The Consequence Of No Consequences

If there is any connective tissue between the many scandals and strife that fill our world today, it is this: People sure do hate being judged.

This is, of course, a very human reaction. Trying to bluster one’s way out of difficulty by proclaiming your actions were either innocent or misunderstood—which is, of course, sometimes true—has probably been a facet of human behavior from the dawn of civilization. However, what has now become a conspicuous characteristic of our troubled times is that both a belief in our own blamelessness and an embrace of utter shamelessness are now woven into the fabric of our modern culture.

A component of this is certainly based on our ongoing societal and political efforts to relegate shame to the dustbin of human history. Given that we now pretty much determine for ourselves what is right or wrong because the concept of social norms tends to annoy many, the only way you can really find yourself in hot water these days is to be critical of another person’s behavior. To attempt to cause anyone to feel shame is—ironically enough—considered shameful. This circular bit of ethical entrapment disables any possible discussion of right and wrong because, as is now the dominant doctrine in many quarters, right and wrong are nothing but social constructs meant to oppress us. Thankfully, we seem at least able to agree that child abuse is wrong, although even this issue collides on occasion with our desperation to celebrate non-Western or non-traditional child rearing practices.

Think about the news or commentary that we all read on a regular basis. It is incredible how often the stories today are less about actual events and more about criticisms of the reactions (or lack thereof) by others. As a result, we find ourselves trapped in an echo chamber of denunciations, which allows us to avoid any thoughtful discussion of blame, shame, or culpability. If those who disagree with us are themselves bad—because they either criticized us or failed to properly exalt us—we are able to deflect any shame our actions might bring and be held blameless. This is, unfortunately, a perpetual motion machine of insult and outrage that contributes very little to problem-solving but does much—far too much—to degrade and demean our public discourse.

The net outcome of these deflections of blame and shame is that all discussions dissolve into debates about whose interests are being helped or harmed—our lives reduced to nothing but a series of transactions devoid of values—and no effort is expended examining the basic morality of the actions or intentions of the parties involved.

An example of the confines of our cultural and political norms at the present time is the anger that erupted over the passage of a package of federal laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that now holds websites liable for advertising sexual services online. Opponents of these laws lament that sex workers will find themselves at greater personal risk and suffer professional inconvenience because they can no longer advertise their services easily and cheaply through the internet.

Lost in all the discussion of the law’s impact, which has been immediate and substantial, was perhaps a more fundamental issue few wanted to discuss because it would be considered judgmental or—to use a favorite expression of many—“slut shaming” of a subset of women who are, after all, simply trying to make a living: Does our nation have an obligation to facilitate—and therefore tacitly legitimize—the world’s oldest profession, prostitution?

Is it possible in today’s America to simply say that prostitution is immoral and damaging to all involved? Would we ever expect those in charge of our major news and media outlets in New York and California to criticize or condemn prostitutes and prostitution in an effort to improve public and private morals and behavior? Such questions are considered so old fashioned and retrograde to those who sit at the pinnacles of our elite sources of opinion and commentary as to even be unworthy of note. Imagine if the New York City Police Department and FBI were to launch a crackdown on prostitution—which seems extraordinarily unlikely. Would The New York Times, for example, endorse this effort or resort to running sympathetic profiles of all the valiant women who were being persecuted by the police and prosecutors for simply plying their trade?

Morality is, of course, a tricky business, and over the past several thousand years of civilization we have expended incredible time and energy attempting to distinguish right from wrong. Our ideas of what is moral and what is not have certainly undergone some revisions—but much of the essential framework has remained the same. Ignoring discussions of morality and immorality because they might make some feel uncomfortable or judged for their beliefs or behavior is a foundational problem that afflicts broad swathes of our nation and might explain the persistence and magnitude of at least some of the issues afflicting many communities, families, and individuals.

There are, to be sure, many difficulties we must today address, but most will likely remain unresolved if even the most basic issues of right and wrong are banned from the discussions because they might make some feel excluded—or bad about themselves. Perhaps this needs to change.

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The Waste Land

Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.

In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”

How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….

The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.

The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.

Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.

Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.

Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.

Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.

Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.

If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.

Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.

Are We On The Cusp Of A Revival In Christian Faith?

A few months ago I re-watched several Star Wars and Harry Potter movies, and they set me to thinking about our never ending efforts to redesign religious faith for our secular age.

That the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas are actually parables of Christianity—without the religion being too overly apparent—has been noted by many. Each chronicles a confrontation between forces representing good and evil, each has their own priesthood and prophets offering moral instruction, each has a “fallen angel” of sorts that must be battled, each set of protagonists draws strength from powers beyond our understanding (either “The Force” or old school magic), and each offers a climactic battle where good ultimately triumphs over evil. You could readily substitute a crucifix for a light saber or wooden wand and not lose much in the translation.

One could have a spirited debate regarding whether stories of this sort satisfy some human yearning baked into our DNA or our enthusiastic responses to the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are simply the Pavlovian result of a couple of thousand years of Christian thought and practice, but the outcome is still the same. We exult in their quests and are validated by their triumphs. Toss in some modern marketing expertise and computer-generated special effects, and you have today’s version of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

There is no doubt that we crave order and expect justice—whether in this life or the next. Few are comfortable with a world that seems beyond our control. Although we like to believe we are far more advanced than our tribal ancestors, we still typically trust our fates to wise elders—except now they rattle jargon-filled analyses instead of bean-filled gourds to impress us. We also crave and admire strong leaders. How else to explain why so much of our popular entertainment focuses on royalty, barbarians, criminals, warriors, and dictators?

However, our attraction to brute force and apparent fascination with violence is not necessarily a sign of atavism. It seems to me to instead be a clear sign that we have lost the spiritual counterbalance necessary in our lives; as a result, the darkness within our souls tends to run unchecked and causes us to be attracted to cruelty instead of condemning it.

Across the broad scope of Western civilization, Christianity—with the Ten Commandments as its foundation—has guided humanity to connect with a purpose for living that extends beyond the mere satisfaction of our physical needs. Although there can be no doubt that great wrongs have been committed in the name of religion, the historical ledger balance is still far on the side of Christianity encouraging compassion, justice, hope, and self-sacrifice.

There is, however, little doubt that we have spent a good deal of the 20th and early 21st centuries elevating hatred, venality and egocentrism to an art form, which has damaged both our culture and personal lives. If you look at our society today, it is hard to miss the human wreckage associated with the impoverishment of our spiritual existences.

There is a hole at the center of many people that cannot be filled with video games, hook ups, and opioids—and efforts to find workable alternatives to Christian theology have nibbled at the edges of our public and private discourses for many years. No one has, however, yet provided a satisfactory alternative moral framework for our modern world, one where faith is increasingly suspect or openly derided. If you believe in nothing beyond the physical fact of your existence and your own needs, how is it possible to create community or encourage rectitude using any appeal that does not boil down—after the soaring rhetoric is dissected—to simple selfishness and naked self-interest? This is a question we have not adequately answered, and we are now paying the price for our failure.

I do not know if we have yet reached an inflection point, but I more and more wonder whether Christianity is poised for a comeback across many regions of the world. Modern secular life, which often relies on mass consumption and mass entertainment to create a sense of belonging—while, oddly enough, simultaneously denigrating any notion of national identity—may be reaching its expiration date.

Whether Christianity’s revival would find itself in open warfare with current societal norms that equate moral judgement with hatred or reach a rapprochement with the world as it exists today is one that no one can answer. However, I believe there is a spiritual hunger in America today that begs to be satisfied, and our media and cultural mavens in New York and Los Angeles—preoccupied as always with the latest entertainment and fashion buzz—are perhaps blind to a stark change that could soon be coming. The Bible might, to the surprise of many, turn out to be the next “big thing”—which could be a help to a great many individuals and our nation as a whole.

Identity And Appropriation

Recently a high school student in Utah was subjected to an online hate campaign. What was her sin? She wore a traditional Chinese dress to her Prom—but she was not Chinese.

I live in Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, and we’ve spent the past couple of decades arguing about the decision to expel the presence of the traditional University of Illinois sports mascot, Chief Illiniwek, from all games. The Chief’s sin? Being a ridiculously enthusiastic—but decidedly non-Native American—undergraduate dressed up in buckskins and a feathered headdress who dances at halftime and entertains the crowd.

A few years ago a woman named Rachel Dolezal was roundly vilified for self-identifying as African American—she was at that time serving as the President of the Spokane, Washington office of the NAACP—despite her obviously Caucasian parents. Her additional sin? She was also teaching Africana Studies at a local college—a job from which she was promptly fired.

Particularly because race, gender, and ethnicity are now tied to a range of government and private sector benefits connected with employment, education, housing, and finance, the labels that we use to identify ourselves have become sources of ever greater contention over the past few decades. In addition, as more individuals band together—often through social media campaigns—to battle the injustices caused by the discrimination and misunderstandings that unfortunately still occur in American society, we are daily reminded that relatively small issues can cause huge pain for some. This is a good and helpful process in theory, but the snark, slash, and plain silliness that sometimes accompanies it is not. We should all think before we speak and avoid the beguiling power of the put-down when we respond to the words and actions of others, but this unfortunately seems to be advice that is roundly ignored as so many compete to be the biggest smart aleck in any conversation.

Race, gender, and ethnicity shape both our perceptions and the perceptions others hold of us, but we also simultaneously shape ourselves through them by choosing to embrace or reject different facets of all three. As a result, we are both defined—yet not so easily defined—by these parameters. Look around you. Is every man you meet exactly the same? Every woman? Are all African Americans the same? Are all white people alike? Can you gaze out at a sea of humanity and instantly spot a German? A bi-sexual? A Senegalese?

It seems odd that the more walls we break down the more that we want to erect others to replace them. Our often restrictive concepts of race, gender, and ethnicity also fail to account for fluidity and cross-pollination that creates “feminine” men and “masculine” females, white teens who love hip-hop and black classical musicians, or Japanese baseball stars and American karate champions. Our daily personal interactions and the stupendous reach of international business and mass culture now allow us to enjoy the full range of the richness of life on our vast and amazing planet. Should we tenaciously cling to labels and automatically attack others if they want to redefine themselves by assimilating other influences to create a unique personhood? Is there a difference between respectful “borrowing” and disrespectful “appropriation”—and do we even understand the difference between the two?

I must admit at the outset that my default setting is to be open to influences and ideas from everyone and everywhere, and I do sometimes get frustrated when I realize how often people look at me and see nothing but a tall, white, older male—the Cheese Whiz of humanity, by the reckoning of those who considerate themselves more transgressive. This apparent pale maleness is further compounded when I put on a sport coat and a tie to head off to work; my individuality is erased by a host of societal preconceptions based upon my appearance—which seems to be exactly what we claim to want to avoid. As I once pointed out to a student, there are many of you here wearing artfully torn jeans and sneakers to class and only one of me in a jacket and tie. Who, therefore, is the cool rebel—and who is the craven conformist—in our classroom today?

By the way, I am fully aware that some reader somewhere will smugly assert that my feelings indicate that my “white privilege” has rendered me insensitive to the plight of historically marginalized groups who have previously been erased by the biases of mainstream cultural norms. I get that, but does this excuse other compensatory biases that exist today or provide permission for the kinds of awful personal attacks that seem too often to be mistaken for thoughtful commentary at this troubled time in our history?

I encourage and support those who want to expand their personal boundaries in whatever way they choose—as long as their intentions are pure. Attacking that girl from Utah who fell in love with that Chinese dress seems both churlish and childish. Are we no longer allowed to admire the beauty of cultures other than our own without being subject to attack? I would hate to even consider the monitoring mechanisms that would need to be in place to stop us from enjoying the incredible richness of our planet and its people.

The ongoing—and perhaps never ending—Chief Illiniwek controversy here in Illinois is furthered confounded by a long and depressing history of Hollywood portraying Native American culture in the crudest and rudest manner possible. As someone who grew up watching Westerns on television, I can easily understand the anger generated by the ridiculous halftime hopping that is meant to represent ceremonial dances that often also carry religious overtones. No matter how pure the hearts of those who love and admire “The Chief” and the institutional honor and integrity he symbolizes, one need only to imagine a dancing rabbi in order to better understand how good intentions are just not enough in this particular circumstance. Although there will likely be little to celebrate about some poor freshman sweating in a plush animal costume someday soon, it will still be an improvement.

And here we now come to Rachel Dolezal, who insists that she is a black women in a white body. The alarm bells she sets to ringing are obvious: the long and awful history of white performers mocking African Americans by putting on “blackface” makeup seems a straight line connection for many observers and commentators . Moreover, the historic precedents of light-skinned blacks “passing” for white during the painful American past of segregation laws seems perversely turned about in this circumstance.

Her case also raises many difficult questions regarding the degree to which biology is destiny. Can one “feel” differently from one’s biological inheritance? Here we get into matters of personal intentions and yearnings that are often hard to dispassionately evaluate. Is hers an honest case of simply embracing a culture and race that is not one’s own, or was she somehow attempting to benefit from a hoax that used affirmative action laws to her benefit?

We now grant a bit of latitude to make some personal choices irrespective of biological fact—our gender identity, for example—so this question might be a bit more difficult than it first appears. If gender is a choice, can race be as well—or is this opening one more door than we are yet ready to allow? The boundaries regarding what “choices” are acceptable and which are not is still not at all defined in the minds of many, and the possibilities for disconnect between the biological shell and the self-identification of the person trapped within are still a source of much debate and discussion.

Perhaps questions of identity and appropriation boil down to issues of perception and deception. We perceive the surface and want to believe it tells us something about the person inside—which results in conclusions that are often wrong and sometimes insulting. We are, in addition, sometimes angered—and perhaps even frightened—when people fail to conform to our expectations based on their appearances. To simplify our lives we try to make facile judgements about those around us based on what we can readily see, and these judgements often turn out to be misperceptions driven by the biases drummed into us by our experiences and our mass media culture. Maybe we need to relax and allow for far more variability both within groups and across them—and be a little less riled up when people just don’t conform to what we deem “normal”.

The issues of race, gender, and culture that drive so many to distraction might be a bit easier to manage if we remembered that labels are useful on canned goods—but are much less helpful when it comes to people. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge our fascinating, self-contradictory, and non-standard selves in all our idiosyncratic glory—and give everyone permission to enjoy all the wonderful and interesting individuals living around us.

What We Can Learn From The Bill Cosby Verdict

One would need to be living in a very deep cave to have not heard: Bill Cosby—once America’s favorite television comedian—is now a convicted sex offender. His conviction for aggravated sexual assault is both an affirmation that no one is immune from the force of the law and a depressing reminder of how those with power and influence typically believe they are far above the petty concerns of human decency and respect for others.

To say that everyone of a certain age is confused about finding out that Bill Cosby, Mr. Jell-O Pudding Pops, was in the habit of drugging and assaulting women—many, many women, apparently—is a stupendous understatement. Although he has been mostly out of the public eye in recent years—in part because of the mounting evidence of his criminal behavior—no one who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s could escape his mirthful and beneficent presence. He was America’s dad—no doubt about it.

Reading the comments on the media posts concerning Mr. Cosby’s conviction, one senses a collision of vindication and dismay. Bill Cosby was, as much as we might want to now conveniently forget it, a trailblazer who transformed the portrayal of African-Americans on television by presenting smart, compassionate professionals—super spy, teacher, and doctor—on a series of hit shows. It would be difficult to overestimate his influence in changing the perceptions—and correcting the misperceptions—of so many Americans across many decades. To now discover the twisted and cruel soul behind those sterling performances feels like the worst possible betrayal to his many, many former fans.

Nonetheless, knowledge is much healthier than fantasy, and this conviction will likely be a signal moment in the ongoing national debate—and painful reckoning—regarding the sexual harassment and assault of the past and present. To learn what we now know about Bill Cosby’s behavior is part of a necessary maturation of our society’s attitudes regarding the daily interactions of men and women.

Every moment of every day the sexes commune in ways that are typically mundane and sometimes profound or life-changing—and which must always be respectful of necessary and perfectly reasonable boundaries of privacy and personhood. We are still, of course, not where we need to be—yet. Sadly, both women and men still often shout across a divide where the differences between compliments and insults, flirting and harassment, or honesty and deception still sometimes feels like a common language is lacking. Add in our very human and messy sexual desires, and we have fertile ground for the misunderstandings and misgivings that cause many to cut off communication altogether because they fear being misinterpreted—or worse.

Many women still feel that Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump—a man who once gleefully described how she was “schlonged” by Barack Obama during her 2008 presidential run—is emblematic of the deep river of sexism that still runs through our society, and one would need to be very blind or foolish to fail to notice that women are still many times not accorded the respect that is their due. Indeed, however one might feel about Hillary Clinton’s policy positions or public record, it is sad to remember the many humiliations she has had to endure—ranging from America’s weird obsession with her hairstyles while First Lady to a philandering and thoroughly disingenuous husband—during her long and accomplished career. Many women understood and forgave her faults because they had experienced similar pain in their own lives, and they felt like the voters’ dismissal of her in favor of Donald Trump was a confirmation of all their worst fears regarding their own shaky status in American society.

Now that Hugh Hefner has gone to his eternal rest, perhaps we can now likewise bury his adolescent Playboy philosophy that is perhaps understandable in twelve year old boys but is still unseemly, nonetheless. Keeping firmly in mind that our nation’s past has never been as innocent as we might like to believe and idiocy can never be entirely eliminated, perhaps we can at least resolve to speak courteously, behave responsibly, and listen thoughtfully when around the opposite sex.

The divides between men and women are likely not so insurmountable as we might sometimes believe, and if we can all be a little open and honest regarding our own faults and shortcomings—no one is perfect—that might ease some of the anger that men and women sometimes feel toward one another. I know we can all agree that what Bill Cosby has been convicted of doing is wrong—wrong on every level and in every possible way. That might provide a basis for a dialogue regarding how our pervasive hookup culture and media misogyny has degraded and debased both men and women—and how healing and understanding requires a broad-based commitment to rejecting our worst instincts in favor of our highest aspirations. There is a lot of pain, bitterness, and confusion to be found all around us in both men and women; restoring the health of our relationships is a shared responsibility that we can either shun or embrace.

Breaking down those walls and dialing down the defensiveness will not be easy for many because of past experiences that have made it difficult to trust one another again, but the alternative is loneliness and an empty existence. Therefore, just how hard of a choice is this to make—really?