As the category says, this is another over the transom. This author has selected a nom-de-plume -- Benjamin King. I have edited it very slightly for obvious typos, but have left what is arguably a bit convoluted grammar alone. -- Ed
There is a sickness that haunts the western world today. Foolishness among the medical establishment. Foolishness in energy and monetary policy. Foolishness everywhere. Heroin, fentanyl, meth. Drug violence in the cities. Naked men twerking in city streets as children look on.
Just this weekend there was a mass shooting in Illinois. The accused is an ostensibly troubled youth. Would-be rapper. There is as I write, on the front page of Fox News, an article about his unloving parents, a mother who others saw as perhaps seeing him as a “nuisance”. I am borne of one of those women. I know the alienation.
Columbine happened my senior year, though I lived nowhere near Columbine, much less Colorado. My reaction was different from most. Though no cheerleader of Klebold and Harris, I certainly sympathized, and I understood the alienation. I was one of those kids who thought he had been bullied; who thought that the popular kids didn’t include me because they didn’t like me. It was more that they simply did not know me, but I would not discover this for many more years. I was off to bigger and better things the following year, off to college at school that would likely guarantee me a lucrative career in financial services, an option that for various reasons I never really pursued. I did wind up in finance but working for companies involved in the provision of goods.
Our country has a preoccupation with mental health, and the way it is administered in this country is awful. The perpetrator at Highland Park was almost certainly depressed. The bullying of children, and for me there is no doubt that he indeed was, weighs on the soul. Today in America, we tell that person, shunned by those around him, that there is something wrong with him. He is angry; Billy Joel’s Angry Young Man wasn’t written for no reason. The rage is there, under the surface.
The standard procedure for depressed youth is to give antidepressants, SSRIs. These drugs, as Karl has mentioned many times before, carry a “Black Box Warning” for suicide in those below a certain age. I do not know if the actual mechanism, but psychiatrists are very careful when prescribing antidepressants to people they suspect may have bipolar disorder, as they can make those people manic. Manic being a state of elated mood which can predispose those with it to dangerous behavior.
There is a third, very dangerous, state in bipolar (the name be damned), called the “mixed state”. This is a state of almost hyper-excited anger. There is probably no more dangerous mental state in all of mankind. I suspect that the antidepressants are triggering this in these mass shooters. They are completely disinhibited from the usual checks on violent behavior. So, they become violent.
Since the 1980s the prevalence of mental illness in general here has increased. I think that this is unlikely to be due solely to big pharma’s marketing budget. There seems to be a bull market in ennui and despair. In a time of (ostensibly) universal affluence and material plenty, our souls have eroded. We are unhappy with our lives, and we go to the doctor for a pill. I am of the opinion that perhaps a hit of weed or a glass of wine and a good book are better cures for the ailments than an antidepressant. Or a downer when you move too fast.
This illness, this sickness, pervading our society is not something that can be solved by those at the top. Our problem is a moral ailment. When I say this, it is not that I think people are smoking too much (I do), drinking too much (check here), or smoking too much weed or what have you. There are those who overdo those things to no benefit, but these are symptoms of a much larger, much more pernicious problem. It is not that it is necessarily wrong for a man to dress up as a woman (something I did my freshman year at the request of a couple of cute coeds down the hall, much to the confusion of the rest of the folks living there).
I was born in 1981. To paraphrase Billy Joel, a Cold War kid in Reagan time. The education system had not yet been completely co-opted by communists, at least not in the east coast backwoods mountain area I grew up in. We had the great enemy in the east, and people were cautious of making people dumber than they actually are. IQs were tested in elementary school, and the bright were selected for special education. I tested well, well enough to require a trip to the school on a weekend to “solve puzzles” so that they could properly tell how well.
There were about twenty of us who were selected for special treatment. The fourth and fifth grades put us in a special class of ourselves. The twenty or so of us came from nearly every background in my Podunk county. Gym class was still there. Math was different; it used a special instructional method that was foreign to me (and after two years of it remained so for me; perhaps it went away with good reason). We read novels written for those of more advanced age, and got lots of library time. There was even bible study (which parents could opt you out of, but few did).
Off to middle school. Sixth and seventh grade were largely a repeat of the fourth and fifth, there was some effort to track students, but it was clearly half-assed. Proper math was taught, mercifully, but by eighth grade I was struggling with algebra.
Note, that for one born in 1981, I would enter sixth grade in roughly 1992. Same school system, but the enemy had changed and no one knew it. Perhaps they knew that the great enemy in the East had fallen, but not that it had many years before insinuated it the institutions of American society. Perhaps, like a child having a father who does not spare the rod, having an enemy who will and can destroy you is good for societies and countries. Perhaps, even if it does not encourage its moral development, it prevents its moral decay.
The fundamental sickness in our society is a moral deficiency. It is present in society at all levels, but the vast majority of the guilt of a morally bankrupt society lies not with the average members; it lies with the leaders who brought it on. Additional guilt belongs to those who stood idly by. Those who could have done something and did nothing. The Constitution guarantees a right to silence. At times, the laws of nature demand an obligation to speak.
Nietzsche, writing around 1882, declared:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
I am certainly no atheist. I believe in the existence of a supreme being. I cannot look around this planet and observe all of its beauty and say, “there was no divine intervention here!” At the same time, I am well aware that I cannot use the bible as a science book, nor can I use it as a history book. It has its flaws.
Genesis tells us that the God created us in his own image. I get that is probably true. But I wonder if we did not also create God? Children need Fathers, and Fathers need children. It strikes me as entirely unlikely that the biblical creation story is “true” in the modern sense of what we think is true. The fact of the matter is that the only objective truth, even today, exists only in mathematics and logic. Even physics is our best guess, albeit extremely precise and effective guesses. The smartphone in your pocket and the rocket that sent us to the moon work on entirely different, and incompatible premises. One would think that there is a single understanding of the ways of the physical world. For all our looking, we have not found it. Perhaps it does not exist. How mysteriously God works!
It is peculiar to me that there is only one letter’s difference between “deprived” and “depraved”. The former regards the lack of material things; the latter the lack of the moral. Our nation has such much deprivation in the past; in the allege increase in material wealth of the last hundred years, our deprivation has fallen, yet our depravation has grown.
What is this depravity? Certainly, mass shootings, naked men dancing in the street among children, and dogfighting are depraved. But there is more to it. It is not only these things, which most would agree should not be done. What about a banker who lends money to someone he ought well know cannot repay him, but is instead wagering that he will be able to sell that note to someone else before he’s on the hook for the default? What about teaching nonsense to children? What about a government making promises it knowingly cannot keep, or issuing bonds that are not issued either for production, infrastructure or national defense?
These are all things that should not be done. There is more to it than this. What we have lost are core values. The more important component of morality is our system of value. More important than what we choose not to do is what we choose to do, and why. When we go through our lives, we must consciously think of these matters. My concern for our society is, who are our heroes? Those venerated in society must be reflective of our values? In twenty-first century America, who are those people? Is it the Kanye’s and the Kardashians? The Hiltons and the Ritchies (I date myself here)? Is it the wealth of Wall Street speculators, who earn their living as the banker I mentioned earlier? What are our shared virtues? There are none, and such that we share anything remotely like them, they are not virtues.
Nietzsche, writing in the seminal Antichrist, suggests that the primary virtue of his time (he was writing in the latter 1800s) had become pity. In that work, he describes pity as a terrible virtue, if not the worst. Pity brings out the worst in those it is meant to help. Christ, in the gospels, though Nietzsche had already written him off to obsolescence, tells us “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.” The concept is not foreign to Christianity.
We can see this dynamic at play in American society. Unhinged immigration from third-world countries. Not because we need them, but because we feel sorry for them. The Social welfare payments that have destroyed the white poor in trailer parks and the black poor in ghettoes. Ayn Rand, in her writing, warned of the dangers of “altruism”. I read her extensively in college, but I never quite got what she meant. Today, having just now googled the meaning of the word, I do. The google definition is: “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”
The issue with altruism, which I had always lauded as virtue, is not the concern for the well-being of others. I have always been concerned for the well-being of others, occasionally selflessly, but never with disinterest. The issue is the disinterest!
During a long period of unemployment, I began attending an Episcopal church in the city near where my parents moved (and I, having lost hope, joined for a time). I would usually go in early, and walk around the city with a cup of coffee prior to the service starting. One day, a couple of homeless black men and approached me and asked for money. It was in that time my policy to categorically refuse to give homeless people money. Part of that was because someone had told me, and part of it was that if ever I were in that situation I know what I would spend the money on. I would be no better off with an additional dollar than an additional million. Easy come, easy go.
They were civil, which surprised me at the first, but eventually I learned that the homeless people one sees on the way to church are a different breed than those you see when you’re leaving the bar at 2:00 am after working up a good reason to go to church in morning. I am a smoker, and they asked me for a cigarette each. Of course. Much like the policy of never giving homeless money (since supplanted), I have a policy of always giving cigarettes to anyone who asks. No children have ever requested this of me, so I cannot say for certain whether I would ever make an exception to it. Truth be told, I am not sure I would make that legally required exception.
Regardless, we had a lovely conversation, and they were sort of fixtures in that area of the city, so I began my Sunday mornings having a few cigarettes and a lovely conversation with the two of them.
On the Sunday, the Monday after which I would start a new job (I had been unemployed for fourteen months), I was walking down the street, and a large black man came running up at me. At first, I was alarmed, but I was quickly able to recognize the person in question as one of the homeless with whom I was on friendly terms.
“Guess what?!? Guest what?!? [my name]! You’re going to be so proud of me!”
“Well,” said with a curiosity and a smile, “I don’t know, [his name], I suppose you’ll have to tell me!”
“I’m starting a job at such-and-such grocery store bagging groceries tomorrow. May I ask you a favor?”
“Could you give me some money so that I can get a room at the [almost] roach motel and have a shower before I start tomorrow?”
This is when the “never give the homeless money” policy changed. I emptied my wallet (I don’t carry much cash), but the motel he was staying at was not all that expensive. I doubt the $40 I gave him would cover it all, but I doubt he had trouble raising the rest. I do regret not going to an ATM and giving him another $40. He had given me enough information (prior to me telling him I was starting a new job the following day) that if I wanted, I would be able to turn up at the workplace and verify the truth. So, I assume he was not scamming me.
It is an experience that haunts me, albeit in a good way, to this day. What was virtuous in these interactions is not the cigarettes. It is not the money I gave him for the motel. I gave them something few others will give those of lower station in life: the time of day. To call to mind the brilliant Pink Floyd song On the Turning Away, I did not turn away. The poor need those in higher places (though mine at this time is not much higher) simply to acknowledge them. Take an interest. Don’t take moral judgement on them (or at least not say “You’re homeless because you are bad.”)
Imagine being a person, a poor white or a poor black, who is in a society where your grandfather had a respectable, if hardscrabble, life. Today, there is no honest work. The factories have gone to China; the mines have closed. The textile mill ain’t coming back, boys. You have borderline honest ways of earning a living. Maybe you work under the table in agriculture, or sell the more benign varieties of drugs. Imagine how horridly the prospect of welfare would appear to an honest man! “You are so useless to the world that you cannot earn a living, so I will pay you to exist.” The corollary of this is that the person cutting the check (though not earning the money) is so useless that he cannot exist without the votes of the people he pays! Talk about depravity. It is not the recipient who is truly depraved, but the benefactor.
In the Christian scriptures, at least within the gospels, the most important words are contained within the “Parable of the Talents”, which has monstrously been changed to “Parable of the Bags of Gold” in the more modern translations. I do not know the history of the new translations (or, more importantly, the background of those who changed the word), but that change has done Christianity and its societies a great disservice.
A “talent” was the Greek word for a bag of gold, so the translation to English is quite literal, though I propose quite wrong. I am unsure of the precise etymology of “talent” as it means in English, but I cannot imagine it does not have anything to do with the parable. The parable recounts the story of three servants of a wealthy man. Each, according to his own ability, was given a number of talents. One was given five, and was told to with it what he could. When the master returned the servant delivered five more. Another was given three. He, again, doubled his talents. The third was given but one, which he buried in the ground, it not even earning interest or he even acknowledging it. The first two were greatly rewarded; the last was punished severely. The moral of this story is that all are given something with which to make their way (and the way of the world better); those who choose not to use it are wicked, and those who do use are reward. It is my sincere belief that the difference in modern English in “talent” and “bag of gold” is blindingly obvious. Perhaps not sincere belief, but sincere hope.