Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The marvellous is always Beautiful . . .

The British press reports that the original Surrealist Manifesto, written in 1924 by Andre Breton, sold at auction for more than $5 million.

The Surrealist Manifesto praised automatic writing, it urged us to see in dreams a much more marvelous reality than the reality of everyday life, which is constrained by rational thought, by logic.

While this idea may seem wrongheaded and utterly irrational at first, it is no more than a plea for the value and power of imagination. “The marvelous is always beautiful; everything marvelous is beautiful. Nothing but the marvelous is beautiful." These two sentences from the manifesto provide a key to its intent: it is a rebellion against the routine daily life, against a thinking that is always counting up profit and loss, seeking advantage, getting ahead, and being "realistic." Against that the Surrealist Manifesto praises the unexpected, the incongruous, the unplanned and spontaneous. A more marvelous reality is revealed in dreams than in team meetings in the boardroom.

But now the crabbed imagination of the accountant, the stark realism of the high priced auction room has won. The document praising the unexpected, the uncalculated, has become a commodity. $5 million paid not for the content of the document, not for the thoughts of Andre Breton and his fellow Surrealists, but for a piece of paper that is famous and unique because it is the only copy existing. What was once an effort challenging our sense of reality, is now a piece of paper carefully preserved in the museum to be gawked at by the public.

Imagine the Constitution and Bill of Rights completely ignored; no one caring any longer about what they say, both documents now commodities traded in auctions of rare documents. The world would surely be impoverished by such a scanario.

So is the world impoverished when the Surrealist Manifesto no longer counts as an important intelle4ctual and moral challenge but only as a very expensive document, when its ideas are no longer hotly debated but only its market price.

One must be completely blind not to see here one more skirmish in the age old war over the nature of human existence. On the one side is the reality of mundane life -- the reality of profit and loss, going to work, paying your bills, making sure your kids don’t forget to take their lunch to school. Nothing else matters. Dreams, in that world, must be validated by proving their practical value. The novel idea that spawns an invention, a new industry and tremendous profits is valid. The dreamers who lose their shirt are mere dreamers and deserve ridicule. The most common advice in that world is to be "realistic" to have small aims, to put one foot in front of the other -- and in the end to wonder whether it is all worth while.

Arrayed against that so-called “realism” are the defenders of the dreams. Going to your day job, remembering to buy milk and diapers,--this slightly dreary routine of everyday life is only redeemed by dreams, by the marvelous, by hope, by the unexpected, by the blinding beauty of what cannot be counted, planned, laid out rationally and sold for profit. This is the world of poets, of artists, of political radicals who think about a different world, as well as of some conservatives who see the present as the betrayal of a mythical past. Here we do not constantly ask: what is it good for? but try to open our souls to a reality that is at times truly miraculous. In this world there are, at least, moments where we are not even tempted to ask whether it is all worthwhile, because the experience of the marvelous, of hopes and dreams is blindingly precious.

Look around your life to find the places where meaning emerges from the unexpected, where dreams comfort and hope brings you joy, and make sure that the pressure all around you to be sensible and realistic, to plan, to stay firmly anchored in of the the predictable will not make your life routine and pointless.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone

A few weeks ago the Supreme Court decided that Kentucky’s method of executing prisoners on death row was not cruel and unusual punishment. The court had an opportunity to reduce the number of executions in the US, at least for a while, but declined to do so. The court unambiguously came out supporting the death penalty.

I do not believe this decision to be justified. Experience shows again and again that people, even on death row, undergo momentous changes. They literally get religion; they regret the murders or other crimes they committed. In 1998 the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer who during long years on death row, had not only become quite religious but had, by all accounts, turned her life around and become a saintly person. Nor is this an isolated case.

Here is the reason against executing criminals: human beings can change. Human beings do change. They experience remarkable transformations. In religious language they undergo conversions. Executing a person takes away their possibility of becoming a good person. No human being should cut off that possibility for another.

"But a murderer cut short a life in just that way." That is the usual argument in favor of the death penalty. And often, to be sure, the life thus cut off was a pleasing and admirable one, a life not needing a conversion to be a good human life.

Most people who approve of the death penalty draw a very sharp line between themselves who "would never do anything like that” and people who do commit violent crimes. Murderers, they think, are terribly bad people -- bad to the core -- and we are different because we are good. We may not be perfect but we are good. Our right to life is inviolable. They have lost theirs.

But experience shows, as in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, that violent criminals often are not bad to the core. People change. Karla Faye Tucker by all accounts ended up a better person than many of us. Was she not as entitled to life, albeit in prison, as any of us?

People change. But people do not only change from bad to good; they also change from good to bad. No one can be certain of their own permanent goodness. The terrible lessons of the Holocaust, of the tribal and religious violence in India during the partition, of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, of genocide in Rwanda are that most of the horrible crimes are committed by people just like you and I. In special situations, perfectly ordinary people who themselves considered themselves intrinsically good and incapable of violence, end up committing brutal crimes. A murderer hides in everyone of us.

Germans, in large numbers, or Indians, or Bosnians, or Serbs, or Rwandans are no different from Americans. The number of sociopaths in those populations is no greater than it is with us. The brutalities of various regimes were committed by people who led ordinary lives until then, and who, afterwards, returned to ordinary lives.

But, you say, this murderer lived in the same society as we do. Here, at least, we stay away from crime but the murderer does not.

Can you see into the murderer's heart? How many newspaper stories have you read about husbands who, out of the blue, murdered their wives while the neighbors all protest what a pleasant and calm neighbor he was. No one expected that, they say. Suddenly he breaks under a burden no one even suspected.

I am not persuaded of the intrinsic evil of the murderers that makes them a different kind of human being from me. I am therefore not persuaded that although my right to life is inviolable, theirs is not. To the extent that all of us carry murder in our heart and all of us may see the light and become saintly, we have the same rights to life.

It takes bold persons to say that they will never, ever commit acts of brutality, that they are fundamentally different from the murderers who therefore forfeit their right to life while ours remains intact. I lack that boldness.

Friday, May 9, 2008

How high IS our standard of living?

A young man I know plays in a band. He is a dedicated and promising musician. He went off to college planning to prepare himself for a career as a high school music teacher. But every time he opened the paper, he saw another story about school systems cutting their arts and music programs because they did not have enough money. He was forced to give up that plan.
His story made me think about the work life of many other Americans. Ours is a competitive system that most people consider good because it produces ever more new and cheaper goods. But goods become cheaper when they are cheaper to produce. Production costs are often lowered by substituting machines for human beings. Jobs that, at one time, required skilled workers are now done by intricate machines. Workers have become machine minders, feeding raw materials to the machine. Any child could do that. It takes little skill to do that work and it is very boring.
Richard Sennett, a sociologist, describes how baking bread used to be highly skilled work. Now the loaves all ready to be baked are trucked to the store from a central kitchen. The workers in the local bakery put the frozen loaves into a very sophisticated, computerized oven, push some buttons and wait until the machine is done and signals them to take the bread out. All they do is mind the machine. When the machine breaks, they are forbidden to try and fix it. Instead they must call for the technician who repairs the oven. The people in the bakery have no skills; they wait on the machine; in case of malfunction they wait on the technician. Mechanization has produced more and cheaper goods but it has also ruined many a good job and replaced it with a very tedious one. The price of more consumption goods is often the work life of those who produce them.
Reflecting about this, we must ask what constitutes a “high standard of living.” In terms of economic statistics, we are doing very well. We have more things, newer things, and more money than most other people in the world. But does money buy happiness?
Robert Lane, a sociologist at Yale University, has documented in considerable detail that the explosion of goods and money in the last decades in the US has not increased happiness. Most people, his research shows, lead good lives to the extent that they have lively and extensive relations to family, friends and neighbors and to the extent that their jobs are challenging and allow them to take some pride in it. But people are becoming more and more isolated; relations to family and friends are more distant and are loosing intimacy. Work no longer nourishes self-esteem because,. more and more, it is done “just for the money.”
If our children cannot get a decent education unless we send them to private school; if the good job you had migrated to Asia and the job you have now pays less and is less desirable; if the jobs that were once available demanded a good deal of skill and the jobs that exist now are routine and numbingly repetitive, are we living a good life? Will the HD television set, the cell-phone that plays movies and gives you access to the internet and to e-mail really compensate for being bored at work and being unable to get a decent education for your children?
We call ourselves “the richest nation in the world” but cannot afford music classes in schools.
We need to stop talking about how high our standard of living is and ask ourselves: what really matters, whether electronic gadgets are more important or satisfaction at work, a better image on the tv or a good education for children.
Do we really have such a high standard of living if we loose happiness with every year?

Monday, May 5, 2008

What do we owe to fellow citizens?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual awards ceremony of a local charitable organization. The room was filled with well-meaning persons who had spent a significant amount of time and energy during the last year volunteering, most in order to raise funds for pre-school enrichment programs for poor children. People were pleased with themselves; they had done good works and it was time to congratulate themselves for helping persons, especially young children, who through no fault of their own were starting life without the opportunities available to the children of the good people in the hall.
There were a lot of speeches and repeatedly speakers mentioned how their efforts "helped" people and especially children who were poor. The talk about "helping" really bothered me.
But why should it? After all this organization and its dedicated members did help people who were having a hard time and it did help to give their children a better start in life. Why be critical here?
Think of parents who have children. They take care of them, feed them, put clothes on them, see that they go to school with a good lunch and take them to Little League. They do that even when they themselves are worn out from work and child care and taking care of the house and the car. But are they "helping" their children? No. They are providing what the children are owed. As parents we take on obligations to our children. Much of the time it is a pleasure to provide what our children are entitled to. But when it is not, when we would like some time off from raising them, we continue because we have taken on an obligation to our children by bringing them into the world.
Children--all children--are entitled to a good childhood and a good upbringing. That's why parents are not "helping" their children but providing what they deserve. Helping is doing something extra, something that is not owed, something one does from the goodness of one's heart. Parents help their children only in extraordinary situations when they do much more than the children are owed. Once children are grown and, on the whole, are supporting themselves, many parents chip in some money here and there. Now they are helping. Adult children are on their own and rightly so. Parents who help them out here and there, if they can, are doing something extra, something that is not owed.
But what about other people's children? When I work along with others to see to it that those children whose parents are barely able to pay the rent and buy food, have a good start in life, am I helping? Or am I contributing to providing what these children are owed? Put that question differently: do we owe our own children a good start in life but not anyone else's, or do we as members of this society have some obligation to do what we can that all children start their life as well as humanly possible?
If you believe that your only obligations are to children that you bring into this world, then what you do for the children of others families is indeed "helping." It is doing something extra.
I tend to think that all of us as citizens of this republic owe something to other citizens: if we can we must see to it that everyone has a chance at a good life. Everyone is entitled to that. Some people, those who earn very little, have a hard time providing even elementary resources to their children. So the rest of us must chip in. We owe that.
Why do I believe that? If I go into a chain coffee shop, my coffee and donut are cheap, in part, because the folks behind the counter earn very little. The same is true if I do not pay a lot for having my oil changed, or when buying at Walmart.
As consumers all of us profit from the low earnings of the people who wait on us and help us in a variety of stores, service stations, restaurants. If these people then have trouble providing for their children as they would like, are we not under some obligation to make provisions for them?