Sunday, July 26, 2020

Created Equal

Declaration of Independence

You know where in the Declaration of Independence, in the second paragraph, it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—I have always stopped right there.

To me, this is not a self-evident truth but fatuous nonsense. No two persons are or ever were equal. One or the other is always going to be bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, shrewder, more handsome, more sexual, more adept with women, better able to handle his money or his liquor, better at cards, better at life. No two things in this universe, not two stars or planets or galaxies,1 were ever “created equal.” So, for a long time, this statement—at the core of the Declaration—puzzled me.

But the idea of equality encompassing all these characteristics is actually a late 20th- and early 21st-century notion. To understand what Jefferson was writing about, you have to see this statement in terms of 18th-century suppositions2 and pay close attention to the clauses that follow.

The 18th century was a time when people were presumed to be divided at birth between nobles and commoners, lairds and crofters, lords and serfs, “the better sort of people” and “the rest of them.” This was a given: that a man (or woman) was born into a certain station in life, and that for a person to rise out of it—or fall from it—was a remarkable thing. “Rising above your station” was also contrary to God’s preordained intentions, because it was God who put you there in the first place; it was part of His plan for you. Changing one’s position in life violated the “Great Chain of Being”3 and was unheard of in the Europe of the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance. People and their classes were fixed for eternity. But by the 18th century, in England at least, a prominent person of rather humble birth who had done good service to the crown or the nation as a military officer or politician might be granted a baronetcy, which ranked him as a minor lord equivalent to an old-fashioned knighthood with the privilege of hereditary transference. Sort of a back door into the club.

But in the American colonies, where people with actual noble rank were only visitors and not cast upon the distant shore to make their way or die, elevated station was not gained through inheritance—or not at first, and not officially—but rather as the product of holding large amounts of land as a scion of the early settlers or making or inheriting vast amounts of money in trade. And such holdings, along with their unofficial rank or status, could just as easily be lost through stupidity, ill fortune, or a bad turn at cards. By 1776, the notion that some people are born better than others, rightfully holding a higher station in life, favored by God, granted rights and privileges to which the common run of humanity was not entitled—well, that Old World view was pretty much blown. Or that was the mindset of the radicals of the time: Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and everyone else looking to start a new country on this continent.

And so we come to the clauses that follow: “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And that’s the nut of it. A free man on American soil was not a peasant to be bound to the land or ridden down on the road by a lord on his high horse. He was free to work where he wanted at the thing that made him happiest.4And it was hard to hold a man at a job in town or on the landlord’s farm when the whole colony occupied only the easternmost fringe of coastline—penetrating only one or two hundred miles inland—on a continent that spanned three thousand miles. Anyone dissatisfied with his lot could easily pick up an axe and a hoe, walk off into the woods, come to the first empty clearing, and start farming for himself.

So the Americans of the mid-18th century, the time of the Declaration, did not see themselves as anything less than King George, their lordships of Old England, or members of the Parliament that made rules for their American colonies. Americans were not of lesser station or deserving of less consideration or fewer rights because of their humble or obscure heritage. But at the same time, the concepts of life, liberty, and happiness embedded in the Declaration were understood to ensure only a person’s equal treatment under the law, which granted him or her equal rights and privileges. But the Declaration never meant to guarantee equal expectations and outcomes in life, because each person has to make those for him- or herself.

The distinctions between noble and commoner—or indeed between white European and black African—that weighed so heavily on the minds of 18th-century thinkers have now been worn away by two and a half centuries of actual judicial equality. For most Americans, our shared humanity is a simple matter of personal enlightenment in a society that already values equality. We have made a society where all men are truly equal before the law—or at least that is our stated intention, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And so the class and judicial distinctions that impelled the language of the Declaration no longer exist for us. This leaves the present-day reader free to imagine other, perhaps deeper meanings for the word “equal” in that context.

The old class system in England and in Europe generally—between the peasant and the lord—were systems to confer and maintain advantage and power. The families that attained leadership positions in the neighborhood or as adherents to the king, or those with large landholdings—usually the same thing, as land was generally gifted by the king as a remnant of feudal times—maintained these rights by passing them down to their sons and occasionally through their daughters. Noble titles usually accrued to such positions of power, and eventually the inherited title came to mean something even after the political power or the land and money were gone.

In America, although a person might be born into low station, that guarantee of liberty and the pursuit of happiness allowed the individual to pursue and maintain large landholdings—remember those three thousand miles of open land stretching to the Pacific Ocean—or earn vast fortunes through enterprise and industry. And the 19th and 20th centuries were a time of huge technical advances in mechanics and energy, which enabled many entrepreneurs to build great wealth, just as the late 20th and early 21st century now provide opportunities in cybernetics. By passing the wealth down through sons and daughters, wealthy dynasties not much different from European nobility have been built.5

But now, with a new reading of that “created equal”—focusing on the desirability of equal expectations and outcomes—the American spirit seems to want no inequality. There should be no systems of power, no wealth to be made for oneself and one’s family by hard work, prudent saving, and shrewd investment. The government, it is presumed, will see to it that everyone prospers equally, shares equally in the goods and services created by society—not by individuals or corporations or inspired inventors or from the fruits of personal labor, but by the faceless forces of society as a whole. That way, no one gets more than anyone else, and we will all be equal in fact as well as under the law.

Of course, that’s poppycock. Marx may have imagined that, after a brief struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the state would eventually wither away, and everyone would settle into joyously producing according to his abilities and contentedly consuming according to his needs—forever. But Marx was a madman. In reality, in a nation with a large and diverse population and variously located farms and factories, and long-distance logistics, someone has to operate the distribution system, decide whose needs will be met, in what order, and when. That, my dears, is a position of power. And people with power will tend to profit by it and want to pass it along to their sons and daughters. It is in our human nature. That impulse created the new nobility of the Nomenklatura in the old Soviet Union and the ranks and privileges of Party members in every other socialist totalitarian state.

You can no more eliminate the concept of power from human society than you can eliminate sex or hunger, envy or greed. You can dampen the notion of ambition and make it generally distasteful to a large swath of the population. But someone will notice that the reins are flopping around on the horse’s back and take it upon himself to reach for them. That is in our nature, too.

So long as people are born with differences in the characteristics that count in life—some being smarter, some shrewder, some with more energy, or talents, or just with different dreams—equality in expectations and outcomes will remain a phantom, a figment, a madman’s goal, a utopia never to be found under heaven.

1. Except maybe for subatomic particles—like protons, electrons, and neutrons—but even there modern physics is having doubts about the construction of the Standard Model of quantum mechanics.

2. We also have to get over our modern feminist principles and the visceral reaction to that reference to “all men.” In the 18th century, the differences—or lack of them!—between the sexes and their roles in family and public life were not questioned. “All men” was not read as a distinction from or exclusion of women, but instead the phrase encompassed mankind—what we now are taught to call “humankind”—and the species H. sapiens generally.

3. The Great Chain of Being was a medieval Christian construct, intended to order the universe and everything in it from God Himself (the highest level) down through the ranks of angels, the classes of humans, then animals in the order of their natures and station in the food chain, next the plants, and finally the minerals (the lowest). Without a working knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics, it was one way to bring structure to chaos and to keep the scholar’s mind busy.

4. Of course, indentured servants and chattel slaves were different, although early in the next century, if not in the 18th, people were beginning to question that assumption.

5. With the difference that these holdings can be lost through stupidity, changes in the marketplace, or a bad turn at cards. If you doubt this, ask yourself what has happened with the heirs to the Carnegie, Ford, or Kaiser fortunes. The pattern in this country is for an industrial empire to be built by an innovative entrepreneur, managed by the second generation or converted to a publicly traded corporation under a board and appointed managers, and if not converted, then generally lost in the third generation—unless the resources are put into a foundation, such as those of Carnegie and Ford, and managed for some public good.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

On Respect

Helping hand

It has long been a key demand of people who describe themselves as being in some kind of lesser social position that they must get “respect.” What they mean by this is not exactly clear to me. Do they want recognition by total strangers of their innermost and sometimes hidden talents and skills? Deference to their inner sense of excellence? Special treatment because of their reduced situation? Special treatment because of past injustices? What?

I am not prepared to give anyone unknown to me any kind of special treatment. That is, I reserve intimacy, generosity, understanding, and the willingness to be discomfited and indisposed only to my friends and family. To all others I offer payment in cash—and at arm’s length.

But what I am willing to extend to strangers on the street is a limited form of good will. And this involves a small number of unremarkable acts and gestures.

First, I will show the stranger my own form of courtesy, including the performance of small favors. Courtesy is represented by brief eye contact and a polite smile. A small favor would be holding the door open for someone whose hands are full, or holding it after I pass through so that it does not slam in the face of the person behind me. I will also step to one side on a narrow path to allow another person to pass without hindrance. In traffic, I will let the driver in the other lane make his or her turn, or cross the intersection when it is unclear who arrived at their stop sign first, or who holds the privileged position of being “to the right” (a California specialty). And on the freeway, I will not speed up to get ahead of someone coming up the on-ramp and trying to merge—in fact, I will even move one lane to the left, space permitting, to allow them to enter.1

Second, with that eye contact and smile, I am acknowledging the stranger’s shared humanity. My tacit message is that we have certain things in common: vulnerability to gravity, the laws of physics, a certain unspoken regard for rights of way and fair dealing, a lack of violent intent, and a shared helplessness before the existential ennui of the human condition.2 I am prepared to extend this basic humanity to anything that walks on two legs—or with appropriate prosthetics3—and has human form. Trial, testing, and perhaps being found wanting will come later, if our contact extends beyond mere passage on the street. Until you prove otherwise, you are human and I expect you to be self-aware, properly motivated, gracious in return, and reliably housebroken.

Third, if and when our involvement does become more complex, I will deal with you fairly. This might not be your idea of fairness or how you would act in the same situation. I don’t presume to know your standards and feelings, or how you view the world. This will be what I consider fair and even-handed. But, just because you are not one of my intimate friends, that does not mean I will try to short-change or cheat you, take advantage of you, or treat you as prey, a confidence mark, or an enemy. I have no reason to hate you.

Fourth, with that increased involvement will also come my tacit pledge to tell you the truth. Again, this will not necessarily be your truth or anything you might wish to hear.4 I do not presume to know your mind. This will be the version of reality as I understand it, without fear or favor for what might lurk within your consciousness. I will try to present you with an interpretation of reality that we both can find useful. Just because I don’t know you, that does not mean I will try to trick or deceive you. I have no reason to lie to you.

Fifth and finally, if in that extended encounter we should develop differences of opinion or intention, I will extend to you the benefit of the doubt. I know that my understanding of reality and of the current situation might not be your understanding. I will assume that, when a misunderstanding occurs, it is a case of miscommunication—language being such a slippery thing, and intentions not always clear and obvious—rather than the result of intentional misrepresentation or bad conduct on your part.

This is about as much as I can manage with a stranger—and I expect the rest of the world to be reasonably well brought up and extend the same conditional good will back to me. But, for some people, these underlying, tacit acts and gestures may not be enough.

The person who craves, publicly calls out for, and in every situation demands a visible show of a priori respect generally wants one of two things. Either they want to be treated with the same acceptance and understanding that they believe I extend to my intimate friends and family. Or they want to be accorded the credit, acceptance, and admiration that the public generally gives to popular entertainers, politicians, and sports stars: recognition of past accomplishments—or sometimes simple recognition—that the individual demanding such respect has not yet achieved and may not deserve. They want to be put on a pedestal in which they haven’t yet invested the effort of climbing.

And that falls under the heading of “Secret Desires and Intentions.” As I noted above, I cannot know your mind. And if you make a claim to notoriety that is unsupported, I am within my rights in failing to support it.

The claim of undue or special respect, like so much in our modern discourse, belongs to the dissonance between “your feelings” and “my reality.” That’s a set of transactions that, even among people who are intimately related, can be full of slippery surfaces. Among strangers, it’s a recipe for social disaster.

1. However, courtesy in driving can be overdone. Too much deference, extended too long or in the wrong situation, can get you rear-ended. When directing two tons of steel on four wheels—or a half-ton gross vehicle weight of motorcycle plus rider—at high speeds, you have to take your position, move in a predictable fashion, and uphold your rights.

2. If I am really feeling jovial and acknowledging that ennui, I might give the stranger a wink. But that’s happened maybe twice in this century.

3. However, a person in a motorized wheelchair or exoskeleton with advanced hydraulics, rendering him or her faster, more mobile, or stronger than the average two-legged variety, will get special attention and, from me, a defensive attitude and positioning.

4. However, I am not in the habit of telling people unpleasant things, as a version of truth, ostensibly “for their own good.” That is an uncivil habit that should not be practiced on people in the street, much less on one’s own friends and family members.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Power in Losing

Sprint finale

It has been a commonplace of modern education—and I can only hope it was never this common—that teachers and coaches in the lower grades have abandoned competition for some sort of communal achievement. Teams no longer pick their own players. Matches no longer keep score. Everyone gets a participation trophy. No one gets their feelings hurt. Everyone feels good about themselves.

That sort of toothless play might be appropriate in preschool among the toddler set, or perhaps in kindergarten, so that every child gets a baby-taste of sports while they are still too young to understand the game and its rules. But by the time a child is six or so, and capable of understanding—and also in the final stages of forming his or her initial character1—then the training wheels must come off. Then the child must begin learning what it is to win and, more importantly, what it is to lose, and how to do either one gracefully and in good fellowship.

Young people are supposed to test themselves, try hard things, and occasionally fail. If life is easy, if you are never challenged and never given the opportunity to fail, you only develop half of your character. Sure, it hurts not to be picked for the team at tryouts—or to be picked last when the hopefuls line up, knowing that no one really wants you but the coach says everybody has to play, or the team still has an empty place on the roster. Sure, it hurts when your team does its best and still loses. But these are opportunities to build character and decision more than they are blows to self-esteem.

If you are picked last, you then are forced think about why. Are your skills demonstrably lacking at softball, soccer, or whatever sport you have chosen? Are you unpopular with the other children? This is the time for self-reflection. If you are unpopular, then do you care more about playing than being yourself? Or are your personality, your behavior, your treatment of others in need of improvement? If you are unskilled, then do you care enough about playing to practice on your own and get better? Or is this the time to decide that softball or soccer is not really one of your core interests, and maybe your time would be better spent practicing for football season—or reading a book?

If your team has lost, then you are also forced think about why. Did you make obvious mistakes? Does your team need more practice? Did the other team have special moves or better signaling and coordination? Is there a way to improve your play so that you can win against them next time? It’s an adage in business that to increase your success rate, you need to increase your failure rate. That means to trying more things, trying different things, and learning from unforced errors and non-stupid mistakes. It’s also an adage in the arts—attributed to graphic novel writer Stephen McCranie—that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

A child who has never been appropriately challenged does not learn the skills of introspection and self-evaluation. He or she does not have the opportunity to become really skilled and developed at something difficult. Worse, he or she does not get the chance to make deep and lasting decisions about his or her core strengths and desires.

Such a child grows into a brittle and indecisive adult. Such an adult lacks the resilience of someone who has experienced both success and failure and knows where his or her strengths and weaknesses lie. Such an adult is not practiced in the art of self-examination and self-knowledge. Such an adult will tend to believe, deep down, that life should be fair and even-handed in order for him or her to succeed.

The world is a brutal and savage place. For good reason, the childhood version in the classroom and at play needs to be controlled and monitored so that children have a place to develop without being emotionally and spiritually crushed. But neither should they be so sheltered from reality that they fail to develop at all. Then the crushing will come later, in the real world that does not care for feelings, only results. And the young adult will not be prepared for it.

Such an adult will also lack the ability to exhibit what I call “grace.” He or she will lack the calmness—attained through self-knowledge and confidence in one’s own skills—to face challenges and work through them, come what may. He or she will lack the perspective to win with charity, knowing that the loss might have gone the other way, and to lose with dignity, knowing that the win was within his or her grasp. This quality makes for balanced, stable, and charitable people—the sort who are a pleasure to work alongside and to make your friend.

Success teaches you very little, except—sometimes—how to be a gracious winner and good sport to the people you’ve bested. In failure lies the power to grow and develop. And that’s golden.

1. The Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola is supposed to have said, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Whether this is true or not, we learn a lot in those preschool and kindergarten years.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Without the Option

Dead bird

This is a dark thought. So if you are at all depressed or suicidal—I’m not, just thinking out loud here—please stop reading and come back some other day. If you are strong and happy, read on at your peril.

The Covid-19 situation has us all thinking, marginally if not centrally, about our own mortality—especially if we are in the age group of the Baby Boomers, whom this disease particularly seems to like. Yes, I could be hit by a bus on the street—or run over on my motorcycle by a semi-trailer truck—and be killed today. Yes, I could develop cancer or some other devastating disease and my life turn terminal tomorrow. Yes, I could get the regular old Influenza A HxNx and die of its debilitating symptoms sometime this year or next. But we haven’t been soaked in four months of statistics about any of those causes and how many are dying each day, each week, each month. This Covid-19 doesn’t sink into the background noise of daily life but remains at the forefront. So, for those of us old enough to take notice, the thought of impending death seeps into our brains.

As an atheist, I am without the comforting option of any kind of belief in an eternal afterlife.1 I know—or certainly believe—that when I die, my mind and my various brain functions, such as thought and memory, will cease along with my bodily functions.2 I will not ascend to some other sphere as a discorporate spirit or psychic wave or sentient vibration. I—the part of me that thinks and plans and hopes—will quickly disappear into darkness. I will not sit on a cloud and look down on this world, on my surviving friends and family, or on any part of my reputation that might live after me, and feel anything positive or negative about them. I will not care. I will be as dead as roadkill, or a tree fallen in the forest, both of which eventually return to dust and their component atoms, leaving no discernible trace in the world. And in a hundred or thousand years, my life will have just as much meaning as that tree or animal among whatever passes for my distantly related family members or Western civilization itself. “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”—body and soul, or so I believe.

You might believe this thought would be terrifying. That being nearer to death now than at any time in the past—when, as a younger person, I could cheerfully forget or ignore my mortal nature—would make me dread and fear those last minutes, make me scramble around in this life, frantically trying to put off death and preserve every hour, every minute of breathable viability. Or that it would make me rush out to experience every possible moment of joy or passion or novelty this life still has to offer. But that is not the way.

I am the same person I was up until February of this year: measured, thoughtful, introspective, and curiously unafraid.3 I am unlikely to become panicky or rushed just because the death that was always near has come a little closer—but then, ask me again five minutes before the final exit.

From this vantage point, however, I find death is not so scary. In fact, it will be something of a relief.

For one thing, I will find freedom from responsibility. It seems my life right now—and for all the years before this—has been an endless and widening cycle of responsibilities. These days, I must gather and protect my financial resources, because I am unlikely to earn any more against the future. I must pay my taxes, my condo dues, my ongoing debts—even though I try to pay the latter down every month and am careful about incurring more. I must care for my family members—in these days of coronavirus more in spirit than by my actual presence. I must walk my dog four times a day, following along her trail of smells and sniffs, because we live on the twelfth floor and I cannot just open the backdoor to let her out into a protected yard.4 But these are just my largest responsibilities today, and they are shared with almost everyone in my age group.

In my own particular makeup, I have lesser responsibilities that have been with me since childhood. Most are the residue of a lingering obsessive-compulsive disorder; the rest are the result of my upbringing by careful parents. I keep straightening pictures that go askew, as well as area rugs—which must align with the pattern in the parquet flooring—and the corners of my piles of books and magazines. I keep wiping, cleaning, polishing—caring for!—surfaces and finishes. I keep my clothes neat and clean—although I don’t iron them anymore, thank you. I must keep the car neat enough to entertain guests, as well as gassed up, serviced, and ready to roll. I do the same for the motorcycle, plus wipe dust off the shiny surfaces every time I take it out and clean bug splatters every time I bring it back. I worry over every scratch and stone chip in the paint, and chase every blemish with a dab of clearcoat followed by polishing compound. I wash and wax, where applicable, relentlessly.

For another thing, death will release me from the need to be and stay strong. It was the way I was brought up—as I suppose with most of the children in my generation. We were taught by parents who had gone through the Great Depression and World War II themselves to be resilient, enduring, patient, and uncomplaining. When work would get hard or complicated, and I would have to stay late or come in over the weekend, that was simply the price of being an adult. The inconvenience of a head cold is not stronger than the daily pattern of obligations, nothing about which to stay home and pamper myself—certainly nothing to deprive the dog of her walks and for me to resolve to clean up any messes she might make indoors. When my back goes into spasms—as it does in the cold and damp weather—and bending over is hard, that’s not enough to make me stop filling her water bowl, or leave a piece of lint on the floor, or let a rug remain askew. The pattern of life, as established, is more important than its minor disruptions.

Putting up with pain and inconvenience, suffering through that which must be endured, walking with back straight and unbowed into the whirlwind—this is the price of fulfilling my own self-image and the precepts that my parents followed and taught my generation.

Death, when it comes, will be a release of self from the web of life. Even if that is without the option of an afterlife, it may come as a blessing.

1. See, for example, My Idea of Heaven from July 22, 2012.

2. However, brain function may persist for some seconds or minutes after the body stops working. The story is told of Anne Boleyn, whose decapitated head, when held up for inspection, looked down on her severed body and moved her mouth as if speaking. We also know from extensive medical experience that brain cells can survive and be revived without irreversible damage for three to six minutes after the blood stops flowing. We do not die all at once. But those mere minutes are not a basis for belief in eternity.

3. See also Fear Itself from June 10, 2018.

4. But hey, it’s good exercise for me, too.