Volume Twelve, Number Two............March 1988

Doing the Asking

A READER writes to say that he gets into trouble when he sits around with friends talking about ethics. They have the habit of claiming, or, as they seem to suppose, of pointing out, that all ethical values are, of course, relative, and that puts an end to the discussion. As a regular reader of the Great Booklets, our correspondent asks us to suggest some further readings, in texts ancient or modern, that consider the vexing possibility that notions about the good and the bad are only relative.

But he does not need to read the thinking of others. He has made the mistake of imagining that, somehow or other, he ought to answer that popular belief with a pre-emptive strike of his own, and he would like some ammunition from authority. But an answer to such an assertion is just a contrary assertion, a feeble mental twitch out of which no understanding can come. It is just so that our politicians "debate," lambasting each other mightily with straws, and proving, conclusively and once and for all, that one believes A, the other, B. Big deal.

What such assertions call for is not answering, but questioning, and that not to test them for truth, but only to find out what they mean, for until and unless we know what a proposition means, we can hardly test its truth. It will, furthermore, often turn out that he who makes such an assertion has no idea what he means, and that is a test of another sort, and entertaining, too.

Thus we advise our friend. When a man tells you ideas of good and bad are, of course, relative, ask him: What, exactly, do you mean? Do you mean that there is a land where a man would be ashamed and chagrined to have it known that he once told the truth, and that he would hotly defend himself against such a charge? Or do you mean that there is no truth in any case, and that what is thought a lie in one land is thought a truth in another, as dogs are food in one place and pets in another?

Are you saying that the citizens of Mexico, or of some land of which we may never have heard, admire the corruption of public officials as a virtue, and urge their children to emulate it? Or are you saying that there are people who envy the success and the apparent immunity of corrupt officials, and would like to get in on the action? Have you heard of some people whose legends and fairy-tales bestow princesses and kingdoms upon cowards and cheaters, or do you rather mean to say that there are plenty of cowards and cheaters in secure possession of our princesses and kingdoms?

Or can it be something more subtle that you have in mind--perhaps the suspicion that our ideas of goodness, even if they are remarkably consistent in principle in so many times and places, can not possibly be rooted in our nature, but must come entirely from our nurture? It does, after all, seem unlikely that there is a gene for ethics. If that is so, however, do we not discover that it will lead us into questioning how it could possibly have come about that persons beyond counting without any natural ethical propensities at all have ended up forming societies beyond counting in which there is such a remarkable consistency in principle?

Or could you perhaps mean to say that the times change, and we change in them? That there is now more crime than there used to be, or less? That the idea of the moral worth of marriage, for instance, or of such things as a man's "word of honor," is no longer the impulse of behavior that it used to be? And that many deeds that our elders despised, we do not despise, and that much of what they would not tolerate, we have learned to tolerate?

Or are you thinking of the fact that there actually are people, and sometimes in large groups, who do admire such things as cunning and successful aggression, and who feel no contempt for either the inside trader or the arrogant bully, but only envy? In such, do we see a truly relative idea of good and bad, or do we see perversity? Can it be that Epictetus was right in saying that anyone at all, unless depraved, could look about him and discover the good by asking himself, when his own self-interest was not involved, what sorts of deeds he admired in others? Can it be that there is such a thing as depravity, and that there are people who hate the brave and the honest, calling them either fakes or suckers?

Or are you perhaps asserting a fact that might better be called psychological than moral? Are you reasoning from the popular psychology of our time, by whose conclusions we are urged to see self-expression where some might see self-indulgence, and to admire as a virtue the ambition that the naive are prone to call greed? Do you have in mind the dire warnings of the psychologists, that those who bottle up such natural reactions as wrath and resentment and envy, and the urge to kill, will suffer harm that they might easily avoid by letting it all hang out?

Well, that is surely a mighty herd of questions, and we will probably not live long enough to answer them all, but since we can not even know what we are talking about unless we do answer some of them, let us choose one and make a beginning. Any answer to any one of them will lead us to the next questions, and, who knows, somewhere down the road we may find, not answers, to be sure, but some small and surprising revelations, and turns of the path that we hadn't expected. It's going to be a long night, but how better could we spend it than in looking for what we all need more than anything else--nothing less than a way of understanding how to live?

We can promise our frustrated friend that, if he adopts such a line of reasoning, he will a), learn something, and b), teach nothing, and c), find himself not invited to the next meeting of that bull-session. Everybody loves an answer, but nobody likes a smartass.

And we would advise him further, not to go to such bull-sessions, and to excuse himself whenever they erupt, explaining that he has to go and watch a rerun of "Laverne and Shirley." The much-praised Socratic method, in which even schoolteachers now think themselves expert, just doesn't work in ordinary life. It needs a long, long time, and unaccountably patient participants; and it also needs an author, a very good one. We should take the Dialogues of Plato not as models of what we ought to do when confronted by those who believe that they know, but as models of what we should do in our heads when we catch ourselves believing that we know.

But we can still tell our reader what to read. Anything. If only he reads closely enough to distinguish the writers who do the telling from those who do the asking, anything will serve him well.

Wacky Enough for Paleologos

WE often find ourselves speaking of educationists and politicians in the same breath. Someday we must try to explain that at length, but some of the likenesses are both obvious and instructive.

Both packs are feeding at the public trough, and therefore have it in common that they want the public to feel good about them. That's why they do their important work, as distinguished from their mere work, in that good old Affective Domain. And both, while endlessly thrashing around trying to look good, pretend that they know how to do what they are paid to do. So it is that we know exactly what to expect when the educationists promise that more children will learn to esteem themselves and to read, and when the politicians promise that they will do something about the cost of car insurance and simplify the tax code.

Nevertheless, if the Founders had had the foresight to separate not only church and state, which is much to be desired, but also school and state, an even more dangerous connection, we would never have heard of a certain Nicholas A. Paleologos. His name puts one in mind of some venerable sage, full of years and understanding, but he is instead the chairman of the House Education Committee in the state of Massachusetts. He is tickled pink to have gotten through the legislature an appropriation of fifteen million dollars with which to "stimulate innovation and creativity" in the schools. Again.

The measure once passed, Paleologos "explained" his triumph, if that's the right word, to the Boston Globe: "If we were beating the drum, we might have ended up like all the other sexy items--dead." While he would have done better to say, "if we had been beating the drum," he has indeed found a truth. How better to understand the whole of American schooling than as the crypt of creativity, the barrow of bold innovative thrusts, a vast collection of buildings whose offices, halls, classrooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums, libraries, broom closets, and even the bulletin boards, are littered with the putrefying remains of thousands and thousands of dead sexy items?

Who would have dreamed that death had slain so many? Nil, however, desperandum. The fifteen million dollars of Paleologos will fetch fresh fodder. It will be doled out to this school and that in order to encourage the school people to sit around and talk about what they are doing, which they can hardly be expected to do without some fat extra funding, of course. They will thus be "challenged to propose new approaches to education," and then, if their notions have the right stuff, paid more money to "try their proposals out for two or three years." Wow. What a breakthrough.

And what, exactly, is the right stuff? Hear the words of Paleologos: "My problem is that they won't be wacky enough. I want them to be as bold as possible."

Yes. Wacky are the bold.

Well, we can reassure the poor fellow. Their proposals will indubitably be wacky enough. We know, for we have seen them all.

Passing strange. How would we explain to a Martian visitor that we had constituted for ourselves these two great classes of government workers, the first empowered to take from us as much wealth as possible and to bestow large portions of it, again and again, for the same, and so far utterly unaccomplished purpose of nothing less than the education of our children, upon the second, in the hope that this time it will buy us something wacky enough? How would we persuade our Martian guest that such an alliance is not a sinister conspiracy against the life of the mind, but only, as we want to think it, an accidental, and mutually beneficial, combination of one pack of amateurs with another? There are, after all, no politicians who know how to govern others wisely and justly, for there is no one at all who knows that. And, for the same reason, there are no educationists who know how to bring minds out of the darkness of suggestion and influence and into the light of individual thoughtfulness. Those people are just hacking around, trying this, that, and the other, over and over again, guessing and floundering, the governors ungoverned, and the educators uneducated. Some of them actually would like to accomplish the work they have promised. But, having never first set out and clarified the principles of the arts for which they rake their pay, it is little wonder that in their desperation they can do nothing but scrabble in the dirt hoping to unearth some new particulars. So they turn at first to the wacky, and then, for what else is there where there is no principle, to the wackier.

Our Martian might understand, but he would still ask how come we don't just excuse those poor folk from their sad labors, and drive them into the sea.

Philosophy in California

Finally, about three quarters of the way through the meeting--soon after an emissary for absent member Jim Thompson mentioned some of the really bad things he has seen in the coaching of youth sports--somebody asked the obvious. "What do we mean by self-esteem?"

Nobody has a quick answer, so Fogel turned to a representative in the audience from the state task force.

She responded that, after a year of study, the state group "is working on a definition of self-esteem--it's one of our toughest tasks. We're still working on it."

Incredibly, the task force did not seem discouraged by this news. On the contrary, they enthusiastically agreed to meet again on February 13 on a more informal basis, to get to know one another better, and again on February 25, perhaps to get cracking on that elusive definition.

A FEW years ago, we did a piece about a certain Vasconsellos in California, who was pushing for legislation to support the great cause of self-esteem by persuading all Californians, even with billboards, if that's what it took, that they were estimable. It seems to have failed, since there are obviously some Californians who have not yet been convinced. On the other hand, it has succeeded enormously, for it has become a very popular cause indeed, providing employment not only for countless government functionaries, but also "outlets" for all sorts of public-spirited citizens who don't have enough to do keeping themselves in order and can spare time for the great work of keeping others in order.

What you see above is a portion of a report by Larry Slonaker, a columnist who attended a meeting in San Jose of the county Self-Esteem Task Force. (There is, we're sure, a state ditto, and perhaps even a municipal. Maybe every family should have one.)

The task-forcers, all volunteers, were happily letting stuff out of their outlets, when one of them felt a sudden chill--the fell touch of the ghostly hand of John Stuart Mill, no doubt. He actually asked the question, that Mill suggests: Should we really go on talking about a word whose meaning we don't know?

That's mildly encouraging, for it does suggest that the mind, by nature, wants to put itself in order. But the sequel is not encouraging. It demonstrates that the mind's little glimmers can be readily and permanently extinguished. Who springs up to answer? An educrat, of course, one whose continued welfare is dependent upon perpetual confusion, out of which whole years can be spent in rapping about words that no one can understand.

Now, in fact, any ass can "define" self-esteem almost as easily as he can feel it. And almost any ass can see, when he has defined self-esteem, that he still doesn't understand it. There is a difference. And the school lady who "answered" the question probably--let's be kind--just used the wrong word. Surely, if her task force is doing work of any worth at all, it must be trying to understand what it means by self-esteem. In that interesting and useful endeavor, we can easily help her.

We would suggest that she and her pals first pay attention to the word, and try to discover that principle by which we can tell the difference between what is estimable and what is not. And should they conclude, as educationists well may, that nothing is either estimable or inestimable in itself, but only because someone deems it so, then they can abandon the whole project. If esteeming is an act not truly related to its object, then it is of no more worth than a liking for spinach. If they can decide, however, that something is worthy of esteem because of its own qualities, then they will have to face the fact that the bestowal of esteem upon certain Californians would be a very serious error.

And when they have finished with all of that, they can consider whether the bestowal of self-esteem would be more rational and appropriate before the labor of self-knowledge or after it.

We'll send her our ideas, but she will not be glad to hear them. What the educationists want--what all the manipulators of people want--is not an understanding, but exactly the kind of "definition" that has to be put between quotation marks. It is the sort of "defining" that they do in such similar cases as those of "learning disability," and "giftedness," terms that they define in countless ways, depending, of course, on immediate convenience. If you need one sort of a grant, giftedness can be found in skateboard skills, but for another, giftedness can be seen in relating well to self and others.

We liked Slonaker's account of this bizarre meeting, except for one thing. "It's hard," he said, to say anything bad about these "serious people" who "have the heart and energy to work for the community's benefit." It's not hard.

Such people are not serious. If they were serious people they would require of themselves that they understand what they are talking about before putting themselves forth to dabble in the lives of others. And "heart" is cheap, and not to be trusted. It is just another sentiment, like self-esteem, which seems admirable only when left unexamined. The volunteers of San Jose are educationism's useful idiots, serving an ideology they don't understand. And for that, they are getting paid exactly what they all deserve--oodles of self-esteem.

And furthermore...

IN New Jersey, a politician has introduced a bill that would make it illegal for our fortune-tellers to "pretend to talk with the dead," so phrased, presumably, to ensure the protection of the laws to those legitimate fortune-tellers who do talk with the dead. It would be the purpose of this legislation, he says, "to protect the gullible."

That's a good job--the protection of the gullible. Steady work. The gullible in New Jersey are in only one very uncommon sense of the phrase an endangered species. They are far indeed from extinction, but they are, of course, in daily danger of being defrauded, conned, disappointed, persuaded, cajoled, flattered, converted, convinced, and in every possible way deceived.

Now, if you were nothing more than rational, you would think it a good idea for the politicians of New Jersey to make some provision also for the prevention of the gullible. But we do have to be practical, you know. If the gullible were to disappear, how would our politicians demonstrate that they are full of love and compassion, and have nothing in mind at all except the great Common Good? How would they make it clear that, without their sage counsel, we would all be sticking our hands into whirling lawn-mowers and drinking cleaning fluid, instead of investing, like wise and prudent citizens, in the state's lottery, and trotting dutifully to the polls to elect the protectors of the gullible of our choice? So we have arranged, in New Jersey, not for the prevention of the gullible, but for the production of the gullible.

It's not all that easy. Skepticism lies in wait for even the clod, and the silliest twit you know may some day, for a moment, suspect that he might be longing for something that he doesn't need, or notice that what he believes just happens to remarkably profitable to the people who told him to believe it. That sort of thing must be prevented, and for that sort of twit, it may be too late.

So we shoot the fish in the barrel, the little kids, who are required by the laws made by the protectors of the gullible to spend their childhood in the barrel so that the protectors of the gullible will always have someone to protect. The protectors also provide the barrel.


Every morning, the Associate Circulation Manager drives Central Control down to the post office. She sits there dearly hoping that you have not moved. She does not entirely approve of moving. And she has dark visions when your Grammarian comes back marked, Address Unknown, Not Even a Trace of You. She hopes that if you must move, a), that someone else is paying, and b), that you will send her your new address.

The Underground

R. Mitchell, Assistant Circulation Manager
Post Office Box 203
Glassboro, New Jersey 08028

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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

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