SOMBER THOUGHTS – SOME UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM
@booksnips, @ideflex, @ellocutioner, @dredmorbius, @cgwarex
No man ever sacrificed his prejudice for his interests. (Alexis de Tocqueville) I thought that since there is a lot of conventional wisdom floating around out there right now, that I might contribute something a bit unconventional, just for a little change of pace. I always liked what de Tocqueville had to say about this question, because it helps us to understand in a general way what can happen when there’s an election in a democratic society. People vote for all kinds of crazy reasons that have nothing to do with what would be in their best interests. The hard hats voted for Nixon, never mind the Reagan Democrats. And since I am a person with scholarly training I should let you know where you can find this quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, but despite my most conscientious efforts to find this quote this quote is nowhere to be found in any of the writings of De Tocqueville and I am forced to conclude that I have made it up myself. Unless it was something I once heard from my friend Roland, or Reggie, or Rance or whatever I’m calling him instead of using his real name. And by the way, why would you ever name a child Rance? You know what the other kids are going to be calling him.
People Want Change People do not want change. If people wanted change they could have voted for a dignified, intelligent woman who knows a lot about how the world really works and who had a few plans that might have made things better for some people. That would have been a real change in my humble opinion, and apparently a lot of people agreed with me about this, but not enough or so it would appear. As a matter of fact, my opinion was not humble, they seldom are – but it was my own opinion.
I know some things about change, and many of those things are not good things. Like maybe things I enjoyed doing that I now can only do less frequently and with less duration. Or what about the hair that I no longer have? As far as I’m concerned change is way overrated and so is choice while we’re on the subject of things that are overrated.
In any event I would want to say that every one of the 14 Presidential elections I have ever voted in has been about the same thing, namely resistance to change. Here we have to distinguish between formal equality and substantive equality. You have formal equality when the civil rights act gets passed in 1964 and it is no longer permissible to have segregated schools in your home state. Substantive equality is about more far-reaching improvements in the material conditions of life, especially for people who have been denied even formal equality for a long period of time, or in other words cashing in the formal equality as real equality. Achieving substantive equality could start by integrating schools by bussing children to different locations. Or by Affirmative Action. Or passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Remember that? Maybe you’re not old enough so go look it up.
Does what happened with any of that sound like people “wanting change?” A lot of people who are opposed to ideas like this are often the ones who go around saying they want change, but maybe they are confused because I would not want to be thinking about dishonesty or the possibility of bad faith or evasions of the truth.
Apparently there are some guys in Mahoning County, Ohio who, according to their representative in Congress, do not want retraining, they just want to be paid $30.00 an hour to run a back-hoe the way they always used to. So to me this sounds like not wanting to learn something new and not wanting to change my life. I get that; it’s hard learning something new and maybe you won’t be that good at whatever it is, so that can make a person anxious about paying the bills and buying the groceries. What I don’t get is why this is called “wanting change.” To me it sounds more like “not wanting change.”
People Are Angry Listen, I am not interested in your grievances and even less am I interested in hearing about how angry you are. Because why? I have troubles of my own, that’s why, but just because I am a nice person and I don’t particularly want to annoy you, I am not going to summarize everything presently going on that I find to be unacceptable or who I think is to blame for this veritable bordel. And for what it’s worth, I have never made a good decision when I was angry, though I did make plenty of bad ones. Getting angry wasn’t that great for getting what I wanted either. People just try to avoid you or get you to go away.
When a kid throws a tantrum you are going to send him to his room, because chances are good that it’s a boy, and you are going to tell him he has to stay there until he calms down. And then you are going to say something like “when you are ready to talk about your hopes and aspirations in a reasonable way I will be ready to listen to you.” You might even want to summarize what Jürgen Habermas has to say about the Ethics of Communication, which starts from the idea that the parties have to have an interest in reaching an understanding. Or you might want to point out that anger is a very poor guide to taking any action. Trust me, I have scars that prove this point.
Maybe it would be better to talk about my interests, how about that? You could talk about your interests as well and then maybe we would find out if we have any interests in common. I might even agree to prune that tree in my back yard so it doesn’t cast so much of a shadow on your beautiful rose bush, and that way you won’t have to sneak around in the middle of the night and pour acid on the roots of the tree, thus killing it. I won’t even ask you to pay for the émondage, because that is how reasonable adults adjudicate conflict.
It is in my interest to enjoy economic and social stability, without being afraid that one of my neighbors might just decide to go and shoot up the local school. If you happen to think it would be in your interest to have constant strife and disorder, along with unpredictable episodes of extreme violence every now and then it might be hard for us to have a discussion about that unless you could somehow explain to me why such a state of affairs would be in anybody’s interest.
People Want Jobs Don’t make me laugh! Who wants a job? Seriously? Next you’ll be telling me people want jobs in coal mines. What people want – or anyway what they should be wanting if they have an ounce of sense – is to enjoy their lives. You can find that in Aristotle, but you won’t find anything about jobs there. It would seem, however, that having a job or anyway finding some way to earn a living is the condition of possibility for enjoying life these days, but let’s not get confused here about the relationship of ends and means. I got paid a regular salary but I’m not sure I really had a job; I used to think I had a vocation, not to be confused with a vacation but I had those too.
Much of what I did to earn a living was enjoyable, but there was also a lot of stress and sometimes I was tired when I got home. Fortunately for my peace of mind there were always plenty of other people I could blame for causing me stress.
Some people think that if you enjoy your work that should be enough compensation and that you should be willing to do your job or “labor in your vocation” for not much money. My brother-in-law thought that. He wasn’t mean or belligerent to me, but I know he thought I had it easy and didn’t deserve to get a big salary. My brother-in-law hated his job. It paid him a damn good salary but he hated everything about it and he retired as soon as he could. Things did not go so well for him after that. For one thing he did not have that many interests or anything much that he enjoyed doing. Working at a job he hated maybe ruined his ability to enjoy his own life. This was not such a good thing for him, or for the people who loved him.
OK – so there’s a nice looking young man and a very beautiful young woman who meet at a dance. They hit it off right away and before long they’re inseparable. They go skating in Central Park, they go out to the movies, they have romantic dinners together and then by and by they decide to get married. They have their wedding night at a luxurious hotel, and when they make love for the first time . . . What. Yes. They make love for the first time on their wedding night. This is a problem for you? You never heard of such a thing? It’s a made up story for God’s sake, get over it! . . . where was I? They make love for the first time and everything is absolutely fantastic, exciting, sensual, completely ecstatic. And then, in the afterglow of this most beautiful experience the young woman says “Oh darling, what’s the most wonderful thing in the world?” And her young husband rolls over and says, “inherited wealth.”
The Jewish Son-in-law and the Butterfly Obviously I am not the Jewish son-in-law in my own family but I am the Jewish son-in-law in my wife’s family. Never been any kind of a problem and I’ve heard it said once or twice that every family should have one.
So there I am sitting in the locker room at the Westmount Y a few days after the recent election. I have just finished a pretty good workout and I’m getting myself changed back to my regular clothes. There is a conversation going on, but I only half-listened. You can’t listen to every damned thing. So then I hear somebody say “who did you vote for?” It’s a big guy from Jamaica who generally plays basketball with a bunch of guys on Saturday afternoon. The other guy is out of my line of sight. Apparently he voted for Trump on his absentee ballot, which he sends in ahead of time like any other American ex-pat no matter who they voted for. So the Jamaican guy says “You voted for Trump? Why?” The other guy says “because he has a Jewish son-in-law.” Jamaican guy: “Really? Are you Jewish?” Other guy: “Yes.” Jamaican guy: “I really don’t get that.”
You know that thing about the butterfly in Argentina and the tornado in Oklahoma? The man who voted for the Jewish son-in-law is the butterfly. It’s a detail so small and seemingly insignificant that you probably can’t even measure it, but add up all those tiny little irrational things and you get a result that you won’t be able to predict accurately and you won’t be able to explain at all. The result is going to be totally inconclusive, but the interpretations of this result – there will be as many interpretations as there are Jewish sons-in-law – will all claim to be definitive.
Here is a story about Leonard Cohen. Somebody is walking along St. Laurent Boulevard early on a Sunday morning. It is very quiet, nobody is afoot, not even magic, and there is virtually no automobile traffic. Along comes Leonard Cohen. He reaches the corner of St. Laurent, looks up, and sees a red light. He stops and waits for the light to change. The man on the street sees this and he asks Leonard Cohen why he is waiting for the light to change when there is not a car anywhere in sight. Cohen says “Our social world is really a very fragile thing. If I pull or tug at even one insignificant looking yarn who knows what kind of damage might be done somewhere else in this beautiful fabric of ours.”
In the End the Shadow Was Only a Small and Passing Thing: There was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.