Last weekend some family members were in town and unexpectedly available. At the last moment, six of us coordinated to visit with them.
We had a great time catching up; it had been many months since we had spoken with these cousins, and being good-natured, well-traveled and full of news about various grandchildren and sons-in-law, it was a lively visit.
At the company where I work, there are three topics one avoids: sex, politics and religion. My husband and I adopted this ban in relation to my relations, as they are far more conservative than is normal for people who live in Northern California. Unfortunately, the converse is not true: my family members repeatedly land upon two of these topics: religion and politics. I usually make the obligatory snarky remark then refrain from engaging, or I attempt to find a common point of agreement to ease the tension the topics introduce into the conversation.
This Sunday conversation went along the same lines, and I was without my husband to defend my honor as a person who holds the Bill of Rights in high esteem; I had to navigate the stormy waters without his support. To keep the pressure off of myself, I was largely an observer as the conservatives held forth about our incoming president, Barack Obama.
First, I was secretly horrified that though she possesses a ticket to attend the inauguration and will be in D.C. on Tuesday, my niece is opting to stay at home due to an hysterical fear that Al Quaeda will attack the crowd. I would sacrifice a part of my shoe collection if that would create the opportunity to attend this event, but she said that if her candidate had won (you know who her candidate was: the esteemed but mad former POW who selected that bimbo from Alaska as his second) she would attend but as it is …
Next, I was privy to Secrets of State, as apparently there are multiple, imminent threats to the people of the United States from evil, foreign terrorists who have sneaked into our country and are planning something big (but shhhh … don’t mention where you heard this!). Even now, those Spawn of Satan are plotting the overthrow of democracy as we know it.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of you but it sure seems that George W. did an awfully good job at attempting to undermine the provisions of the United States Constitution, with a great deal of assistance from a Republican Congress. He established the Department of Homeland Security, which says it all: Let’s create an overwhelming sense of panic and ethnocentrism, while creating a huge bureaucracy that will have the authority to mine the personal details of people’s daily lives in search of such blatant, defiant acts of terrorism like carrying cuticle scissors in your carry-on luggage! Two birds with one stone!
Finally, in discussing the future of the country there were several remarks made about Obama now saying that it will take time to set the country on the correct course, and we need to work hard to overcome the problems that lay ahead. Oh no, he never mentioned these things during his campaign; he was all sunshine and light, surrounded by Munchkins from the Lollipop Guild. And now – gosh darn it! – after being involved in Bush’s security briefings he is seeing it, he is getting it. So – ha! to the stupid liberals who voted for the man who saw the world through rose-colored glasses – you were all duped!
Now, this series of remarks had to be addressed, as they were entirely untrue, complete misrepresentations of Obama’s campaign discussions. So I finally spoke up.
I pointed out that througout Obama’s campaign he had emphasized that change does not happen overnight, and that change requires hard work. I shared that in nearly every speech I had heard, Obama called upon people – people like ourselves – to work hard, to participate, to advocate. I reminded them that Obama had clearly and repeatedly said that we all have to work together to solve the problems facing our country. And finally, I said that I believed that Obama was elected because people appreciated this honesty because it suggested that this is a man who can be trusted; it’s the sign of a good … no, great leader.
This ended the conversation about politics.
Over the past few days I have read two blog posts which have led me to think about contemporary Western culture, and those thoughts have not been particularly pleasing. The first related to the shameful lack of true investigative journalism by the American press, and the second to Ann Coulter’s childish diatribe over the American president-elect’s middle name.
At first, I was a bit embarrassed to be an American. After all, despite my usually positive outlook on the world I do remove those rose-tinted shades periodically and look around me. I don’t have to look far; there are manipulative, crude and inconsiderate people all around me.
But then I recalled the Italian reality television show, Perfect Bride, where a mother picks a wife for her son. I remember my trip in Europe last summer, where we encountered the requisite number of vapid, shallow people. No, it’s not America. It’s Western culture. Or worse, perhaps it is human nature.
Throughout history, we have been thrilled by bloody victories over our adversaries. We have been fascinated and enthralled by the failings of others; we have been the ambulance chasers, seeking the satisfaction of knowing the gory details of someone else’s misery. We toss people from islands, and we laugh when someone cries in pain. We engage in torture, and we feel a sense of injustice when we see another succeed.
Education is not respected, and hard work is not admired. If I use a big word I am branded as a snob rather than a person who is attempting to describe something succinctly. Those who put in good hours at work and accomplish a lot are branded as brown nosers or suck-ups who believe they are superior.
Throughout my life I have tried to avoid seeing the world in this way. I have read books, been involved in music, written poetry, and tried to build a perfect and serene life. This is not a simple task for many reasons, and inevitably, reality intrudes. It disrupts my balance; I trip and fall. And so the world is black and ruthless, and I’m tossed about like all the rest of the world’s restless souls.
This reality disturbs me greatly, simply because I know we are capable of better.
When I look at the UN, for example, I see great potential. The Food and Agriculture Organization in particular has a fantastic opportunity to influence the world in wonderful ways, by introducing sustainable techniques and site-appropriate crops and technologies. Sadly we see predators like Monsanto descend on developing countries promising riches and sustainable agriculture, while in reality killing the soil and devastating the genetic diversity of food crops nearly beyond repair.
The answers seem so simple, really: we take care of ourselves first, and when we create a system of plenty we are then in a position to help others.
Plato records Socrates speaking allegorically, in seeking the definition for justice. Despite the heavily-edited version of the translation, I believe I have managed to extract some of the concepts, which in turn remind me of a book I read 20 years ago, Habits of the Heart. Despite the odd description and reviews on Amazon, my recollection is that the study documented in this text explored the modern American’s concept of value. The authors undertook interviews, in which individuals were asked to explain their values, discuss how those values have changed over time, and define the word.
Although I do agree with some of the Amazon reviewers that the Habits… text is ultimately unsatisfying and, in itself, rather fuzzy, one of the interesting observations was that the interviewees considered their ethics as a matter of personal, not social, relevance. While this did not mean that the values espoused by individuals were necessarily anti-social, it did suggest why values changed over time as a response to the individuals’ situation in life.
As for Plato and Socrates, my understanding so far is that they believed that true values were fixed, concepts that did not change over time or at the whim of an individual. Unlike their contemporaries, and ours as well, they held that values are unchanging, intrinsic components of the essence of human. Of course, this is a terribly general explanation of what I am getting from my study thus far. More to come …
Having read an excerpt from Plato’s Republic for a history class assignment, I found myself very curious about the remaining text. My sister studied philosophy at university, and has kindly let me pilfer this very neglected section of her library. I snagged a copy of The Republic, a Locke text, some Camus, and a fun little book called The Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy (which actually belongs to her husband).
The other evening I settled in to begin reading, and was very surprised that I recognized some of the ideas. Yes, I had heard in school over many years and in many different courses that Western culture is replete with echoes of Socratic ideals. But to read the words on my own (albeit in translation), the enormity of this influence was truly astounding. I also found myself ruminating about universal themes, which is yet another reason for me to take yet another history course. Lovely thing it is, to have no end in sight to this wondrous journey.
So more (or rather, something) on The Republic will follow. In the meantime, I have learned a little something on the history of the paperback book from a fellow book lover. Given that all of the borrowed philosophy books are paperback, as are all of my school history texts, I was appreciative. Ciao for now, and enjoy.