Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Where Have All the Great Men Gone?
The other question that has puzzled me is, Where have all our great men gone? In my youth, Gandhi, Schweitzer and Einstein were all alive at the same time! But since their passing, there has been no one -- in my opinion, absolutely no one -- of that rank amongst us. What has happened? Has our materialistic progress squeezed out human greatness? Is this human advancement? If we keep advancing on this scale, we will soon be back in the Stone Ages. Is it possible we are now living in the "decline of the West," one that parallels the decline of the Roman Empire? What is happening to us? What has gone wrong?GRiggs
Certain aspects of the public square have deteriorated, others have not. I believe there are still occasional appearances of remarkable individuals among us whom future generations may very well marvel at. Here, I may "lean" even more "towards optimism" than you do. For instance, even though I may not necessarily subscribe to the notion that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a perfect human being (who is?), I can distinctly remember -- frankly -- being quite struck by many of the things King said. Yes, I have known some perfectly thoughtful and humane people who have confessed to being singularly underwhelmed by King. But for me, King had the rare capacity, among other things, of describing an opponent's point of view with clarity, accuracy, and fairness; and then he would patiently show how one might disagree with that viewpoint. In disagreeing and in espousing his own opinion, he never seemed to be nasty or crude with the opponent or with the opposing view. This was a rare gift. And, as I've already indicated elsewhere, I prized his way of approaching the moral dilemma he tackled by invoking those mores and beliefs held in greatest respect by his hearers. (He clearly viewed such mores with considerable respect himself.) Above all, he did preach equality, and that is in the finest tradition of the American experience. One may claim that the ideal of equality has been
More honour'd in the breach, then [sic] the observance.
But the inception of that concept as part and parcel of what constitutes the ideal community is a quintessentially American phenomenon. So is clothing that concept in a rich and persuasive command of the English language, which King had. Perhaps, King does not necessarily qualify as a present-day figure. But he is obviously of a later generation than Gandhi, Schweitzer or Einstein. As for today's world, I find it encouraging that there is at least one public figure of high visibility who bothers to say in the wake of a successful, a peaceful, and a genuinely democratic revolution:
"And let us ask: Where did young people who never knew another system get their longing for truth, their love of free thought, their political imagination, their civic courage, and their civic prudence? How did their parents--precisely the generation thought to be lost--join them? How is it possible that so many people immediately grasped what had to be done, without needing anyone else's advice or instructions?For a leader of this sort to give himself this kind of time, and his people this kind of time, to indulge in such reflections is highly encouraging. Of course, the deeds that come out of such words are critical, but words such as these already betoken the daring to go out on a limb, to compel lofty aspirations. Frankly, I still find that admirable, however risky. This is an abridged extract from Vaclav Havel's inaugural address, New Year's Day, 1990.
"I think there are two main reasons: First of all, people are never merely a product of the external world--they are always able to respond to something superior, however systematically the external world tries to snuff out that ability. Second, humanistic and democratic traditions, about which there had been so much idle talk, did after all slumber in the subconscious of our nations and national minorities. These traditions were inconspicuously passed from one generation to another, so that each of us could discover them at the right time and transform them into deeds...
"Self-respect is not pride.
"Quite the contrary: only a person or a nation with self-respect, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others while accepting them as equals, of forgiving enemies while expiating their own sins. Let us try to infuse our communities with this kind of self-respect; let our country's behavior on the international stage be marked by this kind of self-respect. Only then will we restore our self-confidence, our respect for one another, and our respect for other nations...
"Our first president, T. G. Masaryk, wrote: Jesus, not Caesar. Thus he followed our philosophers Chelcicky and Comenius. I dare to say that we may even have an opportunity to spread this idea abroad, to introduce a new element into European and global politics. Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, and the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our contribution to international politics.
"Masaryk rooted his politics in morality. Let us try--in a new era and in a new way--to restore this conception of politics. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be animated by the desire to contribute to the community, rather than by the need to cheat or rape the community. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not only the art of the possible--especially if this means speculations, calculations, intrigues, secret deals, and pragmatic maneuvering--but also the art of the impossible, namely, the art of improving ourselves and the world."
When observing the baggage that has come with other successful revolutions today, whether a "velvet revolution" or one achieved through the ballot box, I am still occasionally skeptical as to the moral rudder or the sincere desire for community improvement rather than petty revenge that accompanies such shifts in power. Despite my disgust with South African apartheid, I was somewhat wary of the outcome of the accession to power by the African National Congress. I admired Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Boesak far more than the ANC. After all, it was the ANC's Oliver Tambo who had initiated the gruesome ritual of tire-burnings for "politically incorrect" blacks, and Nelson Mandela's own wife Winnie had hired teenager death squads right out of the pages of some South American junta's manual. Hence, my skepticism.
I was wrong.
Nelson Mandela emphasized inclusiveness in all his policies. The death squads hired by his wife were soundly repudiated (probably with the wrenching aftermath of a split with his lifelong partner as a direct result), participation by white, even by white separatist, parties in the electoral process was not discouraged, and, rather than indulge in the kind of revenges typical of the charming Mr. Tambo, a special Truth Commission was established instead, which was not accorded the privilege of being punitive. This Truth Commission has helped unearth troubling, horrifying secrets of the apartheid regime, but it has apparently also aided in the process of reconciliation and healing that South Africa so desperately needs.
So far, Nelson Mandela seems sincerely committed to the ideal of fulfilling South Africa's highest human potential. In fact, whether one is a devout theist or a confirmed skeptic, it would seem impossible not to respond positively to the following sentiment from Mandela's own inaugural address in 1994:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to manifest the glory of God within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
What matters most here is that every human being is someone special with a special obligation to fulfil every potential that can possibly be mastered.
The good news then is that for Gandhi, and, in the more recent past, King, I believe we have Havel and Mandela today. More than that, for Schweitzer there is Mother Teresa today; for Einstein we have Stephen Hawking.
All of this is the good news.
Here's the bad.
Yes, it's true that one can be happy that there have been such elected leaders as Havel and Mandela in the 1990s. But the key term here is "elected leaders." Unfortunately, I would guess (I may be wrong on this, but I somehow doubt it) that the full dimensions of Havel's and Mandela's personal stature were scarcely known by most people before the time of Havel's and Mandela's actual investment in power.
Oh, sure, "wasn't Havel the one who got thrown in prison after he'd written something-or-other?" or "wasn't Mandela that black guy who agitated against apartheid?" would be typical remarks during the time of their dissidence and imprisonments. But there's a quantitative difference between that and the general consciousness of the exact nature of Gandhi's message that apparently prevailed (heads older and wiser than mine might wish to correct me on this) long, long before Gandhi became the acknowledged institutional leader of his people. This general understanding of the more profound aspects of Gandhi's message, a general understanding that, I believe, arose from almost the very beginning of Gandhi's sojourn in his great struggle, was perhaps typical of the world in which he labored--the world of yesteryear. He might not get to first base today.
And here's the nub: There may be certain figures actively writing, actively speaking out today--right now--of whom the general public knows comparatively nothing. Would King be as successful today as he was in the 1950s and 60s--particularly the 1950s when he was first making his mark? I profoundly doubt it. Here's why.
First off, one has to start with early American history to get a proper handle on what exactly has happened. Tocqueville in 1832 wrote that
"The great political agitation of American legislative bodies, which is the only one that attracts the attention of foreigners, is a mere episode, or a sort of continuation, of that universal movement which originates in the lowest classes of the people, and extends successively to all the ranks of society. It is impossible to spend more effort in the pursuit of happiness.
"The cares of politics engross a prominent place in the occupations of a citizen in the United States; and almost the only pleasure which an American knows is to take a part in the government, and to discuss its measures. This feeling pervades the most trifling habits of life; even the women frequently attend public meetings, and listen to political harangues as a recreation from their household labors. Debating clubs are, to a certain extent, a substitute for theatrical entertainments: an American cannot converse, but he can discuss; and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say 'Gentlemen' to the person with whom he is conversing."
Putting aside the American's unfortunate tendency to turn conversation into a dissertation (I wonder what this post is... if the shoe fits...), the most striking aspect of Tocqueville's description is his characterization of the town meeting as a substitute for theatrical entertainments. Clearly, the consciousness of the public's business as being practically inseparable from debating clubs and from the exchange of ideas, and the concept of the exchange of ideas as being the chief public show in town, epitomized the extent to which popular engagement in the ideas of the day was as natural then as attending the latest movie is today.
In fact, when we look at the plethora of press organs of the time, it is clear that the main forum(s) for public dialogue at the time allowed intimate and extended exploration of differing arguments. As we move into the twentieth century, radio starts to shoulder some of the responsibility, and here we have the growing traditions of the announcers such as Lowell Thomas bringing one the contending issues of the day from the nation's capital with an immediacy that the press and the local town meeting could not quite match.
The contrast here is in the extemporaneous nature of the town meeting as the chief forum for the threshing out of the issues of the day versus the planned though still lively nature of a detailed presentation over the wireless.
The operative concept here is the "chief forum." Obviously, Americans of the first half of the twentieth century were still free to follow contemporary issues in the local -- or the national -- press, but the "chief forum" for most people became radio -- which, by and large, appears to have adopted a fairly responsible attitude in its task.
Then Huntley and Brinkley started covering political conventions on television with an even greater immediacy than radio could ever have. Live coverage and television's evening news became the order of the day.
Again, it is the critical concept of the "chief forum" that is operating here. People were free to follow contemporary issues through radio or print journalism, but television, eventually, simply reached more citizens.
And it is in the sea-change inside television itself that the nub of our problem lies.
Yes, it is entirely possible that the hegemony in communications now held by commercial TV may yield to the Internet -- or what-have-you -- eventually. But, for the time being, public TV, the Internet, cable TV, print media, radio, the very occasional town meeting, and so on, all have supporting roles to the whopping lead role assumed by the -- admittedly shrinking -- commercial TV networks. That lead role will have to shrink a lot further before it becomes a supporting one.
That being so, the changing dynamics of commercial TV networks, and, more particularly, of their regular news coverage, becomes critical to our understanding of the nature of public dialogue today.
I recall a study of the average soundbite coverage of a candidate's remarks on the commercial evening news during a typical pre-Watergate presidential campaign and the contrast shown in this same study in the subsequent development (or rather deterioration) of similar soundbite coverage since that time. What was shown was that the average length of such a soundbite in pre-Watergate times was approximately two and a half minutes. By the time one got to the mid-80s (which I believe was when the study was carried out), the average length was only nine seconds!
Imagine the sheer condensation of thoughtful give-and-take that this Draconian shrinkage in coverage entails! One can protest till one is blue in the face that more detailed coverage is readily available elsewhere. It is still -- and one cannot emphasize this enough--the "chief forum" that counts the most; and, in this case, the "chief forum" remains commercial television's evening news.
The occasional two-and-a-half minute soundbite on the evening news was probably sufficient to give the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sufficient visibility for his ideas -- in addition to his cause -- to break through the sound barrier during the 1950s. Likewise, I would guess, though I don't really know, that radio gave similar attention to the ideas -- never mind the cause -- of Mahatma Gandhi long before he was the institutional leader of his people.
My doubts as to the ability of such grass-roots figures to make so strong an impact today as they did then stems from the basic ineffectiveness of a mere nine-second soundbite in conveying the full richness and generosity of a Gandhi's enlightened message.
So when we say that perhaps there is nobody comparable today to Gandhi or Schweitzer, perhaps the most honest (and bitter) reply we can make is HOW CAN WE KNOW?!
I will never forget an exchange that Senator Gary Hart had one evening on a TV magazine show shortly after his unsuccessful run for President in the '84 primaries. This was four years before his subsequent '88 try that fizzled in the wake of the Donna Rice scandal, on the aptly named craft, the Monkey Business. Regardless of whether one found oneself unsympathetic or sympathetic to Hart's political philosophy as espoused in the '84 campaign, the exchange on TV that night in 1984 was nothing less than shameful.
The co-hosts of that TV show were David Broder and Linda Ellerbee. As a special sop to substantively minded audiences, the two of them, following the usual horse-race-style questions, indicated they would let the Senator ask them questions for a change, following the commercial break. After the break, Senator Hart asked how come most of the network coverage of his remarks during the '84 campaign concentrated on his replies to reporters concerning the horse race rather than on his statements from the stump concerning the critical issues of the day.
I will never forget, and I may never forgive, David Broder's response. He replied (and to paraphrase the comedian Anna Russell's remark on Wagner's Ring cycle, "I'm not making this up, you know") that the presidential campaign was not the proper place for coverage of the issues of the day!
Naturally, Hart was speechless. It took him a while to get back on track. He finally just continued with a few other questions, evidently figuring that the sheer arrogance and idiocy of such a remark could not even be discussed or challenged. How could it be?!
It was such a fundamental slap in the face of the American people and their sacred right to know that no words, no serious discussion, could properly address the sheer dimensions of its wanton desecration of every solemn obligation that any self-respecting journalist has in a democracy!
I have -- frankly -- often wondered how Mr. Broder might respond were I to ask him directly, "If the presidential campaign is not the proper place for coverage of the issues of the day, then what is the proper place? Donna Rice's bedroom?"Eyler Coates
After reflecting on your excellent argument, I feel convinced I was probably expressing "good old days" myopia. Just as some of us elderly often begin remembering things that never happened, so it is easily possible -- once we've gained a little distance -- to idealize persons in the past and convert them into unrealistic icons.GRiggs
As I've indicated, "good old days" myopia may not be so far off the mark when it comes to the general circulation afforded in the past to startling ideas of the day from grass-roots individuals without a tie-in to the institutional corridors of power. I suppose I am still interested in how some of our older, wiser heads, such as yours or Mr. Sharp's, will respond to my blanket(?) assumption that Gandhi's ideas, even in his days as a lone grass-roots struggler, were indeed given wider currency after all than any younger, out-of-power Havel or Mandela might hope to reap today.Eyler Coates
Gandhi was very interested in getting his ideas across. He published his own journal, as I recall, and his writings are up there around 80 densely filled volumes (I've read the first 8). He fully recognized the need to promote his ideas through print and to disseminate them broadly. Incidentally, as Rayner brings out in his biography Life of Thomas Jefferson (which I have recently made available on-line), Jefferson clearly and early on grasped the need for "Committees of Correspondence" in each colony that would establish communications both to keep all the colonies informed about what was going on and to coordinate their actions in response to British tyranny. Without question, the American Revolution as a joint effort of the thirteen colonies would never have happened without this level of communication. Of course, the same means can be used for despotic ends: Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other "Leaders into Oppression" recognized similar needs to spread ideas broadly. Hitler became a serious political figure after publication of Mein Kampf. Previous to that, the "Beer Hall Putsch," which was an action, made him out to be more of a caricature than a political leader. Today we have the Internet which, for good or ill, makes communication easier if anything. Along with this ease or communication, of course, comes a multiplicity of voices, so that the problem now becomes not being able to get the word out, but having it recognized and paid attention to. Nevertheless, in any movement, communication is absolutely essential. But in a free society, effective communication becomes a matter of the "chief forum," as you have pointed out.
Virtue and the Founding FathersNPeter
I quote Benjamin Franklin:
"What is wit, or wealth, or form, or learning, when compared with virtue? 'Tis true, we love the handsome, we applaud the learned, and we fear the rich and powerful; but we even worship and adore the virtuous. Nor is it strange, since men of virtue are so rare, so very rare to be found. If we were as industrious to become good as to make ourselves great, we would become really great by being good, and the number of valuable men would be much increased. But it is a grand mistake to think of being great without goodness, and I pronounce it as certain, that there was never yet a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous."
Our society has turned against virtue. We not only don't teach it, but in fact it is illegal to teach it in public life. It's "politically incorrect"!
How far we have strayed from the principles taught by our founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin said further on virtue:
"I think also that general virtue is more probably to be expected and obtained from the education of youth than from the exhortation of adult persons, bad habits and vices of the mind being, like diseases of the body, more easily prevented than cured."
"It is said that the Persians, in their ancient constitution, had public schools in which virtue was taught as a liberal art or science. And it is certainly of more consequence to a man, that he has learned to govern his passions in spite of temptation, to be just in his dealings, to be temperate in his pleasures, to support himself with fortitude under his misfortunes, to behave with prudence in all affairs. And in every circumstance of life, I say, it is of much more real advantage to him to be thus qualified, than to be a master of all the arts and sciences in the world beside."
Benjamin Franklin's wisdom is so obvious. All the debate in the world in these columns doesn't begin to uncover the simple truths of what a true American is as portrayed in his life, his letters and writings. If you put him with Thomas Jefferson, the two of them are towers of common sense and wisdom in promulgating those virtues that would most certainly bring unity, security, freedom and happiness to all Americans and all mankind. They both expressed the conviction that the new nation of America was for all mankind.
I've gathered many more common sense virtues and sayings on morality by all our founding fathers if you're interested. They are great anchors in promulgating
"...the general principles on which the American civilization is founded." --John Adams
and "...which are the principles in which God has united us all," --Thomas Jefferson
and "...which constitute the religion of America and the religion of all mankind." --Samuel Adams.
A summary of the Founding Fathers' views on virtue would be most appropriate for this website. If there is sufficient material, we could easily make a separate chapter for it.J. E. Johnson
Under the microscope of the modern media, unfortunately, I fear no person who might be wise, peace-loving, and earnest in some attempts to vocalize or even mobilize some good and sound ideology, would be able to withstand the public majority's seeming desire to build a person up to mythic stature, just to then begin a chipping away or even all-out assault to demolish that person through their own weaknesses or otherwise humanity. It is a spectacle-driven world, it seems. And what spectacle is more popular than reducing some great human to his or her own humiliation in public, stripping them to reveal the holes in their underwear in front of a crowd, as it were?
The question I have is in the "why"? Does this happen because there is some desire among us collectively that wishes to destroy this person (or at least "knock them off their high horse") out of some jealousy? or is it that we secretly hope to one day find someone who does indeed pass all these "tests" and therefore who is truly worthy of our praise and trust and loyalty?
In any case, it does seem that the shrinking of the globe due to mass media and the capabilities thereof has turned us collectively into a very self-involved lot. Not unlike some teenage girl poring over every page of Cosmopolitan magazine, picking out every single "flaw" she sees in the models on the pages therein: "she's such a cow".... or.... "oink-oink".... or.... "look at that on her face! what is that?!"
Perhaps, as with teenage girls, it is due simply to insecurity (for a myriad of reasons). Perhaps indeed. Yet it is still quite unbecoming behavior, especially of a supposedly "enlightened" society.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"