Monday, October 22, 2007

A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part II)

Well, now I endeavor with the most timid of spirits to enquire into the nature of reading and literacy in our democracy in these contemporary days and how perhaps our equality of economic stature has tended us toward an egoism which sadly may undermine our uniting societal fiber, although there is a clear hope for a corrective.

I have always thought it something of an oddity that our culture has tended to lead us all away from being in touch with the important news items of our days and can be assured that this is the case since I too am a product of that, only recently beginning to work my way from the ignorant womb which encourages the childish attitude which so readily declares, “I care little for the goings on in the outside world, for it is nothing more than pageantry and arrogance which affects me but the slightest.” I always equated this condition to be linked to perhaps a dwindling care in our culture for anything which required more than the smallest amount of reflective thought and never wholly attributed it to the growing individualism in the country. It had always seemed to me that the most individualistic persons would take heed of the movements of the world in order to secure a more prosperous future by means of being better informed than those who were viewed as being in direct competition with them. However, after reading a section in Democracy in America on the nature of the press and the arts in democratic societies, I begin to question this tenet of mine and find that we are perhaps in the place of an intellectual stupor precisely because we have become so disconnected from the greater whole of humanity through our relative, independent affluence.

As I spoke of in my last post, it is very evident that the rugged individualism which often is promoted in democratic/republican societies easily and quickly leads to something of an isolation of the individual from the greater structure of the community. (Of course, I must assert firmly that I do not think that rugged individualism is an ill without qualification, for I am in many ways a staunch old-school liberal/libertarian who only yearns for a societal connection to be established among individuals – as opposed to utter fragmentation.) The world becomes more of a realm of individual choice and delectation because humanity, becoming more equal and independent, views much more of the world to based upon the principle of personal choice and self-direction than the common descent of man through the ages toward a certain goal. In many ways, this is quite a remarkable and salutary benefit of individualism, for it elevates all choices to almost an ontological level which affects the whole being of the individual in his or her choices and tastes. However, the danger always lies in the tendency to forget that the world not only is to be built up by us but also that the whole of reality is also a given which we can neither deny nor forsake on the path of personal amelioration and edification. In forgetting that the world (and hence the whole of our communities) are something which we must accept a priori, we forget that we have a true relationship not only to those choices which we have made but also the body of humanity which is inextricably united to us by means of historical and sociological bonds.

There are two prime examples of this detachment of individuals from the substratum of humanity, namely within the two tiers of community which are common to the entire Western world and indeed all of humanity as technological progress marches onward. First of all there is the question of a detachment of one generation from the next, something which seems to be of great strength in many cases as we blur the lines of parenthood and friendship as well as chip away at the respect which the young should have for elders in the community. However, this commonly lamented lack of interest in our previous generation is, to my mind, merely a passing trend which marks nearly every generation and often is surmounted by all, although such realizations lamentably come too late.

More important to me is the continued development of consumer-driven media which is particularly characterized by the culture of the iPod and iTunes as well as the on-demand nature of online news. Now, let me first of all say that I think that great good comes of all these media, for individual choice is perhaps the strongest force for the affixation of a human person to causes which are of the greatest import to all of humanity, linking the human person and his or her choice to each other with greater and truer strength than perhaps any other force in the known world. However, the danger lurks here in the fact that we are also seeing a rapid decline in much of the periodical (newspaper/magazine) industry, for less interest is taken in the local affairs of our provinces as well as in the larger community created by the regular readership of a newspaper. It is as though we do not have the stability which is necessary to retain a sustained connection to a single free association which is created by the choice to be a devoted reader of a given chronicle of news. De Tocqueville struck me deeply when he commented that a lack of readership for the press is more indicative of a lack of communal spirit than it is of a lack of pecuniary means of paying for the reception of the evening post. In the final analysis this is very true, for the readership of a given media is implicitly a community in which rebukes, praises, laurels, and lances are all proffered by the readership to the editorial staff, and this is also found in the readership of magazines.

Now, of all my fears listed in my first entry, this one area is the one for which I have the least amount of despondency, for there are many signs of hope which point that we may yet remain a society united in our literary tastes if only we make sure not to be wholly obliterated by the power of individuation which is possible by means of online pick-and-choose media. The hope which I have is that local reading groups – which much to my delight still exist in great numbers (although more for my elder generations than my own) – will function as a focal point for much unification for the somewhat disparate tastes which are growing in the current age of self-driven media. Perhaps of more import to me is the growth of online communities which are devoted to common reflections on many media sources upon a unified platform. It is quite conceivable that there will come a time when we can combine our reflective possibilities in a new synergy which will create something more of an extended tribe of humanity with even greater power than the felicitous media hybrid of the telephone and the talk radio show.

However, the danger which I fear is that we will become more interested in our own sundry choices in media, a path which certainly will lead us only further apart and into that egoism which certainly will diminish our character as a people. Such a tendency could ultimately lead to a despotism which unites all of society under the solitary banner of “freely chosen media” which means that we will no longer have any choice but to choose to be isolated in our reading tastes, a reality which will without a doubt have foul ramifications for our powers to freely assemble as a sovereign people. Marshall McLuhan considered the media to be defined as any of those methods by which mankind extends its inner life into the physical sphere. If we approach a point in which we no longer desire to extend our own lives into the extensions of our brethren, we will find it a difficult task – at best – to unite ourselves but under an external force, for when we no longer freely assembly, we must do so under duress, as we will have forgotten what it means to undertake the task of human unification.

Blessings and all the Best.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Tocquevillian Look at American Egalitarianism and Egoism (Part I)

While reading a selection in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, I was struck by something in his reflections on the dangers of individualism and – more importantly – the relationship between the press, free civil associations, centralized government, and individualism. Much of what I had read from a conservative / neo-conservative standpoint regarding Democracy in America had focused on Alexis de Tocqueville’s stress on the existence of freely-convened civil associations and their necessity for the continued existence of liberty in a democratic society. To my mind, this stream of thought led me to believe that Democracy in America must surely be nothing more than a Frenchman’s panegyric reflections on the benevolence and generosity of the American spirit. It was not until I read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty that my interest in de Tocqueville was raised once more as I saw Mill reflect on the dangers of the tyranny of the majority and cite de Tocqueville as an influence in his thought. Upon further examination, I have come to see that Democracy in America is much more of a prophetic work regarding the influences and products of egalitarianism in democratic society.

Of all things that struck de Tocqueville about America and growing democracies was their tendency toward material egalitarianism and social unification (or de-stratification). Coming from a lesser aristocracy and from a European clime which had only so recently seen the downfall of some forms of aristocratic governance, this lack of social stratification in emerging democracies must have struck him deeply, for the entirety of the later portion of his work serves merely as a reflection on how egalitarianism affects the individual and social mentalities of the populace. Perhaps the most prodigious effect of this material equality and lack of stifling stratification was the fact that people quite easily established themselves as islands of individualism, separate from the greater portion of humanity. Often individualism is used pejoratively, although it also can have a meaning more akin to the expression “rugged individualism” which often denotes the attitude of the pioneering spirit. Nonetheless, this individualism also can lead one to the pernicious state of egoism or – as Fr. Justin Nolan O.S.B., one of my philosophy professors in college, would say – utterly crass individualism which forgets that there is a greater social unity.

Whatever the title be, egoism or crass individualism, one cannot doubt that such isolating forces can do nothing but tear a society apart. To assert such is both trite and common sense – at least in its assertion. However, what is more intriguing is the line of thought which leads one from social equality to crass individualism. We often glory over the middle class in America – and for good reason – for it is the middle class which can so often drive the kernel of society to either great things or mediocrity, given only its temperament and direction. So often, it is the middle part of society which works very hard to continually ameliorate past mistakes and expand the circle of their pecuniary and social influence, bringing forth new and better products for all of the society. It is this middle class which establishes a multitude of families which are able to brave some financial storms and not worry about whether or not food will be on the table on a given night. It is therefore this middle class which establishes that demographic of people which is – to varied degrees – assured of its own self-sufficiency.

This ruggedly individualistic middle class, the decrease of which is being lamented greatly by the political demagogues in this portion of the never-ending election cycle in our country, was at its apex of formal establishment in the generation of my grandparents, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. It is of little surprise that the riots of the sixties and seventies where brought into being by the children of these iconic American workers who were able to provide for a period of great prosperity which solidified America’s central role in the world. It was commented by theologian Hans Kung that Pope Benedict XVI was able at first to be something of a (mild) radical in his early academic life because liberal exploits are easily undertaken when one has the surety of conservative stability. It was such for the hippies and other such protesters who took to causes great and small during the tumultuous period of my parents’ youth. For their own part, this generation was able to ride out the storms of their lives and establish a prosperous existence as well, effectively leveling much of the playing field in America for my generation.

However, as we come to my generation and the present day, it is quite easy to see that the individualism of the sixties, seventies, and (in a different form) the eighties was quite different from the rugged individualism of my grandparents. The world was much more comfortably established (not in all places, including my birthplace in southwestern PA) and able to be safely isolated from the vicissitudes which often accompany reality. It is my generation, more than any before, which seems to lust inordinately for the security of socialism and wholly believes, without much qualification, that it is right to say, “Nobody should ever tell me that my opinion is wrong.” Upon the stable foundation of the established, safe middle class, our culture is quickly moving toward a land in which we are ready to pay any price to maintain our individual egoistic spheres at the expense of liberty. De Tocqueville reflected that such is the natural tendency of those established in a secure social setting, for equality is much more palpable to maintain and also much more difficult to remove quickly when compared to liberty.

However, my intent in the next few blog entries will not be to take on the trite subject of individualism in America and its normal symptoms. Instead, I intend to focus on how we can easily see individualism in our habits of reading, musical activity, civil activity, and view on government. I will look at each of these individually and will then cap things up to give my thoughts a framework related to Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic reflections. I think that it is important to listen to these words of the past, for they may be able to stir us from some of the lethargy which is the end egoism of that rugged individualism which has made America such a great beacon of hope for the world. More importantly, as we approach what appears to be yet another involution of the world and find that individuals are becoming globalized (to use Thomas Friedman’s thought on the matter), it is of prime importance to me to reflect on what forces will destroy the beautiful possibility of a truly united world. Crass individualism will unquestionably destroy that possibility but a proper industrious spirit of individualism with free social bonds may be that which saves us from the only other method of world-wide unification, namely oppressive despotism.

Until my post on the morrow, highest blessings,

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"How (and Why) a Libertarian Came Home to PHP"

Now, for those few of you who have followed my pontifications on this blog, you will note three striking characteristics of my demeanor and philosophy of life. First and foremost, I add entries to my blog with that sort of capriciousness which only befits my otherwise ADD-riddled life. However, in the realm of philosophical considerations, you will have noticed that my mental landscape is dominated by two forces which most would think are intrinsically inimical to each other. Namely, I take a pontifical tone and stance on many issues because of my passionate adherence to the philosophical religion known to the world (with varied degrees of disdain and adulation) as Roman Catholicism. However, my cognitive paths are also shot throughout with steams of libertarianism, a fact which I do not find inimical to my convictions as a Catholic. (It only takes a brief reading of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae from the Second Vatican Council to realize that there are intellectually justifiable reasons for holding both of these views.) Nonetheless, there are times when the vying forces of absolutism and liberalism come into direct contact, unleashing something of a quandry which can, even over the most ridiculous of topics, throw me into an existential crisis.

My friends, such a crisis came to full head in a late, lustful little fling which I had with the programming language known as Ruby. In my past experiences with Ruby, limited that they were, I perceived something of an elegant fluidity to the constructs of the language (as well as the libraries available for my delectation). For some unknown reason, my first, pubescent glance at this language in college gave me something of an unknown giddiness which made me desire for some time to delve deeper. However, my path took me down the road to free-wheeling LAMP-stack development using PHP as the interface to the database persistence.

Having moved to Virginia several months ago and knowing very few people in the area, I have had quite a bit of time to indulge my personal pleasures of the flesh - reading and programming. (Yes, I am quite aware that I am a pitiable nerd but am also proud of said fact.) In a moment of overwhelming temptation, I decided finally to jump into Ruby and Ruby on the Rails Framework like so many other programmers now-a-days. Having spent the previous two years doing quite a bit of work in PHP and Javascript, I was much better prepared for the intricacies and wonders which one can do with ease in dynamic scripting languages. My new excursion into the land of Ruby was indeed one of bliss-filled, exuberant wonder. At first the language dazzled me with its consistency, its object orientation, and the particular beauty (and ease) of passing around code blocks. Although my experience with Javascript had exposed me to this, I had always found the dynamic code execution of PHP to be a bit clunky-feeling (albeit wholly possible) at best. The Rails framework aside, the language in its core was all that I dreamed it could be. After having contemplated the very Forms of programming, I seemed to look back at PHP as though it were in the cave of my limited vision, thinking, "Well, PHP does have great libraries and documentation, but the sheer beauty of this experience seems to belie that you purchase such ease to the detriment of the higher parts of your soul."

However, it was at this moment of exhilaration that I realized that I could not turn my back on my beloved PHP with such an effete, snobbish tone. The very fact that PHP allowed me to sink into the depths of terrible practices with ease unknown to much of mankind (except those gladly in touch with the lower-bowels of the coding world) could never be a justification for my abandonment of the language. To do so would break a cardinal rule of my Libertarian nature, mainly that you cannot dismiss anything on the pretext of its potential abuse.

In many ways, Ruby is the aristocratic, successful, yet-lovable cousin of PHP. "He" speaks with the eloquence of the highest degree yet also remains wholly accessible to the mind which is open and bright enough to comprehend the elegant parts of his speech. He is consistent almost to a fault, following proper procedure and etiquette for all sorts of situations. PHP, on the other hand, is quite a bit more in character like me. "He" comes from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, wears checkered shirts, and drives a simple little Chevy Cavalier. If he desires, he can be intellectual in his speech, although he often wishes he could permanently slip into a nearly-unintelligible accent and jungle of provincial colloquialisms. Often he slaps things together, like a cowboy or an ADD-ridden child, writing out code which creates the most cryptic of mazes which baffles even him to his very core when attempting to recall the purpose of his exploits at a later time. However, there will never come a moment that he will say, "I can't do that because it just doesn't make sense to do it that way" or (more likely) "that doesn't follow convention, so I won't even attempt to do it that way." Instead, PHP will look you in the eye respond with lilting voice, "Ah, Hell, let's give 'er a try." Often these escapades end with the participants looking backward and reflecting, "Boy, that's uglier than sin sweating from a hog's back." However, once in a while, these exploits allow for the expansion of technique and the formation of new practices for the community at large. Once in a while, a dazzling gem comes forth wholly unseen from the vantage point of more conservative realms of coding which are highly predictable and efficient but often blinded to the latent power of the utterly unbridled human spirit.

Perhaps I just sound like a crazy wind-bag who has taken by far too much time to elaborate on the most meager of his thoughts. Nevertheless, this very reflection touches on one of my deepest-set philosophical convictions. I love the elegance of doing this within the conservative "frameworks" of well-tested conventions like those found in the Ruby (particularly on Rails) community as well as (to the N! ^ N! degree higher) in the Java community. However, in my heart of hearts, I'm a boy of the hills of Pennsylvania and a Libertarian American at heart. I look at both the provincial founders of our country whose brilliance lifted the yokes from our necks with the simple message which could easily have sounded like nothing more than the angry tirade of a yokel defending his farmland to ears less trained in liberalism. I will study Ruby, just as any good philosopher studies all philosophical systems, for where the Truth is, it is uttered by the One Spirit of God. Each reflection of the Gem of Truth expands our mind a bit more, teaching us anew how to see the whole in light of the parts and the parts in light of the whole. However, I will always remain, at heart, a yokel of a PHP coder.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

My Revolting Experience

Last Friday, I decided that I would go to Washington DC in order to do some sight-seeing at a Smithsonian museum or some other location on / near the Mall. Much to my surprise, the trip became nothing more than a galvanization against the District and so much that is represented by it. I arrived at Metro Center and hopped off the Metro Rail, thinking that I was at Union Station. I quickly realized that I had made a misstep but had some degree of my bearings, at least enough to allow me to work my way toward the Mall. Although the heat was utterly oppressive, I rather enjoyed being out doors, given the fact that I work inside as a software engineer during the day. As I made my way toward the Mall, I passed the Departments of Agriculture and Energy and eventually came to the Smithsonian Castle. I had a sinking feeling the entire way as I walked along these roads, seeing sundry (and numerous) monuments and the massive buildings of bureaucracy, all of which were being funded from public tax dole.

I quickly decided that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of it any longer and made my way toward Union Station. Everywhere I looked, however, all I could catch sight of were buildings which were wholly supported and run by bureaucrats who funded their operations by means of supplication, annually petitioning the ruling class in the Capitol Building for more cash and often receiving it (or at least some exorbitant amount). There were small museums which had $500,000 in matched funds and more costly museums like the Smithsonian. There was the Capitol Building itself which housed the senators and representatives who play their little partisan games each and every day. I was certain to take in massive, ominous structures like the Department of Energy, held aloft upon pillars like the Parthenon upon the Acropolis of Athens. Like that civilization crumbled to leave pillared artifacts, so too will America have such similar remnants in coming days. Such talent being wasted in the public sector brought me nearly to tears. I thought of Mr. Roy Uptegraff Jr., a deceased man whom I never even knew except through association with his business in Scottdale, PA. I remember spending time in the conference room at this small business, looking at the various tomes which he had on the manufacture of power transformers. By all accounts which were given to me, he was a man who served the public on various committees but also had a passion for his business, a passion which was completely at his own liberty to strive after, a passion which he pursued to the very day of his death. These engineers at the Department of Energy, doubtlessly intellectually brilliant, are left to languish under the bureaucracy and never soar to the heights which their own liberty affords.

And then came the museums... Many people would argue that we should preserve our history, for history is so often doomed to make its circuitous course of destruction. I agree that we should preserve, embrace, and hold fast to our history, to our traditions, to our heritage. However, we do not hold on to that tradition if it is merely "stewarded" by the government. Stewardship always implies that something greater exists, that a king shall return to Gondor to take his throne once more. Many argue that society will not support the work of museums and historical institutions of their free will. Some may say that the government should therefore steward this heritage on our behalf. I say this is worthless in the final analysis. The citizenry should care about their heritage, and if they do not, it is far better that they forget it and pay the consequences without delay. In the end, that is what liberty is all about. Liberty is so very glorious and dreadful precisely because it lets you eat the fruits of your labor, for good or for ill. It makes all things which are good become very good indeed and all things wretched into the most sobering of experiences. In my opinion there should be no steward whatsoever. A nation which desires not to remember the lessons of the past should quickly experience the consequences of such nearsightedness. To have it any other way merely delays the inevitable, for the populace will be weaned from any such knowledge and will ultimately fall. Far better would it be for the fall to be from a ledge upon a small book shelf than from the precipice of a deadly cliff.

I intend to follow this up with what I love about where I live and also about how I was brought up. All things deep down inside of me scream those lessons from my childhood: If you are going to work, work hard (a lesson that took me some time to learn), and there is no such thing as a free meal. As I walked through the putrid streets of our nation's capital, I realized that we are a people who are being ruled by those who promote less than mankind's full realization, promising the free meals of security and peace today. I don't want any of these plates today because I want the next generation to be able to eat as well.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Long-Delayed Return

Well, in the midst of everything in my life right now, I have managed to avoid posting much. However, while doing some random searches, I came across a blog entry on degree inflation. I couldn't resist responding but ended up more so pontificating on my opinions (little surprise there). Since my response was so lengthy, I figured I would post it here for the whole four of you who read this guy. For the original post to which this is directed, please see:

I just stumbled upon this entry while reflecting on degree inflation in America and am most pleased that you have taken time to reflect on this. I try to see things as part of a whole cultural complex (but am often too myopic in my vision because I'm merely one lone software engineer in Virginia with a limited vision). However, it seems to me that the current situation of degree inflation is directly related to two things.

First of all, the developed West has a tendency toward cultural homogenization (or perhaps it is merely affluence has a development toward that). I would argue that such homogenization generates the sense that intellect is defined in categories of educational degrees (since you can easily lump people into categories then). This I know personally because I have struggled on and off with the question of pursuing a PhD and still really don't know if I want to do so. Deep down, I would much rather just be my own man, drawing my knowledge from as many sources as possible, weeding past the bias of others (and avoiding it all in lieu of a hiatus when so desired). However, the cultural force of egalitarian homogenization tend to make us define ourselves in such monotonous terms. This first point misses the fact that intellectual brilliance is a nothing other than lightening out of a clear sky. (For this, I often like to think of J.R.R. Tolkien whose chief renown and influence came from a by-product of his linguistic work. The world is continually shocked by the brilliance of his mythology precisely because he is not part of the entrenched, homogenized caste of “professional authors”.) However, our minds have seemingly been trained against viewing things in such "risky" categories (which almost elude categorization) but instead opt to view the world through the only lens which we know, namely that of homogenized, easily discerned, categories.

I would go further and say it is a product of cultural narcissism which impels one to desire a title after his or her name. Once again, I know that in my own self-doubts, I have thought, "Well, I could prove myself with [PhD,S.T.D.,J.D.,M.D......] after my name and would therefore be vindicated in the eyes of others." Of course, such self-centered narcissism is fully seen to me looking "externally" at my thoughts and ambitions. However, we once again are somewhat conditioned culturally to have that narcissism because of the affluence of our culture and easily miss motivations for a degree. This subordinates our individual brilliance to a degree. (Narcissism is one of those tricksters which generates the exact opposite of its desire. The desire for an image rarely can generate it but instead, as in this case, leads to a fleeting surface-deep image and nothing more. It neglects the fact that risks must be taken, reputations risked, and slowly developed in ways that often require steps of faith, for they seem to be incongruous with the main stream of culture and thought. Think of how odd relativisitic physics seemed to those in Einstein’s time or, more pungently, how unimportant Jesus must have seemed to the point of annihilation. However, look at how these men – and so many others – have influenced the world for so very many years. ) Indeed, degree-Narcissism derails the human task because it places an immutable boundary on the unbounded task of “how do I best contribute to the edification of the world” with the boundary of “how can I do well in the world today.” The former is infinite and unbounded while the latter is bounded and limited to a certain epoch (at best, a moment at worst)

Of course, we have such difficulty coming to the "divine corrective", so to speak, for all of this. In my opinion, the best option is a good dose of reality. All we have to do is look around to see what is the root source of true happiness and success in the world. In the final analysis, it is merely a matter of passion which drives talent (and even hones in those categories which may be called, for lack of a better term, non-talent). Reality teaches us that the beige often endures in its own day but dies a quiet death and is forgotten but the truly brilliant (and this means much more than intellectual – the brilliant of mind, heart, soul) have a chance to live forever. Safety and security are predicated upon being beige, for brilliance, like the sun itself, is a dangerous affair (but a glorious one). Perhaps it explains the bitterness of those who are safe-and-secure (be it in a protected industry, academia, union, etc -- not to imply that all in any of those groups are safe-and-secure in their mentality, just that some are) toward those who are successful in the world. Such individuals trade in the risk for safety and security (a very tempting wager, I am aware), only to look on the outside at those who have thrown their whole lives into the mix. This envy goes three ways: (1) Hatred – think of all the anti-movements that exist. (2) Nihilism – Think of those who just don’t care because they are “beat down”. (3) The most important: It can drive people to realize that reality may have a message, namely, “Take the risk; live life amidst all the risks – and glories.”

Homogenization allows for relative safety and security but never for a blinding flash of brilliance, unless one leaves the beige crowds to stand out with resplendent radiance. It takes an individual to drive a people. It takes that flash to remind people that each of us can do great things if we only follow that driving passion which, in the end, is naturally evident to each of us. Then education becomes a tool which is used as needed to that end. It then leads us out of darkness into the light and concomitantly makes us be a “light on the hill for all to see.” For some, this may be continually done in the academic realm, for such is their vocation in life (and it will be glorious if such is the case). For others, however, it may well be that such e-ducation will only take place fully in a realization external to that. Achievement thus becomes a question of “how have you edified the world today?” The degree never even comes up. When confronted with the truly brilliant, we stand in awe of their radiance and pay no heed to the externals, instead finding ourselves wholly immersed in an experience of the very depths humanity.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Live Earth, What’s it Worth?

This past weekend the world was filled with the regalia of the Live Earth concert series which was supposed to be a rock event to mobilize the masses to fight global climate change. Now, all considerations of the effective strategies for fighting climate change aside, let’s just consider the actual message of the media used (oh, Marshall McLuhan would be thrilled to read that). At any rate, I am a huge believer in the ability of various media to be used with various messages, with that message dictating a great portion of the moral content of an event. However, I do not believe that this concert can do anything to mobilize those who are supposedly culpable for climate change.

The primary cause of any pollution (in the broadest sense) on the earth are somehow tied to a crassly-individual, irresponsible mentality which is additionally consumptive to the detriment of the world. Pollution is the byproduct of consumption in some form, and consumption is (blindingly brilliant in its observation) driven by individualism. Now, I think that neither individualism nor consumption are negative a priori, only when they are practiced in such a way that they cut people off from each other and from the totality of the cosmos. The Live Earth concerts, by using mass marketed music as the message-vector, spread a content far deeper than a message that “we can all save the environment.”

For one, it was a venue for contemporary western music which is highly individualistic (or even nihilistic) in its reception. This is primarily visible in the mob-like throng which waits, without much individual definition, at the feet of the stars. While I personally enjoy an experience of such a concert (particularly with a mosh pit), I don’t think at all that I should go to one if I want to inculcate an other-centered mentality. No, the “otherness” of the concert crowd is effectively a melting away into the great sea, with either a total loss of self (without regard for any other beings in the pit) or an acute awareness of one’s alone singularity. In either case, there is no other (and – hence – no whole) remaining, so there is no possibility of group action. The mob denies this possibility by cutting the individual off from all others. While such egoism is not directly concomitant with the concert mob, it is indeed the message of the mosh-pit’s media (once again, McLuhan would be giddy).

Need we really even think about how this plays up the consumerism of those attending the concert? Major rock stars, at a venue with flashy lights, and a former vice president, all available with tickets for sale. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a consumerist’s pleasure stop. One is able to fall into the trap of following the mob of consumers precisely because it is fashionable to consume such entertainers all for self-centered motivation and not to do anything constructive. The concert promotes thoughtless consumption and thus undermines its own message by such promotion. Once again, consumption is not a negative thing a priori but must always be done truly for the greater whole (no matter what the mob may dictate is “fashionable”).

Now, I only have a cursory knowledge of the event as a whole, so I will stop my pontificating at this point. However, as I watched the news last week, I couldn’t help but have these brief reflections on the topic. It is preposterous to think you can fight consumerism with the crassest of all consumerism; it is unconscionable to think you can fight unthinking, uncaring individualism with the worst kind of individualism. The very media of the concert venue destroys the message in this case because it is completely out of consonance with that message. The message we need is “Crass consumerism and individualism must stop! We must take up a new moral message, a new consumerism, a new individualism; we need a new venue for man’s action, a new dialogue of humans, a new embrace for all of humanity!”

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What is America? A Fourth of July Reflection

Good morning to all of you. May your celebrations of the first steps of America into the world be enjoyable and blessed. I normally wouldn’t pull out my laptop to get on the Internet while on vacation but have decided to take some time to reflect on those things which have stood out to me this past year. (Oh the wonders of the contemporary world which allows me to pick up random internet connections!)

I have found myself asking, “What is America? What is the foundational aspect of America, and what is it that we celebrate when we sing her praises?” When all cards are put on the table, when all cogitations shine forth from the minds of thinkers far and wide, it seems to me that one must affirm that America is not as much a country as it is an idea. In specific, that idea is that human liberty is the only means by which a good society can be born into the world and be sustained in its existence. In its founding, America acknowledged that the individual must not be squashed under the slithering Leviathan of the government, that the individual was the locus of dignity from which the state receives any of its power.

In our constitution, “We the people,” acknowledged the faults and foibles of humanity, laying down laws in order to codify the necessary precautionary steps which should be taken to prevent human corruption from tainting our unity. In this, the Constitution is a limitation on Freedom, or more importantly, a directional molding of our freedoms. It is through this lens that I have begun to understand more what the promise of America is.

It is impossible to deny that Humanity, as a corporate whole and as individuals, is fallen and continues to sin day after day. It does not take a prelate of the Catholic Church to affirm this most fundamental reality. Sin is the great destroyer of unity, breaking bonds among people, disabling trust, freezing Love in the harsh ice block of fear and resentment. Any group of people who is sinful will not long work together as a “we” but will instead become nothing more than an agglomeration of separated “I”s, no longer working in concert but in unharmonious discord. Sinful man requires direction (and Love) in order to overcome the disunity born of the Fall, and this very fact is the basis for the Constitution and for all laws which are right and true. The law is not only a means of limitation but also a means of admonition and purification leading back to freedom. (Ultimately man is not made for Law but for Freedom, although Freedom is only wholly possible where sin no longer abounds.)

It is in America that we realize that there must be flux and limitation to the extent and application of legislation, for any nation which is comprised of those who require continual control cannot sustain itself very long without crumbling into decadence and barbarism. Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent some time studying the rising American democracy in the nineteenth century, was acutely aware of the strengths (as well as the weaknesses) in America’s foundation. There are three quotes by him which should excellently focus our considerations here.

Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Many people laud the progress of socialist democracies in Europe, presenting them as a corrective for our “unfair” liberal democracy in America. I would argue that socialist democracies are merely a liberal democracy which has passed many laws to control the freedom of individuals in an attempt to make the nation more unified in goodness. However, I also would argue that this is like setting up a colony under water in order to remain dry. It might seem that this contradicts my early thoughts. However, I said there is a limit to such legislation in America. The limit of legislation comes with the realization that individuals must ultimately be formed by their own use of freedom. A liberal democracy cries aloud with Alexis, “Americans must be good in themselves! If we aren’t we shall fall!” Law works to repair the faults of individuals, but only so that individuals can stand on their own to make the free choices based on their own experience and own goodness. People must freely choose goodness for itself and not out of fear of retribution. Man must act in secret as he would act in public if all relationships are to be cemented and unified.

So we come in the end to something of a preliminary answer to the question of “What is the idea which is America?” It is namely this: The human person is the singular building block of any great society. No amount of legislation can make a nation which runs itself. The idea of America is that the goodness of the people will provide for the goodness of the State, that the public does not drive the private but that the private (and hence, freely chosen) firmly steers the movements of public progress. Freedom is at the core of Creation, a precondition for the entire cosmic symphony which ultimately brought forth Man as part of the rise of consciousness and Love. Such freedom is ordained by the Creator and is the only path which may lead to a good humanity, a good populace, a good world, and, ultimately, a good universe. Goodness must be chosen for its own merit by the locus of freedom, the individual person.

Freedom is not corporate by nature but is something which is grasped by the individual and redirected to corporate reality. This is the “Idea of America,” an idea which will be of increasing importance as we ultimately work toward a world which is unified in our common humanity. Humanity can only be joined if humans are good, and humans are only conditioned by the Law, not defined thereby. In the final analysis, goodness is chosen and not imposed; all who believe this, no matter what their location or time period, are Americans in the truest sense.

May the Almighty bless you and yours on the Fourth of July and unto the ages of ages. Let us always celebrate the centrality of the individual in establishing the whole of unified humanity. Let Freedom, Goodness, and Love reign now and always!