Saturday, October 17, 2009

BORED IN AMERICA

There’s a bunch of hemming and hawing going on about the Boy in the Balloon story: boy trapped in soaring balloon – mustering of emergency services and media – boy not in balloon – boy hiding in attic – family trying to create reality TV script about themselves – family claims misunderstanding.

That sort of thing.

One editorial opines that it’s a case of “false alarm, true emotions”.

Well, now, yes but no. Or: yes but hardly enough.

What are ‘true’ emotions? As opposed, say, to ‘actual’ emotions. It’s one thing to have an emotional response, and you can call that an ‘actual’ emotion. But is that the same thing as a ‘true’ emotion?

I would call a ‘true’ emotion one that corresponds to some significant and genuine element inside the person, perhaps you might even say inside the human being.

Although ‘correspond’ is the big problem nowadays, as it has been for quite a while in these parts. A major element of ‘deconstruction’ theory has been that there is no True (or anything else that deserves a capital letter) ‘out there’. And so the only thing that makes something ‘true’ is the simple fact that a person – any person – believes it to be ‘true’ or ‘real’.

This of course creates all sorts of fun political space where just about anything can be called ‘true’ simply on the word of the person who reports him/herself to believe it or to be experiencing it. And what great political fun it has provided over the past few decades.

But you wind up quickly at a kinda baaaad place where everything that anybody believes or reports themselves to believe is thereby automatically ‘true’ or ‘real’. And to doubt that is to be ‘insensitive’ and even ‘oppressive’.

Which gets you verrrry close to ‘spectral evidence’ – the old Medieval concept especially remembered from its role in witchcraft trials, even over here in the New World, as it was then known. Whatever the witness claims must be accepted as true by the court and the judges even though the judges cannot actually see or experience the ‘evidence’ themselves and thus cannot evaluate its truthfulness. But the ‘witness’ says so, and she (almost always) claims it to be true, and it’s an emergency because the witness is being assaulted, oppressed, and otherwise victimized by the Devil himself (always a he).

It’s a kind of very iffy sort of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ indeed once you’ve started down this road.
So too with having or experiencing emotions. No doubt a person may feel an emotion and is feeling an emotion. But that’s just a starting point.

What is the emotion an expression of? Does it express a valid connection to reality out there beyond the individual? Or is it the manifestation of some dynamic operating within the individual that isn’t actually connected primarily with the thing ‘out there’ that seems to have prompted the emotion?

For that matter, is the emotion that is being experienced indicative of the individual’s healthy connection to life ‘out there’ or is it indicative of something going on inside the individual that should be – as they say – ‘worked on’?

So the editorial, without getting into the deeper questions, opines that about the only things “real” about the whole episode were the emotions of “wonderment and horror” that the viewers felt.

Well, those and the sense of “manipulation”. Without getting into that, the editorial skims over the more significant stratum of this entire episode: that the parents might well have shrewdly surfed the waves kicked up by the national habit – a baaaad one, I would say – of getting all worked up whenever a certain script arises: innocence in danger.

I suppose this is the occupational hazard of media. Recall the tremendous drawing power of that old scenario from the earliest days of film: beautiful girl tied on railroad tracks by evil guy in big black cape and top hat with moustache and train coming – or maybe, beautiful girl in nighties scooped up by monstrous but suave vampire and bitten on milky neck.

There is a fundamental goodness in human beings, an empathy for the sufferings of others of their kind. And that’s a ‘good’ thing. It’s a manifestation of a potential or characteristic that exists deep within every human being.

Although some human beings develop it more than others, because they have had a more nurturing upbringing in the critical early years or because they are simply by character more in touch with what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”. You might say that they are also responding to the pull of God’s grace inviting them into a deeper participation in their own best and most genuine and truly human potentials, but you might also simply say that it would be in the interest of evolution (or Evolution, if you wish) for members of the species to have some concern for one another.

But in either case, such an exercise of one’s better human potentials creates what you might call a genuine and therefore most really ‘true’ emotion – one that reflects the development of the human self upward into its best possibilities.

Assuming that you agree that ‘best’ exists on spectrum from ‘primitive’ emotions to ‘better’ emotions that are tempered by the higher qualities of empathy.

Although you then have to have assumed that empathy is indeed a ‘higher’ quality and potential within humans, and not just a sign of weakness and symptomatic of a failure to ‘develop’.

In the early days of the commercial age that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, many ‘old-fashioned’ folks were leery of ‘business’ and ‘commerce’ because to achieve ‘success’ in business and commerce you almost had to play a little loose with the higher potentials of empathy, along with truthfulness and respect for individuals. The ‘individual’ – worthy of your respect because because s/he too was an individual and also because you had to respect yourself as also having your own human integrity and character that you did not wish to violate – became the ‘customer’, and later the ‘consumer’ and the ‘stockholder’, and those roles were ones that the successful man (or woman) of business and commerce had to ‘use’ – not to put too fine a point on it – in order to ‘get ahead’ themselves.

It frightened a lot of folks back in an earlier age of America.

It was on the minds of the Framers too. Although their first concern was the attitude of the government that they were creating towards its Citizens. Governments tend to ‘use’ their Citizens as much as ‘business’ does, and the Framers were precisely concerned that in this ‘America’ whose government they were constructing, the ‘government’ would respect its Citizens, as individuals and as The People.

Which also meant that The People had to respect itself. Which meant that the individual Citizens had to respect themselves. This was the challenge of ‘civic virtue’ and ‘civic competence’: the individual Citizens must take seriously their own self-respect as Citizens and as Americans, which respect they must then also extend to all other Citizens. And then the Citizens acting together as The People would be capable of exercising their role as both the grounding source of the government’s legitimacy and authority, and as the ultimate judges of the government’s actions.

Now this is a lot to require of a Citizenry. It’s much more than was required of the subjects of a monarchy, who were basically the cattle and the herds ‘owned’ by the monarch, to be dealt with and expended and burdened as the monarch found most convenient.

It has always seemed to me that the rise of ‘reality TV’ (and You-Tube videos and such) indicated a dangerous falling-away from their highest potentials and responsibilities on the part of the American citizenry. Folks seemed ‘bored’ enough with the emptiness or flatness of their lives that they needed to get some stimulation from being spectators to other people’s lives, and especially to those lives in their more sordid and even inconsequential aspects.

And then – business being business – the ‘need’ for such folks to be on such shows with such ‘stories’ meant that some of the stories weren’t quite really – ummmmmmm – ‘real’.

And civic life was hit with a double whammy: folks who should be doing their ‘citizen work’ were instead distracting themselves with a sort of soap-opera-for-real type of thing, and on top of that, they were doing it at second-hand by watching TV.

Oy.

And since the government had started to go down some dark and iffy paths of its own – and really didn’t want too many questions asked – then the government was kinda happy to see the potentially troublesome Citizens with their probing questions mostly distracted from the serious work by ‘shows’ and ‘stories’.

The frightening thing is that so many Citizens can feel so ‘bored’ that they need artificial stimulation to feel they have a life at all. It isn’t enough to keep yourself in the shape, to keep growing into the competence, of being a Citizen?

Religion of the Western variety had – even at the time of the Framers – been an instrumental element in the formation and maintenance of a Citizenry: just as you had a duty to develop your integrity and competence as a Child of God, you also then had a duty to develop your integrity and competence as a Citizen. The one fed and supported the other; indeed, the religious individual almost gave birth – you could say – to the civic individual.

I’ve always felt that religious formation – not the state-supported establishment of a particular religious organization or church – was an essential prerequisite for the type of Citizenship that the American Republic required and – really – relied upon for its ongoing success and existence.

Nor could the government actually provide such religious formation. It was – given the inevitable nature of governments to seek their own unbounded freedom of action and the control of their populations – to have no rival ‘authority’ within their jurisdictions. So you couldn’t expect the government to support what was in effect a rival (God) to its own authority and a ‘judge’ (The People) who would boundary its freedom to do whatever it saw fit.

Somehow now civic competence has slipped badly and thus the government is slipping its bounds.

It too has taken to providing ‘emergencies’ with ‘stories’ of a the good-tied-to-tracks-by-evil variety, and you can see it in the record of the Cold War, the Tonkin Gulf, the Iraq War, and a hundred domestic ‘emergencies’.

And way too many folks are feeling that their lives are meaningless, empty, flat, and boring – when really they simply haven’t embraced – or been taught and helped to realize – “the great task remaining before us”, as Lincoln put it.

And instead are distracted from their true civic calling. And probably from their own calling as Children of God, you might want to add.

Holy frakking cow.

‘Children’ are in danger, as even the editorial points out – and that always concerns folks. As it should.

But ‘in danger’ from what? They are most in danger – as even the editorial gingerly notes but quickly moves beyond – from the far too frequent reality of “an unsupervised child being places in jeopardy”.

‘The children’ are not being taught how to develop their civic and (if you wish) religious competences, so that they can begin to shape meaningful lives around the strenuous challenges and adventures of being an effective Citizen (and, if you wish, Child of God).

And at this point there are far too many chronological adults who have also been similarly deprived of such skills, or even the awareness that such potentials and possibilities exist for them, if they choose to develop themselves.

And with an emptiness and a flatness that they 'feel' they are yet unable to realize what's causing such 'feelings': they aren't about what they should be about.

And so they are looking for 'emotional' stimulation and the sense that they are 'alive' by watching stuff on TV. This is a very real case of "lookin' for luv in all the wrong places", as the song has it. Only it's not just 'luv', it's meaning and purpose and the sense of achievement that comes with embracing the responsibilities that go with that achievement.

This, surely, has to be the most lethally dangerous ‘oppression’ and ‘jeopardy’ threatening ‘the children’ and everybody else in this country today.

And that is the fierce urgency of now.

ADDENDUM

If I recall correctly, sometime right after 9/11, the educational poobahs of at least one State – New Jersey – removed the study of the Founders from the State requirements for History being taught in the schools.

No doubt because they were ‘dead white males’ and ‘oppressive’ and ‘quaint’ and it would be an act of ‘liberation’ to no longer ‘privilege’ them.

While the ‘cherry tree’ variety of history is no doubt worth dropping, the genuine insights and vision of these folks – human beings, all – are indispensable to a grasp of what this country is all about, what its meaning and purpose are, and therefore what the meaning and purpose of Citizenship in the country is all about.

It’s weird, really, that just as the country was gearing up to deal (not well, alas) with the assorted challenges of an explosively troubled world scene, and to assert the value of the American vision, the educational establishment – marching to the beat of an altogether different drum – chose to eliminate the possibility that students would actually learn anything essential to understand and continue the existence of that vision and that way of living and of conducting civic affairs.

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