Rebranding

Established in 1583, Edinburgh University has been a world-class research institution for centuries.  It appears in pop culture as a place of great learning and innovation.  While the newest of Scotland’s four (in contrast to England’s two) ancient universities, it has risen to the point of greatest name recognition.  Even as a kid in rural western Pennsylvania, born into an uneducated family, I’d heard about it.  Little did I dream that I’d actually attend it one day, skulking its time-honored halls and walking the same streets as so many worthies that I couldn’t count them.  It was an inspirational place to live and learn.  While it may not get you a job, a doctorate from it will keep you curious for the rest of your life, and that’s a fantastic gift.

Just as I was preparing to graduate that venerable institution announced it had decided to rebrand.  Wait, what?  A four-centuries’ old university known world-wide felt it had to have a brand?  At great expense, they hired a consulting firm to make them more modern looking while retaining the trusted tradition stretching back to the late middle ages. It wanted to attract “modern” students (since this was in the early nineties those modern students are now adults).  I felt crushed under the commercialism of it all.  Branding?  If a kid from remote foothills of the Appalachians can know and dream of a place, why does it need to get the word out about itself?  Ah well, these wee bairn be wantin’ somethin’ flashy.

I’ve lived through other corporate rebrandings.  They seem to me a waste of good money, especially if you’ve been around for a long time.  Some people, I suppose, look at an old logo and say “looks outdated, not with it.”  Others of us fall down and worship.  You see, staying power is something rare these days.  Corporations come and go.  Even higher education institutions sometimes close down, but the old ones keep on.  You can pick up a book from 1600 and read about Edinburgh University.  It won’t have the new logo—in fact, it may not have a logo at all—but it will still be around four centuries later.  If you get something right at the beginning, why do you need to change it to impress those who think present-day branding (which will only have to be rebranded again at some point in the future) is superior?  Perhaps our ancient institutions need to learn that old lesson—trust yourself.


Thoughts on Job

The book of Job has been on my mind lately.  Leave aside the remarks of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it is one of the most honest books ever written.  Many people think Job is trying to answer the question of why the good suffer.  If so, it does a poor job.  No, Job is an exploration of suffering, and Job really isn’t looking for an answer why.  Instead, he simply wants his pain to be heard.  No fixers, no advice.  Simply to be heard and to know he’s been heard.  You see, in the world of the Bible words were significant.  Many prophetic utterances were simply that—utterances because it needed to be said.  Job ups the ante quite a bit, however, when he begins to wish that God would answer him.  God, after all, is responsible for his pain.

William Blake’s Job

The world is full of sadness.  Some people feel the sadness of others deeply.  We all strive for some kind of equilibrium, some balance.  There are, however, a lot of people out there that truly do suffer and for no particular reason.  Job is a polarizing book.  Many people dislike it intensely.  I suspect that some of them don’t like to think of the world in this way.  Those who do good should be rewarded.  (The book makes plain that Job is perfect.)  Those who do evil should be punished.  Job makes clear that that’s not the way the world actually works.  For reasons we can’t know (who’s privy to the divine council and its deliberations about our fates?) we may end up losing our hopes, dreams, health, and wealth.  Job is kind of a horror story.

There are those who read Job and argue from the point of view of his friends.  In the book itself God condemns the outlook of the friends, noting that Job—no matter how challenging his words were—spoke honestly.  Life is seldom fair.  We as human beings must strive for fairness as best we’re able since we sense that it’s morally good.  Indeed, much of the Bible upholds fairness.  The book of Job questions it.  Not it’s goodness or morality, but rather why the world doesn’t reflect it.  When someone is suffering one of the most helpful and difficult things we can do is listen to them.  We need not open our mouths to fix, suggest, or advise, like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu.  We simply must let the words be said.


Healing Time

Twenty years ago today I walked into the refectory at Nashotah House after morning mass and wondered why the television was on.  Normally people had their own theological issues to hash out over breakfast, so this was unusual.   When I saw what was happening, I skipped breakfast and went home to my family.  I remember the feeling of shock and terror of those days.  America, I knew, wasn’t the innocent nation it projects itself as being.  We had provoked, but none of that mattered as the isolationism of over two centuries on a mostly friendly continent crumbled.  We were vulnerable.  Living in the woods of Wisconsin there was no immediate danger, but the sense of confusion—and certainly the feeling that a less-than-bright president wasn’t up to handle this—made us all feel weak, even with the most powerful military in the world.

Yesterday the New York Times headlines ran a consideration on whether we’ve emerged better in the ensuing two decades.  Looking at where we are—a deeply divided nation because a narcissistic president that the majority of voters voted against put (and still puts) his ego ahead of the good of the country—the answer seems obvious.  It will take years, if not decades, to heal the damage that one man did.  His putative party (really his only party is himself), seeing his popularity as their means to power, refuse to distance themselves.  We simply cannot move forward.  Not in the midst of a pandemic where Trump followers won’t get vaccinated causing new waves of the virus to surface and thrive.  I’d like to think that on September 11 we might reflect—yes, I know it’s hard work—on how we all need each other.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

Little could I have guessed in 2001 that a mere ten years later I would find myself working in Manhattan.  Somewhere in my mind on every day of that long commute I wondered if something might again go wrong.  On the bus I was thrown together with people of every description—well paid and just getting by, women and men, gay and straight, from all around the world—and we knew our fates were linked together.  Differences had to be put aside.  Selfishness has no room on a crowded bus.  That was my introduction to life in New York City.  Those who hear only the poison rhetoric of 2016 through 2020 should try commuting with an open mind.  If we all took the bus, life after 9-11 might’ve turned out very differently.


Moral Bankruptcy

Last Thursday, apart from being the day after the plumber came, Tropical Storm Ida dumped on us, and the first day of September, the New York Times headlines were disturbing.  I don’t have time to read many news stories in depth, but I glance at the headlines to inject just enough worry into my day.  After discussing the flooding, Afghanistan, and a few other stories a particular quote caught my eye and kicked my gut: “Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, threatened to retaliate against technology companies that comply with the inquiry into the Capitol attack.”  This was a bit much after reading how much suffering is going on in the world.  Republicans threatening retaliation to keep the truth hidden in plain sight.  Is there any term for this but moral bankruptcy?

I simply can’t understand how any moral Republican can hold their head up proud.  I grew up Republican.  I was conservative most of my way through college.  I would never have stood up for a politician of either party that said “I’ll get you back if you tell the truth.”  Lies are the most insidious of acts.  How can you ever believe someone after they establish a reputation of being untruthful?  How can you believe he actually does support your cause?  How can you believe anything he says?  Not only that, but threatening his own fellow Americans for wanting to find out what his party supported on January 6.  There’s a reason the day is known as Epiphany—“the manifestation.”  When truth becomes clear.

A political party that has nothing to offer but lies and violence has become an organ of organized crime.  Perhaps our legislators should be given a dictionary open to the entry titled “perjury.”  We now have Republicans who lie under oath to become Supreme Court justices.  Who try to start rebellions with mobs ready to murder their colleagues and who then sit back and claim the rectitude of God Almighty when it’s over.  What have we come to here?  People were drowning in basement apartments and people were suffering loss of power and damaged homes.  Republicans meanwhile were working up threats of retaliation against people for simply trying to get at the truth.  The plumber did the job he said he would.  Those who projected and tracked Ida told the truth to try to save lives and property.  In the sewers of Washington, however, those loyal to the party vowed to keep their secrets safe. 


Friendly Food

The rain felt like relief after the most recent heat wave.  We’d long planned to attend the Easton VegFest regardless.  Summer is the season for street festivals and it’s always a strange kind of affirmation to find one dedicated to vegans.  And to see so many people at it.  The cities of the Lehigh Valley have quite a few animal-friendly options for eating, and although the VegFest isn’t huge it’s a good place to find others who realize that our food choices matter.  So it was that we came upon the booth for NoPigNeva.  Now, if you’ve ever tried to shop for vegan food—I know there must be a few of you out there—you know how catch-as-catch-can it is.  Around here lots of grocery stores carry vegan items, but what you’re looking for may not be there.  Even WholeFoods in Allentown has a limited selection.

NoPigNeva is a supply company run by black women.  It supports worthy causes.  And it makes finding what you’re looking for essentially one-stop.  I’m no businessman, but I do wonder why, when they keep selling out of vegan stock, stores don’t get their orders refilled right away.  It’s almost as if we don’t want to believe people will buy it.  Vegan food has come a long way even in just the last five years.  I know that when I became a vegetarian almost two decades ago now I felt there was no way to get enough to eat as a vegan.  Options seemed so limited.  That’s no longer the case.  I’m guessing the success of the Impossible Whopper caught everyone (except consumers) by surprise.  Even now, if you order one (hold the mayo, please) you’re pretty much guaranteed it won’t have been sitting on the warming shelf.

There’s big money in the food industry.  I’m not a foodie, although it’s become fashionable to be one.  I do, however, think about whether my food is causing harm.  There is, I realize, no way not to impact the environment or other living creatures when eating.  Lessening that impact, however, and supporting historically oppressed groups feels good.  There is a morality to mastication.  Most animals, it seems, have evolved a fear of being eaten.  Perhaps we’re only starting to understand that breaking chains might have to begin with us.  Any industry (big agriculture) that tries to make it illegal to see where your food comes from is hardly to be trusted.  I trust more those willing to come to a street fair on a rainy Saturday afternoon to show that there is a better way.


Moral Compass

Where have all the morals gone?  Well, not exactly song-worthy, but it is a question I think about a lot.  You see, I work in publishing.  Publishing, above all, is a business.  People make their livelihood at it, and so they have to find a market that pays.  Money and morals don’t mix well.  A recent New York Times story pointed out that the political polarization that’s tearing America apart is reflected in bestsellers.  Political nonfiction bestsellers have topped the charts since Trump was unfortunately elected.  Books both pro and con have flooded the market.  What’s this got to do with morals?  Well, I believe publishing should be in the business of educating.  If you’re going to publish nonfiction, it should be material that doesn’t cause more problems than it helps solve.

When I look at a book, after checking the title and author, I next look at the publisher.  Some publishers are conservative, and that’s fine.  That’s what they do.  Most, however, consist of highly educated professionals who realize the severe, and continuing damage that Trump caused.  These publishers, however, will produce pro-Trump books if the numbers look good.  There’s gold in them thar hills!  I often have these scruples working for an academic press.  Some ideas are clearly distorted.  I’m no elitist—I’m still pretty much working-class all the way down to the bones—but education reveals when something very bad (fascism) is happening.  Others see it too.  Still, the temptation of all those dollars… it’s a real pressure, almost like being at the bottom of the ocean.  There’s money pressing on us and we want it.

The gray lady story bothered me.  Instead of publishers looking out their windows and seeing the political grand canyon of this nation, they see profits.  This is business, after all.  Just business.  Is there any such thing?  Morality informs the way you live, the choices you make.  Do I promote education, reflection, and sound reasoning or do I promote a very real 2024 threat of a man who leads by refusing to lead?  After elected Trump immediately began campaigning for his next term, loving the rallies, the cheers, the adulation.  Who doesn’t want to be worshiped?  But is that what we want to see three Novembers from now?  I remember the shock the morning after election day 2016 in New York City.  I see the damage four years of environmental degradation caused just when the effects of global warming were becoming obvious.  I see women demeaned.  I see voting rights quashed.  And now I look at the bestseller list and wonder where the morals have gone.


Still Too Close

Parody is sometimes the best way to deal with a crisis situation.  As soon as I learned that Alexandra Petri had come out with a new book I was eager to read it.  Her last book, which I reviewed here some years ago, was such a delight—sharp and funny—that I fell in love with her writing.  Although she works for the Washington Post, I don’t regularly read newspapers (no time, if I want to read books) and therefore I don’t get regular doses.  Nothing is Wrong and Here Is Why is clearly a book written in a time of national crisis.  Yes, it’s funny, but the wound of the Trump years is still too raw to be able to laugh much about it.  Too many of his followers still don’t realize they were (are) being played and want him back.  It’s scary.

The first, and longest, section of the book are essays about the absolute ridiculousness of life under Trump.  It was a difficult and dangerous time for thinking people and although Petri excels as a satirical writer, the freshness of the terror—look at the Taliban and see if they are laughing—is just a little too intense.  Petri makes a great case for giving female leadership a try.  Any candidate, no matter which party, needs to know how the game is played.  And they must care about other people.  A pathological narcissist has no business being president of anything, let alone a democracy.  If you’re not familiar with satirical writing you’ll misunderstand just about everything Petri writes.

Once she gets beyond the section about Trump (shudder), the essays start to pick up some topics that it’s possible to laugh about.  Some of them are quite funny.  Although I enjoyed the book—when I started to put it down to get ready for work each morning I found myself saying, “I’ll read just one more.”  And three or four essays later I’d find myself rushing upstairs nearly late.  If it hadn’t been for the national tragedy called Trump, Petri’s second book might’ve been funny from the start.  Parody can be a defense mechanism.  At times things are just too painful to bear and those of us who write find ourselves doing our best to keep the mood light while society crumbles around us.  When things are ridiculous laughter is really what we need most.  We’re lucky to have Petri to provide it.  Here is why—she can bring a smile, or at least a smirk, even in a crisis.


Afghanistan

As much of the world watches in dismay, the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan.  Most religious rule ends up being harmful to women, it seems.  We have centuries of male-run Catholicism showing how both witch hunts and heretic murder became common in Europe.  Do we expect any better now that religious extremists have taken over a nation next door to Iran?  The mix of politics and religion has generally not been favorable and unfortunately if the Republican Party could have its way we would see a similar thing here in the United States.  An ill-executed coup d’état on January 6 of just this year led to the epiphany that the Republican jurists would protect those who tried to overthrow the US constitution in the name of religion.  And we know how they feel about women’s rights.  We should look at Afghanistan and tremble.

It seems difficult to believe that less than a century ago we went to war to defend democracy.  Senators alive to witnesses the privations of war are now recklessly trying to remake America in the image of a fascist state.  Instead of looking at Afghanistan as a mirror, the only thing they can see is this is a Muslim nation.  Christians would surely never try to take over a capital by force.  They turn a blind eye to our own insurrection, not yet nearly a year old.  Ironically the book they claim to follow contains a often quoted but more often ignored statement: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…”   It’s no accident that their intended victim was a woman.

Religious politics can be maintained by force of arms or legal maneuvering. Both are evil.  The result is the same either way: women and thinking people suffer while the self-righteous rule.  Even such basic assumptions as protecting their own people from a horrible disease by the simple expedient of a free vaccine has been politicized for purposes of keeping in power.  When the moderates in their own party speak up they are shouted down.  How different is this than the shouts of triumph heard in Kabul?  The alternative—government that allows the freedom to believe what you will as long as all people are treated fairly—has been made out to be a sin.  The god worshipped both by Republicans and the Taliban has little sympathy for humanity.  He, and most certainly he is male, is all about power.  We watch in dismay.

Photo by Joel Heard on Unsplash

Just Like Us

Jordan Peele has been noted for his intellectual, black horror films.  His work is good at making clear that African-American experience is different than white experience in America.  That was especially on view in Get Out, a haunting treatment of being “the other.”  His more recent Us, two years old already, takes a somewhat different angle but still comes to a similar point.  Since the movie has a notorious twist ending that I’d rather not spoil for anyone slower than I am, I’ll try to focus on the film’s use of Jeremiah 11:11—“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”  This message of the prophet was a warning that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians, but clearly it has wider applications.

It’s safe to say, I suppose, that the movie is about substitute people.  Each person has a doppelgänger that shares her or his soul, but is a puppet—it’s not too far to stretch to say “slave”—that must do whatever it is we have it do.  When those doubles, or shadows, arise and organize, things start to get real scary real fast.  Although the metaphors run deep, the biblical citation comes near the start of the movie, setting the tone of what follows.  This is divine judgment for the mistreatment of others.  While it isn’t ostensibly about race, at least not obviously so, the story follows the black Wilson family as the uprising begins.

Jeremiah’s message, although delivered to a specific situation at a particular time in history, could well apply whenever one people threatens another.  Like most prophecy, it’s less about prediction than it is about changing behavior.  Jeremiah presents a good warning tone because he was a prophet who loved his people but also saw that they had to fall in order to be redeemed.  His is a strong message for a country at a crossroads.  Peele has a lot going on in this movie and I suspect more than one viewing will be necessary to pick up on some of the points.  Not all parables have a single message.  Not all prophets are heeded in their time.  Jeremiah 11:11 provides context, and it rewards the biblically literate who know the context it which it originally applied.  Fitting it into the world of black horror is an example of how prophecy continues to be relevant.


Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Strange Reading

What more can you say about the Bible?  A lot’s been said already.  So much, in fact, that nobody can read all of it in a lifetime.  That realization started to come to me as I was trying to find everything that had been written about Asherah—who’s mentioned in the Bible—to write my dissertation.  I didn’t find everything, but I found a good deal of it.  Enough, in any case, to write my cautionary words about the subject.  Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book brings the insights of a fellow traveler to the fore.  In a serious yet lighthearted way, she points out, as the subtitle says, The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.  In other words, it’s not what most people—especially those who speak the loudest about it—think that it might be.

There are many angles from which to approach the Good Book.  One size most definitely doesn’t fit all.  A book like this would benefit from being read by those who take the Bible literally, but one of the problems is that literalists have no motivation to read such a book.  Indeed, their trusted leaders actively warn against it.  Such treatments are dangerous at best, and are possibly demonic.  One of my professors once put it well: fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem.  In any other area of life those exact same literalists will apply reason and logic.  When it comes to their beliefs, however, refusal to engage with the tools that make their lives otherwise successful becomes an eleventh commandment.

Swenson points out things that will likely be old news to biblical scholars.  Having been through all this in a way ourselves, we remember what it was like to become “woke.”   To those raised as literalists, this is no small ask.  It stabs at the heart of everything you’re raised to believe.  The fear is that there’ll be nothing on the other side, at best, Hell at worst.  These are very real fears.  They may never completely leave, no matter how long you’ve been awake or how much rational coffee you’ve drained.  Such fears deserve a sympathetic hearing.  Without it I’m not sure any progress can be made.  Strip below posturing and bravado and you’ll find fear.  I do hope A Most Peculiar Book will find its way to such folks.  Swenson shows there is life after biblical studies and her book has some fun facts for those unfamiliar with the book about which there’s somehow never enough to say.


Evolving beyond Fear

Live Science recently reported on a story that may shed light on human evolutionary behavior.  While my conclusions are speculative, they make sense, given the circumstances.  Titled “Albino chimp baby murdered by its elders days after rare sighting,” the story by Nicoletta Lanese describes how an albino chimp caused a fear reaction among its community shortly after it was born.  A few days later it was killed by the chimps.  Scientists must be careful not to attribute human motive to such attacks, and so they note that this particular community has a tendency toward infanticide, but that doesn’t explain the initial fear reaction.  An individual who was “different” appeared and the response was one of deadly violence.  We’re far from understanding human motivations, let alone those of animals, but it’s difficult not to see this as typical human behavior.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

Just because a behavior has evolved doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.  We evolved out of our need for tree dwelling in order to open new potential habitats—an experiment that proved wildly successful.  Can we not evolve out of fear of those who are different?  That seems to be the idea behind recent diversity and inclusion initiatives.  There are those who still resist them, but examine their beliefs and you’ll soon find fear of those who differ.  This atavistic tendency is remarkably close to the chimp behavior in killing an albino.  If we are to remain civilized, we must name such fear for what it is and grow beyond it.  Conservatism is often based in fear.  Fear of change is natural enough, but had our ancestors given in to it we’d still be in the trees.

We need to admit that the lives of those different matter. How long will we allow difference be a reason to fear other human beings?  The story on Live Science is difficult to read.  The chimp behavior is so typically human that we can feel sympathy for the murdered infant and his mother.  Fear, if left unattended, can bring us to this.  The antidote is education.  The more we learn the better we can cope with fear, which is, after all, a natural and necessary response to an evolved world.  Our fear of being prey has caused us to drive extinct most of our natural predators.  The world is hardly a better place for it.  Might not weighing fears and thinking through reasonable solutions be a better coping technique?  Fear can revert a human back into an animal state.  Or it can drive us toward improvement.


Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.


Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons