introduced to the principles and practice them. All our religions recognize this need for practice.


Murdoch writes there is “a place both inside and outside religion for contemplating the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people.”⁠4   The most important thing we must do is to get outside our anxiety-ridden minds: “to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.”


“Our ability to act well ‘when the time comes'”, she says, “depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.” For this reason we should meditate, with a “just and loving gaze”, upon those things that appear to be good and beautiful.⁠5


For the sake of my soul, crying out from the cauldron of incivility we find ourselves in, I have pledged to follow Iris Murdoch toward her vision of the good.

xxx



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1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/13/business/dealbook/milton-friedman-essay-anniversary.html

2 https://www.nationalreview.com/2004/06/decade-greed-richard-mckenzie/

3 Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge Great Minds) (p. 95). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

4 Ibid. p 99

5 https://cburrell.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/murdoch-the-sovereignty-of-good/

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Rising inequality is corroding our unity, almost beyond repair



Occupying Wallstreet in NYC in the financial district
at Zuccoti Park which OWS renamed "Freedom Park"
Photo by Jean Stimmell 10/8/11

To regain unity as a people, we must decrease inequality


I recently wrote in the Concord Monitor about the human cost of growing inequality in N.H., quoting a Pittsfield high school student testifying to the legislature “every year, we’re set up to lose more and more, and at some point, there’s just going to be nothing left.”


That quote hit me right in the gut, along with a recent piece from The Guardian about birds “falling out of the sky,” part of a mass die-off. The birds are dying from starvation, plummeting to the earth in mid-flight, “literally just feathers and bones,”1 due to a combination of climate change and forest fires. 


Like children in poor towns in N.H., they, too, have nothing left. In both cases, the root cause is callous indifference by the power elite of our country, more concerned with profits than the welfare of our neighbors, human or otherwise.


In N.H., we are faced with a test on whether we will continue to let the unfortunate among us plummet into dire straits. As it is, we have an inadequate safety net to catch those who are falling, with the situation destined to get worse because of looming revenue shortfalls, as a result of COVID-19. Already Gov. Chris Sununu is threatening budget cuts. And that’s not counting future deficits, resulting from the second wave of pandemic predicted for this winter.


We know who will pay the price: The middle class, or what’s left of it.  Respected economist, Peter Temin, argues that we are becoming a divided country where the people at the top don’t relate to the rest and don’t even care. On one side, we have the top twenty percent with a college education who work in finance, technology, and electronics: “Think Silicon Valley and Wall Street.”


On the other side, we have everyone else, “huddled together in increasing poverty in the low wage sector, burdened with debt, struggling to pay their home mortgage... Higher education… is increasingly out of reach – public schools are defunded…  For the majority, there is no future. The middle class is hollowing out, the American Dream is dead.2


Workers understand this. That’s why they flocked to Bernie Sander’s campaign and that of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, while Trump successfully tapped into real feelings of pain and legitimate grievance, all his promises to fix things were a con.


Several states, suffering similar shortfalls, are raising their income tax on the rich. The governor of New Jersey, a former big-shot at Godman Sachs, affirms that he has no grudge against the rich. “But in this unprecedented time, when so many middle-class families and others have sacrificed so much, now is the time to ensure that the wealthiest among us are also called to sacrifice.”


An additional eight other states are considered proposals to increase taxes on high-income residents, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But not Chris Sununu, hopefully, the last of a long line of NH governors, who has pledged to veto any broad-based tax.


Inequality is not a fact of life, etched from the beginning into N.H. granite, a point made by David Graeber, ground-breaking anthropologist, scholar, and intellectual leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement, who died unexpectedly last week at the young age of 59.


He was a scholar who taught at Yale and the London School of Economics. His research showed that egalitarian cultures – including large and sophisticated ones –were quite commonplace throughout history.3   Orion Magazine this month features one such government, flourishing in New England when the white settlers arrived.


This was the Iroquois Confederacy, which successfully united five warring nations in an equitable peace.  Our Founding Fathers were so impressed by this Native American government,  they thought they could copy it.


As Benjamin Franklin remarked, “It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for…English colonies ” 


But, alas, that “very strange thing” is happening: We are proving unable to measure up to those “ignorant savages”.  In truth, from the beginning, we never had a perfect union. It’s next to impossible when the ruling elite is racist and patriarchal and beholden to the monied class. 


Unfortunately, these old prejudices still persist, leading to the sad state we find ourselves in today. Many have recited the facts, but that’s not enough. Old ways of seeing do not change because of evidence; they change because a new language captures the imagination,”as author Jack Turner has written.


Maybe the new language we need is the old language still spoken by our indigenous brothers and sisters, captured in this quote from the Orion article written by Sandy Bigtree of the Mohawk Nation:


“As we are now confronted with environmental devastation, global pandemics, an economic system that fosters chaos in the world… perhaps it is time to pick up where the Founding Fathers left off and continue to learn from the [Iroquois Confederation]. What better time than now to consider the ancient wisdom of our ancestors who, for thousands of years, sustained a more equitable way of living… Who better to model a world where women reside at the center of deliberations and nature exists as our relative—not just a resource?”5


Politicians of both parties, are you listening?

xxx



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1 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/16/birds-falling-out-of-the-sky-in-mass-die-off-in-south-western-us-aoe

2 https://impakter.com/american-dream-dead-long-live-american-dream/

3 https://thebaffler.com/odds-and-ends/soak-the-rich

4 Sanders, Scott Russell. The Way of Imagination (p. ix). Counterpoint. Kindle Edition.

5 https://orionmagazine.org/2020/09/forming-a-more-perfect-union-through-indigenous-values/

Monday, September 14, 2020

The importance of roots according to Gaston Bachelard

 

Roots along the Suncook River
CC Jean Stimmell

… A root is always a discovery. We dream it more than we see it. It surprises us when we discover it:..

The root is the mysterious tree, it is the subterranean, inverted tree. For the root, the darkest earth – like the pond, but without the pond – is also a mirror, a strange opaque mirror that doubles every aerial reality with a subterranean image. By this reverie, the philosopher writing these pages tells clearly in what a superabundance of dark metaphors he may be involved while dreaming of roots...

 For me, the tree is an integrating object. It is normally a work of art. Thus, when I managed to confer upon the tree’s aerial psychology the complementary concern with roots, a new life suffused the dreamer in me...

To live like a tree! What growth! What depth! What uprightness! What truth! Immediately, within us, we feel the roots working, we feel that the past is not dead, that we have something to do today in our dark, subterranean, solitary, aerial life. The tree is everywhere at once. The old root – in the imagination there are no young roots – will produce a new flower. 

The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree that epitomizes a universe, that makes a universe … [14]

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie . Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition. location 2572

Friday, September 4, 2020

Responding to an article in the Concord Monitor about my High School

 
Beautiful, hard-working Pittsfield
Jean Stimmell ©2013

Ray Duckler recently wrote a disturbing column in the Concord Monitor about Pittsfield, one of NH’s property-poor towns, struggling to provide an adequate education for their kids. He quotes one of Pittsfield’s high school students, who addressed the Senate last summer: ”every year, we’re set up to lose more and more, and at some point, there’s just going to be nothing left.”


I have many fond memories from attending Pittsfield High School many years ago and received, at that time, an education good enough to get into Columbia. But, over the years, our educational system has become increasingly unequal, hamstringing property-poor towns, increasingly unable to raise enough money to provide quality education, despite paying sky-high property taxes.


While it is gratifying that our nation is finally facing up to a history of gross discrimination in many areas like race, gender, and religion, no one talks about class: Class remains the third rail, shunned by polite company. But the truth is, it’s the poor and working-class in these towns who get hurt the worst. Our leaders have betrayed them.


The situation goes beyond improving education. With bipartisan support,  the legislature has tried to start leveling the playing field by mandating a livable wage (our current minimum of $7.25 is a joke), affordable daycare, family leave, things like that. But Governor Sununu has vetoed every bill.


Now Covid-19 has magnified these already existing inequities. Sure, perhaps you are doing okay if you are working at home, still earning your old salary with benefits, yet still faced with the dilemma of whether to send your kids to school – or not. You might be okay if you are retired with a decent pension or IRA.


But what about the bulk⁠1 of our residents who suffer from financial insecurity, or the 40% who don’t have enough savings to pay for a $400 car repair⁠2? What about those laid off from jobs that may never come back and the health insurance that disappeared with it?


Or what about our fellow citizens still squeaking by on poorly-paid, essential jobs, worried first and foremost about getting Covid; and second, if school doesn’t open, will they keep their job or quit to homeschool the kids?


Without a functioning government or personal wealth, what do you do?


First of all, don’t vote for Chris Sununu. Yeah, I know he seems to be an affable guy. And, yes, he has done a pretty good job managing the Covid pandemic. But the heart of the matter is, he is the last in a long line of prominent politicians, anointed by the Union Leader to take the pledge, promising to ax the tax on rich people.


View Governor Sununu for what he really is: CEO of Club New Hampshire, a resort catering to the well-to-do and big business owners. The famed “New Hampshire Advantage” gives members a fantastic benefit, unsurpassed by any other state:  all club fees are waived. No income taxes will ever be deducted from their bulging pocketbooks.


Without question, that’s the most unfair aspect of our tax system. It puts all the burden on those who can least afford it. And it did not happen by accident. Previous legislatures have consistently voted to increase taxes that affect the working class. Working people in N.H. now pay four times as much of their income in state and local taxes than our wealthiest residents.⁠3


Covid-19 only sweetens the pot for Sununu’s Club. Fat cats nationwide are fleeing congested cities to move to NH for its rural character and unspoiled lakes and mountains. They are snapping up high-end real estate within surroundings they are accustomed to: high value, property-rich towns, populated with fellow high-income families. Poor towns like Pittsfield and Franklin, as usual, are left out in the cold.


Of course, part of NH’s charm for these new-comers is not having to pay income tax. Even before Covid, our state had the seventh-highest percentage of U.S.millionaires, making up 8% of our households.⁠4


As Duckler illustrates so well in his column, working folks, particularly in poor towns, are getting screwed: Paying an exorbitant 4 times as much of their income in taxes as the rich, yet treated like a skunk at a garden party by Governor Sununu, servant of his privileged class patrons.

xxx

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1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/donnafuscaldo/2019/11/15/most-americans-struggling-financially-despite-the-strong-economy/#3b1af9404b6b

2 https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/20/heres-why-so-many-americans-cant-handle-a-400-unexpected-expense.html

3 http://www.faireconomy.org/new_hampshire_capital_gains_and_estate_tax_amendments

4 https://www.statista.com/statistics/294941/largest-ratio-millionaire-households-per-capita-us/

Friday, August 21, 2020

Why We Need to be Eternally Vigilant

 

My Old Copy


Why We Need to be Eternally Vigilant


As we slog through the Covid-19 pandemic, Albert Camus’s The Plague is back in the news, a novel about an epidemic spreading across the French Algerian city of Oran.


 I have a hard-cover, Modern Library edition, list price $2.95, given to me by my girlfriend when I was in my twenties. At the time, being rash and impetuous, I found the book boring. Now, 50 years later, I have reread it.


As a 74-year-old man, my sentiments lie with what Stephen Spender wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1948, when the book was first published. He would say I had completely missed the point if I expected a flashy, spellbinding novel.


According to Spender, The Plague is, first and foremost, a parable and a sermon,of such importance for our time that to dismiss it in the name of artistic criticism would be to blaspheme against the human spirit.”⁠1  It’s a message we desperately need to hear today!


At the beginning of Camus’s novel, the people of Oran ignored or minimized the plague, as some of us today are doing with Covid.  But the bubonic plague was so deadly and the suffering so hideous, folks soon meekly fell into line, following procedures familiar to us today: sheltering in place, wearing marks, quarantining those exposed.


The populace also complied because the reality of the plague was visceral, oozing corpses dead in the street, as opposed to empty words on mass media. The novel’s narrator ponders the nature of the thirty or so big plagues in history that have undoubtedly caused at least one hundred million deaths.


 “But what is a hundred million dead? When you go to war, you hardly know what a dead man is. And since a dead man has weight only if he has been seen dead, a hundred million corpses sown throughout history are only a smoke in the imagination.⁠2


One of my patients who voted for Trump "to shake things up," represented this attitude. He believed that Covid-19 was a total hoax until his neighbor died from it. Camus understood, Our fellow citizens in this regard were like everyone else… they did not believe in the plagues. The scourge is not on a human scale, so we tell ourselves that the scourge is unreal, it's a bad dream that will pass. But it does not always pass.⁠3


In fact, it will never pass because Camus's plague is a metaphor of many layers.


Camus tells us not to fool ourselves: the plague is always with us, forever lurking, whether it is pestilence, war, or humankind’s thoughtless predisposition to inflict pain on each other– now accelerated by viruses spread on social media.


“Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What is natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity(if you like)– is a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.⁠4


And what does this vigilance require? “Take the present seriously and live into it as deeply as you can⁠5,” as Episcopal priest, Nancy Taylor declared in a recent sermon. 


The selfless Doctor Rieux, the narrator in Camus's novel – a saint, in my eyes, although he is not a religious man – is an embodiment of this perennial wisdom: getting up each morning, caring for all his patients, with no ego or expectations other than the necessity of doing his best. That’s what transcendence is to Camus: Going beyond yourself to do what needs to be done: Taking action, putting your feet on the ground.


Doing what needs to be done was Obama’s message in his speech at the Democratic National Convention: “I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.⁠6


That’s my central takeaway from rereading The Plague: Everything we have that is good and truly humanis a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.⁠7

xxx



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1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/books/review/looking-at-albert-camuss-the-plague.html?searchResultPosition=1

2 Camus, Albert. The plague (p. 19). Kindle Edition.

3 Camus, Albert. The plague (pp. 18-19). Kindle Edition.

4 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 229

5 https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=312184736792039

6 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/8/19/21376788/obama-democratic-convention-speech-full-text

7 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 219

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Snake in the garden of one's dreams

 During the drought, the last remaining water hole behind my house


"What one does not remember," 
James Baldwin reminds us, 
"is the serpent in the garden 
of  one's dreams."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

If hope is dead, how do we move forward?

 Cannon Beach, OR
CC Jean Stimmell

I have much in common with Eric Utne: We are both baby boomers with a similar take on life. I was a long-term subscriber to his Utne Reader: A ground-breaking magazine, sometimes described as a Readers Digest for the alternative press; it highlighted a whole range of publications from The Whole Earth Catalog to the East West Journal and writers from Robert Bly to Buckminster Fuller. Not surprisingly, I was excited about reading his new memoir, Far Out  Man.


I had another pressing reason to read his book: From what I’d read about Eric, he was an eternal optimist, much like me, but the promo for his new book alleged he had lost hope.  I was eager to see what he had to say because I, too, have lost hope. But, in my case, it hasn’t disappeared, just transformed into something I feel is more meaningful in today’s world.


As I found out when I read his book, we are still on the same wavelength: although he articulates his vision more eloquently:


Do I have hope now? If hope means the expectation that someone (a new president), or something (geo-engineering or some other techno-fix), is going to save us—then no, I’m hopeless, or rather “hope-free.” I like Vaclav Havel’s take on hope: Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit….It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.⁠1 


His revelation came only after he could fully acknowledge how dire our plight has become, that we are irrevocably heading down a  path to near-term human extinction.  By squarely looking death in the face, life immediately became more precious, hitting him in the gut with how wondrous but fleeting it really is: You savor the moments you have and treat others, and yourself, with more loving kindness.”⁠2 


Joan Sutherland describes a similar realization of what life is ultimately about, writing about Zen koans created during a decade of civil war, famine, and plague in 8th century China, a catastrophe so extreme that two out of three of the inhabitants died.


She writes in particular about two Zen teachers, Mazu (Ma) Daoyi and Shitou Xiqian, instrumental in this effort. They both explored what it means for us to be wholeheartedly part of this world: How do we fall willingly into the frightened, blasted, beautiful, tender world, just as it is?⁠3


Ma’s advice to the people was to “benefit what cannot be benefited, do what cannot be done.” When they took his advice, his words became a kind of encouragement: Just because something is impossible, don’t let that stop you. “Put down your despair and your hope, begin from no position at all, and look for what becomes possible when you do.”


The author keeps that quote from Ma over her desk next to this one by  Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Most of the work in the world is done by people who aren’t feeling very well that day.’ The Roosevelt quote refers to how she was able to cope with desperate personal unhappiness by dedicating her life to the service of others.


These responses resonate with that of the prominent author and teacher Steven Batchelor: He a very spiritual individual and a devoted Buddhist, but does not believe in God.


He writes that to confront the unprecedented crises we face today, we must find  “imaginative responses that may not have occurred to any one before.”⁠4


Batchelor says, a traditional Buddhist meditation of death requires that you contemplate the certainty of your own death and the uncertainty of its time, and then dwell on how you should live now. He then expands this meditation to our whole species:


Just as death focuses attention on what matters most for you as an individual, extinction focuses attention on what matters most for us as a species. In embracing extinction, we become intensely conscious that we are complex thinking, feeling, sensing, caring creatures who emerged from millions of years of evolution by natural selection.” Contemplating extinction in this way “can open up an astonished, quasi-religious wonder at the grandeur of being alive at all.”⁠5


Batchelor suggests Covid-19 could have a transformative dimension: By exposing us to the threat of death while granting us free time to contemplate our purpose in life, this crisis  “may inspire a heartfelt commitment to a more collaborative, caring, and sane way of living together on this Earth. We may have entered the chrysalis of confinement as caterpillars, but might we emerge with wings?”


Summarizing the various voices, I have written about: It is clear that we must take responsible action and not succumb to our primitive emotions, which only result in further division and paralysis we can’t afford in the face of our dire existential dilemmas. The answer lies in activating our imagination by bearing witness to the higher truth that we are never powerless: We can always make a positive contribution to our fellow beings – and they to us – whatever the future may throw at us.

xxx




1 Utne, Eric. Far Out Man (p. 315). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

2 Utne P315

3 https://www.lionsroar.com/koans-for-troubled-times/?mc_cid=45dad3eecd&mc_eid=605cb2278f

4 https://tricycle.org/magazine/stephen-batchelor-climate/

5 Ibid