Archive for August, 2017

The Mother of All Virtues

If I were to choose one virtue to put at the top of my list, it would be honesty. The importance of being honest affects all walks of life, all personal interactions, and professions. When emotional or deep-seated psychological problems develop, the individual often is diagnosed as having been in denial. The truth has been buried or suppressed somehow to the detriment of mental health. It is healthier to confront truth no matter how painful as a purgative process in order to evolve spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Writing is a method to work out the psychic knots. The verbalization of feelings clarifies and purifies. Cutting through the brambles and briars with words that name the emotions and describes the experience clears a path to move forward. The writer’s eye refuses to deny anything; his vision takes in beauty, ugliness, heroics, and villainy in equal measure. Of necessity storytellers are truth tellers. In the intricate webs they weave, they look honestly at the essence of a situation and relate in fictional terms what it is to be unutterably human. The baseness, the guilt, the love, the compassion, and the sorrow the characters display in a story have emerged from the writer’s consciousness and recognition of those qualities in his own experience. To be honest is to tell the truth. What transforms the truth-telling into art is design. Honesty cannot be blunt; it must be carefully told, unfold in a way that enlightens and expands and does not leave the reader in despair or despondency.

Am I saying that all stories must have a happy ending? Not at all. Rather I am suggesting something akin to the platitude that honesty is the best policy, that honesty does set you free to live a better, fuller life. The ending may not be happy in the usual sense that no one dies or is left forlorn, but that revelation of some kind has dawned on the reader, if not the main character, and entailed in that denouement is the truth of the matter. Throughout his plays from Iago in Othello to Gertrude in Hamlet, Shakespeare works the themes of lying, deception, and dishonesty. The deficiency in honesty creates the conflict. Whether in literature or in life, this failure to be honest either with oneself or with others is the source of disruption and unhappiness, instigating war between family members or between nations. Modern literature gives ample examples of lies and self-deception. For instance, more than one character in The Great Gatsby is living a lie.

Intellectual honesty deserves a sphere of its own. It seems to be in sparse supply in a media world of spin doctors, apologists, sycophants, and defenders of political stupidity and hypocrisy. An intellectually honest person conscientiously avoids deception of any form. This includes the omission of relevant facts from an argument, twisting the facts to support his preconceived views, and not letting his predispositions interfere with the pursuit of truth. An intellectually honest person does not present flawed defenses to support friends and business associates. An intellectually honest person concedes the good points of alternate arguments. In the current American environment we have witnessed countless examples of these forms of intellectual dishonesty: 1) plagiarism, 2) double standards, 3) false analogies, 4) overgeneralization, 5) straw man arguments, that is, gross misrepresentation or oversimplification of the opponent’s view, 6) poisoning the well or smear tactic, that is, associating negative emotions or derogatory adjectives to the opponent. The last example of intellectual dishonesty was on stark display in the denigrations hurled during the 2016 election: “low-energy Jeb Bush,” “lying Ted,” “little Marco,” and “crooked Hillary.” The barrage of the ad hominem continues from the Oval Office.

Intellectual honesty also entails the responsibility, in fact, the duty to speak the truth. To remain silent while the rain of lies continues is dishonorable, if not downright cowardly. I call upon all members of Congress and all Americans today to practice intellectual honesty. There are some who have spoken the truth–notably, Representative Maxine Waters of California, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, New York Times liberal columnist Charles Blow, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, New York Times Republican columnist David Brooks, and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. These come to mind; you may think of many more. Intellectually  honest citizens like the ones I name here keep me optimistic that our democracy will not succumb to an autocracy under the rule of lies.

 

 

 

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Straitjacket of Ideology

Because it is a system of thought that runs on one track, an ideology subverts clarity of thought, creativity and substitutes a fixed idea for the generation of a multitude of ideas for the sake of adherence to one over-riding theory. Reality is interpreted to fit that ideology. The scientific method is scuttled in the process.  Ideology is a set of doctrines on which to base political, economic, and other policy. It produces a constricted, narrow view of a diverse world. In that way, it squelches creativity and distorts and misinterprets reality.  Instead of viewing the world in all its diversity, the ideologue attempts to pour infinity into a finite, single test tube against which he measures whether something is right or wrong, suitable or unsuitable for implementation.  Only the solution that the ideology prescribes is permitted. Examination of the unique characteristics of a particular problem is not undertaken because ideology has predetermined the way to solve it. Viable alternatives are not considered nor even admitted to be worthy of discussion. Debate is stunted or turned into a shouting match of insult and invective. For the ideological mind there is only one way to skin a cat.

In the words of Václev Havel, the Czech playwright and president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and then of the Czech Republic from 1993-2002, ideology is a straitjacket. If that is so, then the ideologue is a madman, worthy of a padded cell. Havel articulated well the dangers of ideology under communism, describing ideology as a specious way of relating to the world. Consequently, ideological politicians easily lose their moral compass. The health, education, and welfare of individuals are sacrificed to an ideological imperative. Havel eloquently argued for politics as a moral profession, although he suffered no illusions about how easy it is for disreputable people to make politics disreputable. In his essay “Politics, Morality, and Civility,” he writes that the disreputable ones are willing “to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering a colorful range of attractive nonsense.”

Reading Havel’s essays and letters has caused me to think long about the pitfall of ideology not only as it relates to politics but also how it relates to creativity and artistic pursuits. It is no coincidence that the artist in a society is often the dissident.  The dissident is the person who speaks against the prevailing belief and who will no longer tolerate public lies. He wishes to rip off society’s blindfold.  When the majority of the population has become numb to truth, the dissenting artist strives to awaken deadened sensibilities and to encourage people to no longer accept injustice. The dissident refuses to accept ideology as the end and be-all of public discussion and staunchly insists on seeing the individual human being and not a homogenous conglomerate. A society or a political party boxed into one way of thinking is so impaired and its creativity so atrophied that it is incapable of problem-solving.  Through individual responsibility and freedom of expression, the artist breaks the mold and opens new vistas. The strength of democracy depends on indivisibility of the body politic, that is, in perceiving that an injustice suffered by one member of society is an affront to the rights of everyone and must be resisted. The power of the powerless resides in their numbers organized to protest against the abuse of power. The artist first galvanizes this sleeping giant to rise up and demand good governance. Ideology excludes; whereas, creative thought seeks to expand and to include. No individual is denied his freedom, dignity, or inalienable rights without protest from the rest of society, for ultimately no citizen is immune from an autocratic regime.

But the artist, too, can be captive to ideological thinking.  The adoption of one style or technique to the exclusion of new methods and approaches will ultimately stifle creativity and cement his art into a rigid, unchanging mold, for he has embraced a set of artistic precepts so thoroughly that the generation of new ideas is blocked. His works will be recognizable for their predictability and monotony. The elements of surprise, mystery, adventure, and experimentation are missing. Because the artist has become numb to diversity and the multitudinous facets of reality, his art is dull and does not direct the human condition. One-dimensional thinking is the pitfall of both art and politics. Thus, an inept novelist creates one-dimensional characters. The adept artist realizes that multiple dimensions exist for exploration in this wonderful universe and that solutions to problems are not bi-polar, presenting an either-or situation. Idealogues like to delineate two choices–their way or the highway.

Ideology is the asylum where madmen go to spin their wheels, where anger and argument rampage, and where nothing gets solved. As the twenty-first century progresses, let us strip off the straitjacket of ideology whether in an artistic ism such as dadaism, cubism, impressionism and post-modernism or in monorail constructions like capitalism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, authoritarianism, or even absurdism.

Retrospective on Six Years of Blogging

When I began this venture into online writing six years ago, I viewed it as my outlet to the world–an instant digital plug-in to communicate with bookworms and bibliophiles around the globe from my isolated mountain retreat far from the country’s cultural centers. As an obscure, unknown writer, I would send missives to unknown addressees. Luckily, none of my posts would come back marked “Return to Sender.” In Emily Dickinson’s terms, if the world did not come to visit me or write letters to me, then I would write little essays to the world that never wrote to me. Like sending a message in a bottle out to sea, I would post short commentaries on the art of writing, favorite books and authors, films, all things literary, and any topic cultural or political that appealed to me and send my little essays to float off into the blogosphere and land willy-nilly where they may.

As a blogger I hoped to spark a conversation. In retrospect, blogging has been a successful and satisfying form of self-expression, but it has not produced the dialogue to the extent I had hoped for between me and readers. Although I often invite readers to add their thoughts and ideas on the topic of my posts, they have not generated a great deal of comments, at least not as many as I would have liked. Despite this, I am a little frog with boundless temerity in an ocean of bloggers and have collected my posts over the period May 2011 to May 2017 into a book titled How Public Like a Frog.

I am a frog on a log in my blog. I may be croaking alone, but I enjoy the sound of my croaks. Blended from the labial at the end of the word web and from log, as in a ship’s log or journal, the blog emerged in the 1990s and quickly caught fire. The blog can simply be an online personal journal, a ranting platform, or an informational forum on any conceivable hobby or interest. Essentially, it is informal non-fiction writing, making anyone in the world an opinion columnist. I aim for my blog posts to be mini-essays. In the classic sense, their goal is to delight and instruct, appealing to writers and readers of all genres even poetry lovers.

Sometimes my blog frog has ventured into the political swamp. I believe this topic is not off-limits to serious writers. Not only opinion columnists and political scientists are entitled to wade through this territory, but fiction writers as story-tellers must uphold honesty. In a way, fiction writers tell honest lies. They fabricate fictional truth by creating a made-up world in which they can illuminate reality and expose hypocrisy and venality under the guise of storytelling. They change the names of people and places, alter clothes and accents, add a mustache or curl the hair here and there to protect both the innocent and the guilty. As for poetry, it embodies heightened life; it encapsulates the life lived well and honestly. A faked poem is readily apparent; it is sentimental, forced, pompous, and gerrymandered. No higher praise can be awarded a novel, a poem, a film, any literary work than to pronounce it true to life. The frog alone in its bog reflects upon what it sees. His small pond is a microcosm of the macrocosm. Those reflections may find a kindred spirit in the universe, and when that happens, I croak happily.

As long as I have breath and functioning brain cells, my frog will publicize my thoughts and observations on this blog. I like commenting on books and films that have enlightened me. They are like flies I catch here and there while I am sitting on my log. My roving eye enjoys movies and will  not resist telling you why I think they are worth viewing. I love art, music, and painting.  In case you haven’t noticed, I go absolutely gaga over history.  Perhaps I am a hopeless dilettante, a dabbler in the arts, a goggle-eyed egg-headed intellectual. That’s not to say I avoid exercise. I do like to jump from lily pad to lily pad, to dive in the water and make a small splash, a little ping in the pond now and then. I hope you’ll be standing by the shore and listening.