Mobs, Part 6 (final)

The mob is a parody of the Kingdom of Heaven

Both Peter and Paul were caught up in the spirit of mobs early in their learning, but they learned through worship to discern the true spirit.

This false salvation is a satanic parody of the Atonement. In the Kingdom of Heaven, peace and reconciliation are reached through individual processes of repentance and forgiveness which move through all levels of the social order, healing and untangling. Because we can be forgiven, we have hope, and as we untangle the knots in our personal relationships, society gets better. The message Jesus brings, that he wants us to see, was described by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: It is a mistake to think we can destroy evil by destroying enemies. “The battleground between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” said Solzhenitsyn, and it is only in our own hearts that we can successfully overcome evil.

Jesus had warned his followers that they would all, in varying degrees, “be scandalized because of me.” They would all, like Peter, side in some degree with the mob. They would all be influenced by its passion and would participate somewhat in the scorn for Jesus. When faced by storms of accusation and ridicule, his followers would find themselves doubting or cowering. But he also knows that they will arrive at a moment of shame when they understand that they abandoned him and let the world belong to his enemies.

When he says of his tormentors, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he means this literally. They do not fathom what is happening around and within them. Those who participate in the false accusation, the condemnation and the destruction of the innocent while caught up in a violent contagion are not fully aware of their complicity. They do not know what is happening. It is, in fact, their ignorance of what is happening that drives the mechanism, which depends on them believing they are acting out of righteousness. They truly believe in the mob’s parody of justice, mistaking it for the real thing.

It’s a mistake to see those who participated in violent contagions as guilty while assuring ourselves that we would have acted differently. Jesus reproves the Pharisees for just such thinking. They lavished attention on the tombs of the prophets by way of assuring themselves that they are righteous and that they would not have joined the mobs, their fathers, who murdered the prophets: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” As long as we only blame others for the trouble, we will not see what Jesus wanted us to see. It is the world, including you and me, that stones the prophets and crucifies the Savior. Which of us has not, at some time, attributed our bad behavior to the bad behavior of others. “It wasn’t my fault.” He did something that forced me to do what I did.

The Crucifixion is typical; it’s a type of violence that has occurred countless times. When we find the same pattern recurring in different cultures, we are probably seeing an illustration of human nature: people find living with each other becoming increasingly tense and unbearable because of their real shortcomings, and soon it seems that trouble is everywhere, escalating into disputes and contests. People pass on snippets of gossip. People ascribe malicious intent to events they half-remember. Rumors and accusations and half-truths are repeated, with people adding vivid details or changing bits of the story to increase the drama. Passions build. Then a common enemy appears. People forget their differences and work together to avert the danger. After they have successfully overcome the enemy, they find the tension has gone. They again feel an affinity with their neighbors. Things settle down and normal life returns.

When we understand that the enemy was actually innocent (and this is the case far more often than we do realize), we call him or her a scapegoat. The scapegoat does provide real, if temporary, relief which allows human society to continue, but that continuance is based on a lie. Society renews itself and goes on but it is based on the satanic principles of false accusations and injustice. Jesus’ death fits this pattern so well it is almost mundane. But in his case, death doesn’t resolve the conflict and end the story. People do not move on, turning the past into comforting stories about coming together to overcome serious trouble. Instead, the victim returns from death, still meek, still gentle, still loving and still completely innocent.

Even his apostles didn’t understand his teaching until after the Resurrection. They were caught off guard by it, stunned. Thomas wouldn’t believe until he touched the actual wounds in Christ’s hands and side. It is in the forty days after the Resurrection that Christianity actually begins, because the core teaching of Christianity is the Resurrection. Christ told his followers what was to happen before it reached its culmination in his death, and yet they could not hear him.

He chastised them, pointing out that they can’t understand him because their father, the one who shaped their development and their understanding, was Satan. “If God were your Father, ye would love me,” he said, “for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.” (John 8:42-45).

They had to experience the reality that his words pointed toward. Peter’s story was recorded—his realization that he himself turned away from his innocent friend because it was safer than resisting the hateful crowd. When the events reach their culmination, some people will realize that something shameful happened. When the passion passes, some will realize that amid the camaraderie there was a real mess. At that point, people feel a strong urge to “move on” and to “let the healing begin.” Places in the American South where violent lynchings occurred were somewhat inoculated from future lynchings. Usually, once was enough. People who had experienced the contagion tended to avoid it in the future. People did move on, though, and the mythical versions of the event were rarely challenged.

We all know the process. Did you hear the rumors about that person who has been destroyed, maybe by losing his position and standing? Are you aware of all the accusations about him circling through the crowd? Have you maybe repeated a tidbit or two yourself, by way of excusing your inaction or making yourself acceptable to the others? Does justice seem too unwieldy a way to think about the immediate problem which could best be handled by moving on? Isn’t moving on the best we can do? Or at least, good enough? We have other things to think about.

Jesus disrupts the familiar pattern. Before people can “move on,” he returns. He is still innocent, and he has removed from evil its ultimate power, which was always murder. The opponents of evil vanish into silence, but Jesus robs death of its power. He overcomes death and returns, still proclaiming his innocence he stands before us bearing undeserved wounds—wounds received in the house of his friends, wounds caused by a world that traffics in accusations and rumors and malice and lies.

Jesus taught us to see the cycle of violence from the point of view of the victim. As his teaching has spread bit by bit through the world, we have acquired a rich literature and history that reinterprets the violent episodes in our history from the victim’s point of view. Industries have arisen that are devoted to defending victims or reinterpreting history, looking past the victor’s story.  If the old hero was the warrior who destroyed the dangerous outsider, the new hero is more like Atticus Finch, whose defends an innocent who is accused by a mob of neighbors who have come to commit murder in the name of justice.

In the centuries since Jesus, we have learned to see the world through the eyes of victims. The victim has been elevated from lowly outcast to one deserving of reverence. And yet we have not arrived at justice. Ironically, it is the victims themselves, or those who pretend to be victims, that often now assume the role of accuser. The scapegoating mechanism no longer works, in part because we can no longer get to unanimity. Victims of false accusations are no longer silent, and all the mobs are skeptical of all the other mobs. Even as terrorists wreak violent death on masses of innocent civilians we are urged to stand down from violent reprisals, urged to see that the offenders are themselves victims of earlier injustice. We are urged to understand killers in our inner cities, who do what they do only out of desperation, being themselves victims of brutal poverty and racial injustice. All the evildoers are also victims, and all the victims are also accusers. We have no way of restoring order.

We have also seen escalations of mob principles in the highest places of our political institutions. In our last presidential election, the most reputable media institutions openly trafficked in lies provided by big, well-funded smear factories. They created false accusations, planted phony stories, put forward false witnesses and created a tremendous buzz with news sites repeating information from blogs quoting unnamed sources in an escalating whirl of rumor and fabrication repeated so often it gave the illusion of being real. Though most people suspect much of the news is dishonest, they do reliably have the impressions and feelings that the smear merchants want them to have. And in the comments sections on thousands of websites angry people repeat rumors and slogans they have heard, often in vulgar and violent terms. A cycle of escalating hatred is well underway, and we are left with no obvious way to stop it. As people are wrongly accused, they react in righteous anger, accusing their accusers, and more and more of us are organized into rival gangs full of righteous fury, committed to destroying evil by destroying each other.

Escaping the mob

The mob is a caricature of the true church, promising unity and promising to overcome the evil which is always “out there.”

“Becoming one” in the gospel is quite different. Members of the church are to become one—as a husband and wife are to be one, and as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in spirit and purpose. The church’s unity grows as each person acquires his or her share of the vision of God’s will, and as those who trespass and are trespassed restore what was lost to each other through forgiveness. Worship, in its pure form, places the individual alone and before God, pondering his or her own behavior with reference to the standard taught by Jesus. Unity comes not by subordinating one’s conscience to the will of the crowd, but by subordinating one’s will, freely and in full awareness, to the will of God. The humble silence of worship is the polar opposite of mob passion. The humble labor of a scholar trying to discern the truth in difficult studies is akin to it.

The humble silence of worship is the polar opposite of mob passion. The humble labor of a scholar trying to discern the truth amid the wheels within wheels of the human condition is akin to worship.

The single-mindedness of a mob is a shared passion to violently destroy evil. The mob is held together by hysterical hatred, which is a corrupted form of love. The mob is impatient, with no time to hear witnesses or to sift evidence. Each member of a mob is alone, seeking escape from fear by being absorbed into the transcendent power of a moving mass. Peace is sought by yielding to the certainty of the mob, by truly believing in the evil of the victim. Some, like Peter, merely go along, suppressing individual conscience out of fear of being singled out, allowing individual conscience to bow to the mood of the mob.

The Apostle Paul once held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and knew well what it meant to be swept up by a self-righteous mob. He later counseled us that we should “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing” of our minds. (Rom 12:2). Stephen had been teaching with great power, and the authorities whose power he threatened induced men to lie about him, to say he was blaspheming against Moses and against the Law and against the temple. Many authorities in  America and other places now use similar tactics to keep people stirred up against those who tell the truth. Their power rests the mechanism of the mob’s groupthink. Persons can think, but mobs do not—they thrive on passion. The contentions and rivalries that are tearing apart civil society are contrived by dark powers in high places that operate through false accusation and disinformation campaigns. They gin up false transcendence through staged protests and riots. It can be seductive. We may hear enticing bits of gossip that we are tempted to repeat. We may hear of exciting protests we are tempted to join.

If we worship regularly and pray constantly, asking real questions and studying to find real answers, living in tune with the spirit of truth and justice and love, we will quickly notice when a contrary spirit surrounds us.

Mobs, Part 5

It is the mob that brings about the Crucifixion

It was the mob that demanded Jesus’ death. Pilate, the Roman official, tried to keep order by giving them what they cried for: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

The Crucifixion brought the pattern of mob violence into focus. The last stage of the cycle of mob violence occurs when the transcendent mob becomes a unified force, converging on a single victim condemned by all. They achieve unanimity, all feeling the same passion and the same purpose. It’s a caricature of the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus spoke.

A community that had been troubled by widespread unrest and contention suddenly feels unity. Unhappy people festering with anger, hurt, and distrust of those around them are especially vulnerable to the seduction of mobs. They’ve suffered a thousand slights: the merchants whose scales seem off, the rival for a lover who spreads untrue rumors, the friend who fails to reciprocate a kindness, the fickleness of fortune that raises some fool to a better position than one had been able to reach through hard work and diligence, the rude colleague who mocks one’s appearance or intelligence. Most societies have miserable people, habitually blaming their problems on others, who are caught in constant tangles of contention. At some point, it seems that society cannot survive the internal bickering. It is at such moments people are most vulnerable to the attraction of mobs.

A mob can form quickly in the right situation. The crowd was favorable to Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, but accusations and rumors and gossip spread like fire. Pilate examined Jesus and found no guilt in him, but when he offered to release him and the crowd chose instead the well-known criminal Barabbas he saw that only the death of Jesus would calm them. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the mob screamed. Pilate agreed to allow Jesus to be executed because he feared a riot, which would harm his career because as a Roman prefect he was expected to keep order.

Not all riots reach the final stage of mob violence—the unanimous focus on a single victim. Riots may include people who are present for different reasons and it’s not the case that all have lost their individual judgment, just as it’s not the case that all who attend church actually enter the spirit of worship there. Some, particularly leaders, will be calculating opportunities for personal gain, seeing others as useful tools. Some, like Peter, will be unwilling but stymied by fear. And it’s true that riots have, historically, more often sought the destruction of property than the taking of lives.

But in the perfected (completed) mob, all are transformed by their unanimity about a single desire for the death of an enemy. Such mobs have occurred much less often than crowds angry and rioting about political issues that do not reach the point of unanimity. Nevertheless, it’s useful to see the unified mob as the extreme pole of a continuum, as the end state toward which we are moving when we engage in so mundane and routine a pastime as passing on destructive gossip that we do not know to be true or that may be true but that will cause needless harm. At such moments, we are aligning ourselves towards a reality governed by lies and hatred, of which the angry mob is the endgame. It’s a satanic possibility that’s always present in human society.

A mob can form when people’s resentment and anger and envy, their feeling afflicted by others, are joined together with kindred feelings of others into a call for justice. They may forget what caused their bad feelings, and, as for the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons in Huckleberry Finn, the bad feelings become their reality. They fight because fighting is what they do—it’s become their identity. We’ve all seen a two-year old caught in his own tantrum, no longer aware of what caused it.

When enraged people feel something larger than themselves on the move to set the world right, it feels right. They welcome their liberation from private grief and angst. They join the righteousness of the group, intent on destroying evil. It feels like redemption. It’s exhilarating. It wakes them up.

Mobs characteristically don’t think of themselves as evil. Quite the contrary, they feel they have done something righteous–working together to destroy evil.

Examine the crowds in old photographs of lynchings in America in the first half of the twentieth century. Some are dressed in their Sunday best as if they were at church. The mangled and bloody corpse of the (usually innocent) victim hangs from a tree behind them as they revel in a sense of righteousness, having come together to act in unity to destroy evil and restore goodness.

Such was the power that Jesus faced, fully aware of what was happening. Indeed, what was happening was just what he intended to happen. He did not cause it, but it occurs with his forbearance. He wants people to see and understand. “Those responsible for the Passion are the human participants themselves,” said Girard, “incapable of resisting the violent contagion that affects them all when a mimetic snowballing comes within their range.”

This is the scapegoating pattern. It has persisted through human history because it has so often been effective: it relieves the internal tensions in the community and allows social life to go on. It works by transforming the “war of all against all” into a “war of all against one.” After the lynching, peace of a sort is restored. The people’s hostility and anger were focused on the innocent victim, and together they were able to work together to overcome evil, they feel. After the destruction of the victim the crowd’s anger dissolves and order is restored, for a time. The scapegoating mechanism allows society to return to somewhat normal functioning.

Mobs, Part 4

The murder of John the Baptist

Even the great apostle Peter finds himself weak in the face of an aroused mob.

The stoning of prophets by angry mobs is a recurring type in the Hebrew scripture. Being a messenger from God charged with calling on people to stop their riotous revelry is a risky assignment. Prophets can be quite judgmental. The slain prophet who came to the people immediately before Jesus was John the Baptist. The story of his death conforms perfectly to the pattern we see in the death of Jesus.

Though both are killed by those who have the authority to issue death decrees, in both cases a mob has formed which creates social pressure on the official. The authorities, Pilate in the case of John and Herod in the case of Jesus, say that they themselves have no desire to kill the victim but that they are acting in accord with the desires of the people. For John, the triggering incident had been his speaking directly to Herodias, Herod’s wife, about the illegality of their marriage (she was the wife of Herod’s brother). Herodias stirred up the crowd at a palace banquet by having her daughter, Salome, perform a seductive dance. That dance fired Herod’s desire to please her and appears to have addled his thinking somewhat. He promised her that for her dance he will give her whatever she desires, up to half his kingdom.

It was a foolish promise, and when Salome startled him by announcing that she wanted John’s head on a platter, Herod reluctantly dropped his reasonable defenses against harming John, who he feared, knowing him to be a holy man. Salome’s desire was contagious, and the aroused and riotous crowd instantly joined her desire for John’s death. They were possessed by a contagious lust for violence. In the face of their passionate unanimity, Herod gave them what they wanted. The act haunted him for the rest of his days.

The story of John being beheaded on Herod’s order and Christ being crucified by Pilate’s order differ in the details, but they share the same pattern. It’s the pattern of many earlier stories of rejected prophets killed by angry mobs. Both Herod and Pilate are somewhat uncomprehending participants, obeying patterns of which they may not have been unconscious, seeing only partly as glimpses in the dark.

No one is immune to the contagion of mobs

Part of what the gospels show us is that even great people can fall under the influence of the mob. The apostle Peter, a great and courageous leader, was chagrined to learn how frail we can feel in the face of a mob. At the last time they were together before the Crucifixion, Peter had pledged his readiness to lay down his life for Jesus, and he was dismayed when Jesus lovingly and patiently told him he wasn’t yet ready. Jesus told Peter that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny that he even knew him three times.

After Jesus was taken into custody, members of the aroused mob moved through the night streets with violence in their hearts. As Peter sat with others who had followed the arrested Jesus to the high priest’s house, a woman singled him out, saying she recognized him as one who had been with Jesus. Peter quickly said he had not known the man. A little later, another person recognized him and said he was one of those who followed Jesus. Again, Peter denied that this was true. An hour later, a third person singled him out as a Galilaean who was with Jesus. Peter claimed that he didn’t know what the fellow was talking about. While Peter is still uttering his denial to the third accuser, the rooster crowed. Instantly, the words of Jesus returned to his mind. He saw vividly what had happened. He saw that he had betrayed his beloved Jesus, afraid and ashamed to admit that he even knew him, quailing before the mob’s fury. “And Peter went out, and wept bitterly,” Luke tells us.

When he was with Jesus and the apostles it seemed easy to swear allegiance to his Lord, but, as a literary critic and sociologist René Girard put it, when “he is plunged into a crowd hostile to Jesus, he is unable to avoid imitating its hostility.”

The lesson was not lost on him. His repentance was deep and firm. Very quickly, he emerged as a fearless and tireless spokesman for Jesus. Sometime later when he was brought up before the very council that had condemned Jesus to death, Peter spoke as a man fully awakened to a higher reality. His fear of what others might do or say had no more control over him. He had been liberated from fear by his strong desire to act and speak in alignment with what he knows to be true. There’s strong irony in that those who ruled in the halls of power had gathered together and brought Peter before him unwittingly providing the most high-profile setting possible for him to deliver his message of the Resurrection which is precisely the message they wish to suppress.

He spoke with terrible candor. Although they have had him arrested and brought before them, he sees that they are powerless. “Ye rulers of the people,” Peter said, “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. . . .There is none other name under heaven given. . . whereby we must be saved.”

Peter had lost any desire to “be conformed to this world” or to any group whose spirit conflicted with the Lord’s spirit. This is after the Crucifixion, which most fully revealed both the meaning of the mob and the great truth that lies at the center of human history.

Mobs, Part 3

The first stone

To throw the first stone, one must step out of the crowd and act alone.

During his brief public career, Jesus repeatedly faced mobs. One well-known incident involved a woman whom an enraged mob intended to stone because she had been taken in adultery. John tells us that “the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:3-11). The story never calls her guilt into question, and adultery was, in fact, contrary to the law. The question is intended as a trap. Will Jesus speak against the law or will he side with a violent mob?

Jesus never excused the woman’s sin, but neither did he see that as the immediate problem. It was the mob, not the woman, who most opposed his teaching. He bent over and wrote something in the dirt with his finger. The Mosaic Law, which he will not violate, was written down. In fact, it was written in stone by the finger of the very being who now stood in their presence.

As its author, Jesus knew that law. What it says about adultery is “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die” (Deuteronomy 22:22), and “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Seen from Rome, what stands out in that law is the profound importance it places on marriage and also the absolute absence of any double standard. In the Roman Empire, many people were obsessed with sexual slavery. Wives were expected to forgo adultery, but men, it was assumed, would to have sex with slaves, who amounted to 30 to 40 percent of the population and had no rights, including the right to refuse unwanted sex. This, it was argued, was crucial to getting Roman men to leave other men’s wives alone.

The Mosaic Law set a very different standard, and the main debate between early Christians and Rome was over the meaning of marriage and sex. Jesus was perhaps the greatest champion of women’s rights in history. There is no question that Jesus opposed adultery, but he also saw that the people joined into a mob were not themselves keeping the law precisely. They said the woman was taken in the act, but the man, as guilty as she according to the law, was not brought forward. For reasons they don’t reveal, they have ignored part of the law, narrowing their focus to accuse only the woman.

They have bent the law so that it lets them to feel righteous, holding up a version of the law revised in their own image. It’s worth remembering here that one of the Biblical names for Satan is the Accuser. They feel a hideous delight in accusing the woman. After the mass horrors of the mid-Twentieth Century, Eric Hoffer noted that most of the evil in that time was committed by people who thought they were destroying evil. They identified and accused those who they thought were the source of the trouble, using some standard of goodness as a cudgel against whomever they chose as their enemy. Being offended is a form of cheap righteousness, feeling good by pointing an accusing finger elsewhere.

Jesus said he came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, and in this situation he judged that the fulfillment of the law would be through balancing justice with mercy. The purpose of the law from the beginning was to rescue sinners from evil rather than to destroy them. So, silently, Jesus wrote in the dirt with his finger. In the silence, the crowd’s thoughts turned inward. When the angry men have had time to wrestle with their private thoughts, he ended his silence and stood up and spoke: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Masterfully, he placed the emphasis on the first stone. Mosaic Law required the informants to cast the first two stones themselves, and putting the emphasis on the first stone isolates each person. After the first stone was thrown, a second would follow quickly and a third even more quickly and then the general hail of hurled stones. It’s easy to join an action underway. Being one of many is easy—we are after all imitative beings deep in our nature.

But the first stone is different. To throw it requires a decision. The act will focus group’s attention on the thrower. Whoever throws the first stone will be alone before the others, assuming responsibility. But people who join crowds are often looking for escape from just such responsibility. The attraction of a crowd is that we feel our power magnified by the mass. Our personal responsibility fades. It’s likely that the leaders of the crowd wanted Jesus to be the one who began whatever followed. But Jesus made it clear that he had no such intention. He will not be organized into the mob or do its bidding.

Mobs, Part 2

The choice between Jesus and Satan

We live in an age of rival mobs. Jesus is the main exemplar of a different way.

It’s not a misreading of the gospel to see that untangling this knot-like pattern was the pre-eminent goal of Jesus’ teaching. In the history of the world, it has been Jesus who most directly showed us the meaning of the mob pattern, partly through his words and partly through the story he enacted. His mortal ministry culminates with the greatest illustration of the meaning of the angry mob that we have.

The better we understand the Crucifixion the more clearly we see our dilemma. Jesus presents himself as the Son of God and the Savior of the human race, and he is murdered by an angry mob (which cowed officials into doing its will) after a sham of a trial. If the story had ended with his horrific death by torture it would be only one more illustration of an ancient pattern that has been repeated and repeated through our long history. But the story did not end with his death, and what happened next has become the main hinge of history, changing everything. The French thinker, René Girard, provides a startling and vivid discussion of the anthropology of evil as seen in the Crucifixion in I saw Satan fall like Lightning, a book that has itself lit up the minds of many readers like a flash of lightning on a hot summer night. He observed that in many ways the mob that killed Jesus was a parody of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Girard retells the story of the death of Jesus to emphasize that the story is about the conflict between a world ruled by the mob and the world where the Kingdom of Heaven is being built. The authors of The New Testament don’t talk about going away to either heaven or hell so much as they talk about drawing heaven down to earth by building its kingdom here, among the people. The kingdom of evil is a caricature of that good kingdom, ruled by a mob largely unaware of what they are doing. The work of building the Kingdom of Heaven here among us is largely the work of disempowering the mob.

Evil is itself without creative force—it is pure destruction. It persists as a Bizarro imitation of goodness. Hitler’s Third Reich was intentionally modeled on Christendom, a kingdom founded and perpetuated by fidelity to a revered model of a great leader. The Nazi festivals and ceremonies share the form of ritual confessions of faith. The philosopher Eric Voegelin observed early that the ‘articles of faith’ presented by the Nazi cult were of a quasi-religious character. He said denounced National Socialism as a false political religion that could only have arisen as a religion substitute in a society that had been cut off from its own spiritual roots. The massive architecture Hitler favored conveyed a sense of grandeur that reduced mortal men to the status lowly servants of a quasi-divine movement. Nazi intellectuals believed a salvation story that revised human history into a myth culminating in the coming of the Reich, including an apocalyptic vision that is the best explanation of the Holocaust. Hitler intended to replace Christ as some grand savior of humanity, in part because he hated Christianity as much as he hated Jews and for the same reasons. He understood that the teachings of Jesus were his most potent enemy. It was the moral vision of the Jews, largely shared by Christians, that infuriated him. Morality was the enemy. It weakened people and make them sickly, he believed. When religion is dethroned, nothing remains above politics. All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

Hitler intended to replace Christ as some grand savior of humanity, in part because he hated Christianity as much as he hated Jews and for the same reasons. He understood that the teachings of Jesus were his most potent enemy. It was the moral vision of the Jews, largely shared by Christians, that infuriated him. Morality was the enemy. It weakened people and make them sickly, he believed. When religion is dethroned, nothing remains above politics. All the totalitarian systems have religious dimensions though they are perversions. Hitler imagined his atheist kingdom in forms learned from Moses and Jesus. He followed the classical model of gaining power by forming and manipulating the mob: persuade the people that most of their trouble sprang from an evil enemy who needed to be destroyed and offer oneself as the rescuer who could lead the people out of slavery. Fortunately for all of us, his Thousand-year Reich lasted only a few years. The conflagration it unleashed utterly devoured it.

Jesus is our greatest teacher against that pattern of seeing others as only our enemy and then destroying them. He stands opposed to the forming of passionate mobs. He exposed the whole game. He provided the key that lets us go free of the mutual destruction that is always the fate of unrestrained competing gangs.

In much of the world, such gangs now influence or control political parties and entire governments. The modern world is dissolving because it has followed the prophets of modernity, who teach against the “metanarratives” that ordered the old world. One definition of modernity might be “competing narratives.” There was no one story we all needed to know, they said. In other words, there is no truth.

Their teachings were influential because they did contain some partial truths, and these have helped us understand better the complexity of the world, softening a moral certainty that sometimes shared characteristics with the self-righteous mobs that have done so much harm. Modernity has helped us be less threatened by diversity and more appreciative of the wealth it makes possible. And yet, we are at a moment in history when the competing narratives of modernity have ripened into competing mobs of global and national politics. War and rumors of war are in the air. Violent terrorism spreads. More and more people learn to delight in the shedding of blood. Trouble darkens the horizon. Though none of this is new, exactly, what is new is the scale and the destructiveness of the forces of hatred. I don’t think that the dark forces that are now on the move are ultimately going to prevail any more than Hitler did, though we do not know yet how much harm and pain they will cause. What we do know is that the forces of good are also organized on a scale never before seen and that they are also sophisticated and well-funded.

Amid the noise and confusion, where do we look for unity and peace?

Mobs, Part 1

The reality of mobs

The formation of angry mobs lies at the heart of the politics of modernity.

We are living in an age of mobs, restless hordes of angry people intent on destroying evil. Stirring up an angry mob is an ancient route to power, and the techniques of mob formation are studied by politicians, consultants, writers and others. The main technique is simply to focus people’s dissatisfaction and fear and general angst onto a single cause—usually identified with a person or group. Simple messages—slogans or memes or chants—empty the mind of complexity and nuance. The evil must be destroyed, the story goes, then peace and order will return. Bill Clinton, who understood the process very well as both a perpetrator and a victim, called it the “politics of personal destruction.”

It’s alarmingly easy to be organized into a mob because our human desire to imitate has deep roots in our nature, and it isn’t usually a bad thing. Children come to consciousness—a long process of waking up—embedded in families and other social groups, and their desire to join those groups and fit in is delightful. Children ask questions and believe the answers. Their understanding of the world is linked to their “theory of mind”—their awareness that other people also have minds like their own. Two-year-olds talk about what they want and feel, but three-year-olds also talk about what others want and feel. Children who are better at recognizing and empathizing with what others are thinking and feeling are also better at resolving conflicts with friends. They are usually happier and more popular.

At around age four, children become more reflective about their understanding of others. They understand that people think different things and that sometimes people believe things that are not true, speaking or acting on the basis of false beliefs. It’s important to note how deeply imitative we are as children, not just of actions and gestures but also of emotions and beliefs. Researchers have found that when children encounter a menacing toy in experiments in which their mothers are present, the first thing most do is to look toward their mother. If she appears alarmed or frightened, they move away from the toy, but if she appears relaxed and happy, they move toward the toy. This is called “social referencing.” Many of the feelings we think are instinctive are in fact learned responses internalized through imitation of the people around us. Children learn language by following our gaze to see what we are seeing when we say “horse” or “cow.” And despite occasional forgetting or being overcome by tempting circumstances, child are mostly eager to learn and obey the thousands of rules that govern social life. They want to be taught who and what they are supposed to be. Children are attentive to adults, looking where they look, learning what to enjoy and what to shun. They want to know the rules. Kids pick up the natural language that is spoken around them with astonishing ease. From a very young age, they are blessed with undeniable genius.

However. Even at a very young age their ability to “tune in” can be used in unkind or destructive ways. Skilled liars and vicious bullies use the same intelligence that underlies compassion. Our ease at seeing what others want and wanting that too make us vulnerable to “catching” what is bad as well as what is good. Mob spirit is a contagion. People join mobs by letting go of their personal judgment and slipping into an anonymous delight in cheering what others cheer or booing what others boo. The character of mobs grows from the loss of individual judgment. The exhilaration of release into the crowd’s passion replaces the sometimes deeply troubling work of individual conscience, of sorting an overwhelming flood of information to find the right way.

Education, understood as the transfer of valuable knowledge from one generation to the next, is the most important work of any society. The most fundamental knowledge is held in the culture and is learned informally rather than in a rationalized school curriculum. The folkways of the culture do the deep work of education. This doesn’t mean, of course, that formal schooling doesn’t matter. There are reasons tyrants so often want control of the schools.

Even as adults we are somewhat “hard-wired” to want to join the group around us, and imitating the crowd comes easy. Today, we live in a society that is noisy with accusers pointing fingers at the wrongdoing of others along with counter-accusations that it is the accusers themselves who are the real evil. No doubt many of the accusers are evil, but this in itself does not make the accused innocent. People sense that society is fragmenting into competing mobs that view (and increasingly treat)others as rival gangs. Inevitably, we find ourselves organized into one or more of these contentious mobs from time to time. We have heard so many bad things about someone we once thought was doing the right thing that we hear ourselves passing on some of the destructive opinions without knowing of a certainty that they are true. They have come to seem true. This pattern of angry groups attacking and blaming each other is one of the oldest patterns in history.

Mobs are ancient. They can form quickly, and those in the midst of a society where a mob is forming are often organized into its passions without being fully conscious of what is happening. Various groups identify some evil they are committed to destroying (and indeed there is plenty of evil to go around so the accusations seem plausible). Typically, the accusers arouse uncritical passion rather than presenting the story with the care and precision that justice would require. The goal, not always clear even to the perpetrator, is to amass power rather than to do justice. The discourse tends toward rage.

In the American South, the recurrent pattern of lynch mobs murdering victims (nearly always black) who were, more often than not, innocent of the inflammatory accusations swirling through the mob was finally ended in the mid-twentieth century by imposing an external hierarchy of justice, with investigations and witness testimony and judges who were not part of the local contagion. The challenge for people who want justice—doing the right thing by establishing clear truth so the right thing is clear—is to stay free of being organized into the pattern of what RJnJ Girard called “violent contagion” where we see the evil of the other side and feel plausibly threatened by it. When we are in that state we are tempted to join moral crusades to destroy evil. Violence seems necessary to restore peace.

As we gain experience of such things, we see that the pattern of contention can be itself a worse problem than any particular example of the pattern, and we may ironically note that we aren’t likely to get free of the pattern by destroying the evildoers who bring the pattern to our attention. We are organized into the pattern, even as it seems the evil of those who hate us leaves no real choice. The violence demands a violent response. We see the trap without seeing a way out of it, so many of us are conflicted inside.

We have a lot to think about, and we don’t want our passions to get out of control. We understand that we need a cool head and considerable courage in the face of genuine threats. We know we need justice, and we know we also need mercy and we want the wisdom to balance them. Whatever side we feel tempted to join, we have the capacity to see that at least some people on the other side also feel threatened and are acting out of fear, and so we suspect that any enduring solution will require us to act in ways that don’t cause others to fear us. But the right move is not always clear when we have enemies—people who desire to destroy us. And we do have enemies, those who accuse us of having intentions that we don’t have or of being guilty of deeds that we didn’t do.

Freedom and the Rules of Life (part 2 of 3)

Calypso’s island has become a familiar place to we moderns—a pleasure palace designed to distract us from our work and to prevent us making it to where we want to be. When we reach some island of relative peace and pleasure compared to other places we’ve experienced—maybe not what we set out for, but better than it might have been—like wind-driven dust, we might settle.

Paying attention to the hyper-seductions of pop culture, I sometimes find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s charms. Every morning he left her enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach where he gazed out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. He knew he was made for something more.

Unlike the gods of Greek literature and folklore, he was born to make worlds. The gods the poets created to explain the forces that act upon us spend their eternity gossiping and strategizing and fiddling about forever without real consequence. They don’t create and they don’t redeem. But Odysseus’ home as a man is in the real world.

That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him—its meaning was inseparable from his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone into death and posterity not yet born. It was all a kingdom in which only a man and a woman together could form today’s link holding all the past and all the future together. He was a king and his kingdom was formed of his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond. Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family that included both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth.”

He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” symbolized a love meant to be enacted and embodied. That love was the meaning of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a world that had to be created and held together through his moment-by-moment actions. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, barring his fulfillment of a stronger desire.

Life can be full of discouragements for people who want more than modern culture seems to offer. One of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. The novel is similar to The Odyssey in that it tells the story of a young woman, an orphan girl, trying to make a home. For her, this means finding the love of a man who measures up to her longings both for passionate love and for goodness—an ethical life. She finds the right man, Rochester, but the circumstances are so troubling that getting to a happy ending seems impossible.

My student was in a desultory mood. She felt loneliness and a desire to be loved by a worthy mate. And as she waited, she tried to be what the authorities urged her to be: focused on her career plans for after high school. A thousand voices insisted that succeeding at a career was the paramount goal of a life well-lived. She felt stranded in a place where what she really wanted was never taken seriously. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after?” I asked teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

I understood “that” to refer to the passionate commitment to making a life with one woman that defined Rochester’s quest. It’s certainly true that many boys are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remain high.

We’re fifty years on in a “sexual revolution” that gave people permission to do whatever they wanted sexually without guilt at violating traditional morality. Part of that involved redefining female sexuality to be more like male sexuality—that is, unlinked from having children, more casual. For centuries, women’s honor had been understood in terms of sexual purity just as men’s honor had been understood in terms of courage (made formidable by strength and skill).

The code of chivalry, one of the most civilizing social constructs of European history, had been broadened and moderated over centuries so that many men could find satisfaction in the everyday heroism of providing for a wife and family. Lots of women, sometimes smiling at that boyish need to feel big and strong and competent, expressed appreciation for the work that men did for them and their families. But that’s not the way of modernity. Indeed, our pop culture is more likely to excoriate such a man as a bore and a loser in an age where having “adventures” seems to be the point of life. And the girls, repeating the propaganda slogans that are everywhere, are likely to cut off conversation about such things with a haughty rebuke: “I don’t need a man to take care of me.”

The old cultural narrative was (1) get an education, (2) get a job, (3) get married and (4) have a family—in that order. Most men and most women wanted to get married. According to a much-discussed article by Suzanne Venker in 2012, most women still want to get married but many men are changing their minds.“According to Pew Research Center, the share of women ages eighteen to thirty-four that say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives rose nine percentage points since 1997 – from 28 percent to 37 percent. For men, the opposite occurred. The share voicing this opinion dropped, from 35 percent to 29 percent.”

A new cultural narrative has left many men unsure what, exactly, a man is for. They find it natural to want to love women and to take care of them, but they have likely encountered women who respond to moves in that direction with sharp rebuttals. To be happy, most of us do need someone whose private life touches ours not because we are weak or helpless but because humans don’t thrive when they are alone. We do better when we live with people who know what we are trying to do and what makes us happy, people who can see what is admirable about us and appreciate us and love us. People who care for us.

Venker believes that if you want to understand what young men are doing, look at what young women are doing. Women still have the power to turn things around, she claims. “All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs,” she said. “If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.” Some young women now say that’ s not true. They say that young men now have most of the power, and if a woman is not ready to give a guy what he wants he will soon move on. There are lots of fish in the sea.

Increasingly, young people of both sexes feel stranded in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Such an education as the schools provide is little help. “Sex education” is mainly technical and clinical without any profound grasp of what either men or women are.

The main focus of the official curriculum is on other things—fitting into the economy as it currently exists. Beyond that, students are taught to be compliant and polite no matter what is or is not going on in class. Lots of young people adopt the attitudes taught by pop: it’s all a game played for someone else’s benefit, and the trick is to stay true to your own inner desires and to take seriously your own feelings and to respond to everything else with nonjudgmental indifference.

But making the self and its feelings the point is a low game. The self is a multitude of competing voices, a bottomless abyss. As a god it fails, leading to depression and despair. The secret of happiness, as both ancient philosophers and modern psychologists have shown, is to escape the relentless preoccupation with self and to serve something larger and more enduring.

Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” belief that it is the self and its desires that should preoccupy us had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games which thrive on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing the most popular songs, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty.”

At this point, such reports are old news. A typical response to them is affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact did live at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. Worlds do come to an end. It has happened innumerable times.

In ancient Greece, people became obsessed with sex and the nation’s business was neglected or done poorly–I think of Bill enjoying Monica in the Oval Office while on the phone with a senator discussing putting American young men in harm’s way. Socrates was intensely aware of the cultural suicide that was underway in Greek society. The moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive much longer. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

If you feel you have arrived somewhere that’s far away from where you want to be, not truly sold on all the pleasures on offer around you, sensing that happiness is not to be found amid all the noise, the shallow and fleeting deceptions, you maybe in somewhat the situation of Odysseus, who in his deepest being rejected the thought of hanging out forever on Calypso’s Island. Beyond the promise that he might stay forever young on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”, he longed to go home, where he could be a doer of great deeds, a defender of prosperity and freedom, a maker of worlds.

Freedom and the laws of life, Part 1

By understanding the law of gravity and working with it, we can make real progress toward accomplishing our purposes.

The modern world has confused the relationship between law and freedom because moderns have turned freedom into a fantasy of infinite choice. Anything that inhibits our free choice is felt as a limit on our freedom. To realize such a daydream, they have found it necessary that all facts give way their commands, that language has the power to dissolve everything that interferes with absolute choice.

This is why so many political and social conflicts today turn on the meanings of words. What is “marriage,” really? What does being “male” or “female” mean? Those who favor change often claim that what is true is what they say is true. Our power of choice, when we are fully empowered, is godlike in the way it recreates the world according to our desires, they believe.

Laws, in this understanding, have to limit freedom. Therefore, there are no laws but those we invent. Reality is personally- or socially-constructed.

The god of the philosophers is sometimes presented as an abstract and impersonal vastness, beyond human powers of comprehension, an unmoved mover. The God of the Bible is more familiar. He acts in the world with passion and purpose, seeking always to serve and redeem the people. He speaks of his love, of his wrath, and he creates and he judges what he has created. He responds constantly to the actions of free people. He always takes a next step. He is never passive or dispassionate. He is the Most High but he also in deep ways recognizably like us. We are those he made in his own image. We, too, are to act and to judge, constantly serving and seeking to redeem those we encounter.The Biblical God lives and works amid laws and principles that are as eternal as he is. Neither matter nor the laws of matter can be created or destroyed. Creation is a matter of organizing what has always existed

This understanding of Creation helps us see law as a force that guarantees freedom. This isn’t hard to see. Consider the way a water wheel harnesses gravity to our purposes. As we have come to better understand nature’s laws and sought to accomplish our work by using those laws, our freedom has increased in wondrous ways. In obedience to the laws of nature, we are now free to visit other continents with only a few hours of travel, to prevent or cure many once-dread diseases, to provide sufficient food for our needs with an ease and reliability that would be miraculous to hundreds of generations that went before us. We are rich beyond comprehension.

Laws also operate in the realm of human nature. These have been called the laws of life—or simply “morality.” Wendell Berry defined morality as “long-term practicality” because following traditional morality–don’t lie, don’t steal, be faithful–leads most reliably to enduring happiness and peace. It is the wicked who flee where no one pursues.

It is more practical to understand gravity and to work with it than it is to rebel against and try to fantasize it away. We can willfully leap off a cliff while holding the fantasy that we can fly, but as we recuperate from a broken leg we may conclude that it’s more useful and wise to understand laws honestly than to rebel against them.

While it was still on the bestseller lists, I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character with a class of senior AP students. Some of them couldn’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “moral relativism” which lay at the heart of that book. Brooks argues in favor of moral realism and against moral relativism (both individual moral relativism, where each person creates his or her own morality and cultural moral relativism, where what is right and wrong is thought to depend on whatever culture one is in). In various ways, he makes the point that living well requires us to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.

Moral relativism claims that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings.  Being “authentic” replaces being “good.” Brooks claims that it’s important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle.

Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, may be the most intelligent of all philosophers. Certainly, he’s the most respectful of common sense. He noted that it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others because it’s possible to grasp the principles by which societies can be judged. Aristotle posed such questions as: Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the interests of the powerful? Does power rest on the ruler’s whims and desires or does it rest on laws agreed to by those who are ruled? Does the government do the work of justice?

Such judgments make no sense if whatever a culture deems to be right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” A preference for nonjudgmentalism is central to the modern world’s ongoing collapse into chaos. I think most sophisticated advocates of moral relativism know that it’s not true. It’s incoherence is too obvious and too near to the surface for a thoughtful person to take it seriously. But I think they find it a convenient fiction, hoping that if we agree there are no absolute truths then we needn’t fight about them. I think the “nonjudgementalism” is not intended as anything very true; it’s just a social convention meant to keep the peace.

But one generation’s polite fiction may be taken very seriously by young people who grow up hearing it so often it’s almost impossible to question. It’s also flattering and gives a false sense of power to be told that pursuing personal desire is the only genuine purpose in life, and one’s feelings is all we know of morality. But it isn’t true, and living by lies does not lead to enduring happiness not just for the self but for the community, which includes our loved ones.

Aristotle defined the pursuit of truth as the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with what’s really “out there.” Morality is real, independent of people’s opinions. If everyone in a culture thinks it’s okay to abuse women and mistreat slaves, they are simply wrong. Their beliefs are not true. The world remains round even when everyone believes it is flat. Opinions can be true or false.

Someone can hold the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure it out and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral truth that nobody can change.

Some students kept drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they didn’t really follow the points Brooks was making. It’s okay to disagree with him, of course, but an educated person should be able to understand what they disagree with and then to make reasonable arguments that address that understanding. Otherwise, the conversation takes the form of childhood disputes: “Yes it does.” “No it doesn’t.” “Yes it does.” And so on, ad infinitum.

The wisdom of moral realism can be glimpsed in the traditional insights encoded in proverbs and folk sayings around the world. They are time-tested insights into how things are, perceptions of what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” The “law of the harvest” is one example: you reap what you sow. This insight has also been expressed as “what goes around comes around,” and it was summarized by Jesus’s teaching that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”

Humanity has collected thousands of such rules of living well:

  • It is better to love than to be loved.
  • Success is a journey, not a destination.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
  • The borrower is a servant to the lender.
  • We find what we look for (good or evil).
  • Every ending is a beginning.
  • The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
  • Love is stronger than everything else.
  • You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
  • The truth will make you free.
  • To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
  • Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
  • People are punished by their sins not for them.
  • Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
  • Luck favors the prepared.
  • Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

Notice that they are simply descriptions of how things are rather than moral laws. This way of seeing things is familiar to people who have contemplated the Bible. That book makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness.  As Theologican Frederick Buechner said,

…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]

Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”

Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter “whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. The trouble we encounter provides most of the curriculum on “the road to character.” The  historical characters whose life stories Brooks tells have learned to live by truths such as these:

  • The more you talk, the less people listen.
  • If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
  • Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
  • If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
  • Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
  • Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
  • If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
  • Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.

If you are fortunate, such wisdom was taught to you by parents and older members of your community. Such homey wisdom seems obvious, a second nature that is your blessing because you grew up in an intelligent culture. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky, and misfortune becomes more common as more people, and even institutions such as schools, turn away from the wisdom of the ages to assert that the self and its feelings make up the only important morality. Lots of schools today rely on manipulation through rewards and punishments to get students to act reasonably well. It would be better if the emphasis were on showing by example and by teaching–direct instruction in the principles of wise living.

Our experiment with the new morality, which often has the same content as the old immorality, is now far enough advanced that we can easily see that it isn’t working very well. We sense this in the rising levels of unhappiness and loneliness, the increasing numbers of suicides, a growing reliance on counselors and pharmaceuticals that change brain chemistry help sad people make it through the week.  Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–at the flick of a high-tech device  speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more.

Probably we want something completely different.

Escape from nowhere: more reasons for community-centered schools

Higher IQs but lower test scores? What’s going on?

From World War II until now the average American IQ rose by more than 15 points. That’s a startling change. “The average child in 2010 would have been exceptional in 1950,” said Marc Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things in “The troubling trend of cultural IQ.”

Kids are smarter now but they can’t read as well (as they did in 1950).

What’s even more startling is that as those historic gains were occurring, school performance as measured by standardized tests plummeted. Both college professors and employers are struck by how many students and younger workers are “terribly deficient” in basic knowledge and skills. Although test scores have been quite static since 1980 (despite massive commotion due to a series of “reform” initiatives beginning in 1983), from 1962 to 1980 scores on the SAT verbal exam dropped a shocking fifty-four points. That loss has never been made up.

The number of incoming college freshmen who need remediation has kept climbing, and the numbers are now 10% at selective schools, 30% at typical colleges and 60% at two-year schools. The National Assessment of Educational Project (NAEP), our best benchmark for educational improvement or decline, has shown small gains in basic reading skills by young children but these do not result in measurable gains by high schoolers trying to read adult literature. Bauerlein said this is because “the reading tests include passages with diction exceeding the gains made in elementary school.”

So why haven’t large gains in IQ led to any improvement in academic performance? Bauerlein said this is easily understood by drilling down into the IQ data. The IQ tests consist of several subtests that measure different mental functions, such as memory or attention or spatial reasoning. Over the years, changes in various subtests have varied dramatically. What is crucial to understand in relation to academic proficiency is that students’ performance on the subtests for arithmetic and vocabulary have been essentially flat. This is consistent with what the NAEP shows. From 1972 to 2002 general information knowledge scores showed no improvement and vocabulary moved only minimally. Students today are no more capable of comprehending difficult texts than they were before decades “school reform.” Most are not ready for either college or the modern workplace.

What the school reform movement has made clear—after the initiatives and the remedial classes and the revised curriculums and the literacy coaches—is that there are no magic bullets or quick fixes. We should think harder and commit more deeply, maybe, because that verbal reasoning that fell in the 1960s and 1970s is vital for civic engagement in any setting amid the marketplace of ideas, including universities and the professional and managerial workplace. As things stand now, those higher IQ scores are not helping people to evaluate the rhetoric of a Barrack Obama or a Donald Trump or to perceive the veiled bias of a news story or to comprehend the moral distance between the competing claims of pop culture movements. They aren’t helping mothers and fathers find wisdom amid the sea of blarney that washes over citizens in the information age.

Youth culture can isolate adolescents from adult voices.

Another interesting fact that Bauerlein points out is that adults have shown gains in knowledge and vocabulary as measured by the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale(WAIS). This is most likely because many of them have attended college and took classes in such core subjects as literature, history, psychology, economics, and science. This raises the obvious question why then haven’t their children shown gains? We would expect larger vocabularies and more knowledge to affect both the reading and the conversation of adults, which should create a richer intellectual context in the home for their children. So we would expect rising rather than flat test scores for their children.

Why hasn’t this happened? One interesting possibility is that high schools themselves isolate teenagers from the adult intelligence that might otherwise surround them. According to New Zealand social scientist James R. Flynn (whose studies brought widespread attention to the rising IQ scores), since the 1950s a teenage subculture has developed that insulates young people from “adult speak.” Adolescents hang out together, adopting their own idiom, fashions, mores, movies, and music—creating what the great education researcher James Coleman called “the adolescent society.” An uncharitable observation would be that our teenagers are failing to learn very much because they are cooped up in high schools all day.

In 1909, fewer than 9% of Americans graduated from high school, the rest moving quickly into an adult-centered society. But by 1960, about 70% of teenagers stayed in high school all four years. They saw each other all day in classes, in the halls, at the cafeteria, and they made after-school plans. A youth subculture formed and the authority of adult voices waned. This matters because the lingo of youth culture is less sophisticated than adult conversation, less rich in the content knowledge grownups use to make sense of their world. Teens immersed in youth culture tend to have dawdling vocabularies and thin knowledge of art, politics, economics, history, religion, science and philosophy. The language and the facts such young people most need to act intelligently in the world (not to mention to score well on standardized tests) is not often present in the company that dominates in their world.

Some schools mimic the liturgy of rock concerts in their design of assemblies.

Many schools no longer offer much resistance to youth culture. Visiting a school will make it clear to which schools are more shaped and formed by pop culture than they are to whatever academic communities survive in our universities. Many schools are adopting a marketing approach, trying to offer whatever “sells” in the youth market. This makes perfect sense to anyone whose main intellectual context is pop culture. Some administrators have begun to mimic the liturgical form of the rock concert for school assemblies. The lobbies are full of propaganda, somewhat resembling the Capitol in the Hunger Games films.

In response to a widely perceived sorry state of affairs, the goal of the Common Core State Standards, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative, was to prepare low- and middle-income students for the rigors of a college education. Predictably, it crashed upon the reality that a college curriculum is presented in language beyond the reach of many students. Slogans such as “every child can learn” and “no child left behind” have no effect on the fact that the College Board sets college readiness at a score of 1180 on the SAT but we’ve only managed to get 10% of seventeen-year-olds reading at that level.

We push college for everyone, so now more students than ever begin college, but graduation rates have been stuck in the low thirties, suggesting an intellectual barrier we have learned no way to breach. So large numbers of first-year students pay college-level fees for remedial courses but cannot stick it out till graduation, leaving without diplomas but with unconscionable levels of debt.

Is hope justified?

Is there a solution? Bauerlein doesn’t offer one. He observed that “parents and mentors need to spend more time conversing with youths, reading the newspapers together, going on cultural outings. . . and adding grownup affairs to the menu of adolescence.” But he recognizes that saying such things isn’t a solution. “The parents and mentors inclined to heed our exhortations probably already recognize the problem and strive to restrain it—they don’t need our advice—while the others haven’t the space to listen or the disposition to act.”

American society has operated for decades now on flawed understandings of is best for adolescents. “Few things in this world,” he said, “have stronger momentum than cultural mores and values that settle into people’s heads as the way reality operates.”

The great need, to the extent that Bauerlein is right, is for teens to spend more time talking with adults about grownup matters. I’m at least as skeptical as Bauerlein is that we are going to get to such a society—where high schoolers performance is a match for their IQs—anytime soon. I’m quite sure that yet another argument with reasons and statistics is not going to have much influence on schools. The trouble, if that’s what it is, arises in the culture from which today’s Americans get their notions of what is worth wanting, what is worthy of effort and what the point of all our striving might be. A rock star influences pop culture, and thus school climate, more by intoning “We don’t need no education” than a professor publishing the latest article in Educational Leadership.

My personal experience

Students in St. Ignatius, Montana, interview Hermann Detert in his home as part of an oral history project.

I’ve earned my skepticism through hard work and money spent. Over a dozen years I spent more than $8 million promoting a different vision for schooling. Working with the Library of Congress and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, I directed the Heritage Project, enlisting 34 Montana high schools to reconnect high schoolers with the people in the community who were doing the adult work of building and sustaining communities. The heart of the project was having those adults assist students with collaborative research on real concerns in real places. The way forward was to escape from nowhere—the abstract curriculum and impersonal teaching championed by people from away, sitting at a big table in the convention center.

I wrote a book based on that experience. At that time, I talked about “community-centered” teaching practices (which were a form of pushback at the “student-centered” teaching that dominated professional training at the time). The romantic urge to cater to the fast-moving attention of high schoolers was very strong among teachers and administrators, and in many discussions about how to advance the game I encountered little discussion about including students in the circle of grownups talking about larger and more enduring concerns. We have too many adults trying to join the conversations in youth culture rather than trying to bring teenagers into adult conversations. Eudora Welty wisely observed that “To cater to is not to serve, and it’s not to love very well either.”

I began with a lot of optimism. “Montana’s future is being decided right now in its 176 public high schools,” I said. “They are foundational institutions. If they fail, none of our economic or cultural developments will succeed.” My optimism grew in part from an “integrating vision” that I observed growing in the nation—one that both Democrats and Republicans supported. I thought I saw a grassroots movement spreading through America, going by many names: character education, civic education, service learning, and place-based instruction. I tried to unify these various movements under the phrase “community-centered teaching.” At the heart of these various approaches was a simple and unifying insight: we cannot separate education from the community (a corollary was that community development and school improvement are two sides of the same coin).

It seemed to me that various strands of this insight led to an equally simple conclusion: we can revitalize our high schools by making the study of community their central organizing principle. This would mean offering classes that study our civic institutions as they have developed in time and as they are practiced in the real world of our particular communities. It would mean studying history and ecology by including local illustrations. It would mean providing every student opportunities to study ways the local community interacts with its ecological, geographical, business, and historical contexts. Every subject could inject real life into its curriculum by considering what the community had to teach–either by good example or bad. It’s a truism that the only place the universe can actually be studied is locally. There need be nothing narrow or parochial about local studies (though the danger of failing to link local findings to the larger issues is real).

Such studies could go beyond textbook abstractions into detailed examinations of such topics as the role of forests in local economies and in watersheds or the engineering constraints for local water and sewer systems. Working with state and local agencies, students might conduct feasibility studies for businesses or sociological comparisons of varying cultural practices and their impacts on health. They might study historical effects of immigration or infrastructure  projects on particular people.

It was hardly a secret that such approaches had been called for repeatedly by leading educational researchers. High school students are at the developmental stage when they are beginning to form communities, which is why they tend to be so cliquish. The most important educational need of adolescents is to be guided into intelligent explorations of community in all its aspects. One great risk of youth in today’s America is intellectual and spiritual capture by one of the unintelligent communities, real or virtuous, that surround young people and compete for their allegiance. Gangs are only the worst example. Young people are hard-wired to join, and if intelligent communities are unavailable or unattractive then stupid ones will do.

Furthermore, we know that classroom instruction unrelated to real situations often does not lead to understanding or the ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the world. It was my faith, confirmed by the work of many excellent teachers, that when young people use academic skills to analyze real issues in the world they know, they move from dull abstractions to deep learning.

They also create social capital. Through the 1950s, one teacher in Pennsylvania connected his high school seniors with local officials to research aspects of the local community. Thirty years later researchers tracked down these students to see whether the experience had measurable long-term effects. The results were stunning. Students who had been involved in local studies in high school were four times more likely than other students to have joined voluntary associations.
By tackling the real issues in their communities alongside committed adults, those students felt a part of the community. They learned to find meaning in shared work. They developed a commitment to civic engagement that lasted throughout their lives. “Imagine the impact on Montana’s future if every student in every high school had similar opportunities,” I said.

I thought of it as a beginning. As schools became more community-centered, communities would become more education-centered. All our agencies, public and private, could have parts to play. Television stations, artists, newspapers, tribal elders, museums, parks, clubs, businesses, chambers of commerce, grandparents, and cowboys could re-examine their roles, seeing what resources they could contribute to the work of engaging our youth in understanding the world in which we make our place. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch: lots of agencies have already figured out they can’t fulfill their missions without educating the public.

What we needed, I thought, was leadership in building suitable frameworks for collaboration. The phrase “citizen science” wasn’t common now, but today I would point to Cornell’s fabulous eBird project, which is channeling the data provided by an army of nonscientists birders into huge computers that are forming a much more complex and fluid picture of our world that has been available before. We need more such projects, with support for high school teachers. I suggested that university researchers could guide rigorous research projects into local communities and ecosystems, using high school classes in a variety of ways. This would involve training teachers, but also guiding local projects and sending graduate students into the field to help students gather, organize, preserve and interpret their field data.

Scientists with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network had used students to assist with cutting-edge scientific problems. In one project, classes at a high school in Seattle and at one in Tuscaloosa took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, total dissolved solids, total bacteria counts and net primary production while a group of scientists measured the same variables at a pristine site in Antarctica. This allowed researchers both to follow what was happening at each site and to make cross-site comparisons.

The Library of Congress through my work gained experience using high school students to collect oral histories of veterans throughout the nation. Their experiences with the Heritage Project led them to create the ongoing Veterans History Project, modeled on the work we did in Montana. High schools and other community organizations are invited to conduct historical research and document contemporary aspects of community life for the Library’s permanent collections. At that time, I said that “Our educational leaders should be talking in earnest about what research can be undertaken in collaboration with high schools, and our communities should be talking in earnest about what informational infrastructure they need to build, starting with the schools.”

The vision entertained the possibility that when most high schools in Montana were involved in linked, statewide research projects through the universities, our libraries and museums and other cultural institutions as well as our land management agencies, our students’ educations would get a powerful boost at the same time we would all get useful information in an accessible form. Most information in the information age is local because we need detailed local knowledge for our own purposes. Foresters prepare prescriptions for specific sites, based on careful study and historical data. Entrepreneurs conduct original research that closely examines possibilities at particular locations. I know what roses grow well in that spot just north of the two blue spruce trees.

“Montana, and every community in Montana, needs to study itself extensively if it is to thrive,” I said. “No one else will do it for us.”

It’s how we survive and thrive

To a great degree, the issue is bigger than what we usually mean by “education.” The global economy doesn’t—can’t—care what happens here, though it’s become a habit to associate education with the global economy—mainly because the people who benefit most from globalization also tend to be manipulating our laws and institutions for their own benefit. We need to remember that the global economy is never going to have a place for all of us. This will become more and more the case as the robotics revolution proceeds. The global economy needs to be augmented by robust local economies, and it is in the interactions of local economies that we develop our social connections, find the dignified and important roles that make our lives matter, decrease our vulnerability to the restructurings that are routine in global markets, and make it more likely that we will be able to find fresh vegetables and plumbers.

“Most of Montana’s economy will always be local,” I said. “More than anything, Montana needs a generation of educated young people who understand the places they live and want to stay, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence, and commitment to finding new ways to live well. To develop a thriving local economy, we need to develop a thriving local culture of people who are self-aware, committed to mutual support, and prepared to inquire and learn.

“By organizing our high schools around local studies, we can create what we need.” I still think that’s true. And more than ever, I think saying so is unlikely to make much difference. But then, some things take time.

Lessons Learned

My experiences have suggested several insights: none of them earth-shaking:

A student visits with philanthropist Art Ortenberg at a Youth Heritage Festival in the state capitol. The active participation of Art, and his wife Liz Claiborne, was helpful for getting the state’s major cultural institutions on board, including the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and the Montana Arts Council.

1. The imprimatur of prestigious institutions such as the Library of Congress affects school administrators in ways that tightly reasoned professional publications with footnotes and everything do not. School-level leaders adopt programs more readily when doing so involves meeting famous people or hearing that they may find opportunities for professional advancement. Schools are more often led by careerists than by scholars (though the two categories are rarely mutually exclusive).

2. Prestigious institutions are hard to enlist in education initiatives but are not so hard to bribe with promises of foundation money and “public/private partnerships.” Art Ortenberg suggested approaching recalcitrant officials by using “the force of money.”

3. Students believe things are important more readily when prestigious leaders say they are important. They will work harder for recognition (and the chance to travel) than they will to raise their SAT scores. Great things happen when they are invited to do something that matters, supported as they work at it, and then recognized far and wide for what they accomplish.

4. It’s best to work with only with teachers who have voluntarily joined. Teachers who are only pretending to be on board (a routine schoolish tactic) are like sludge in the machinery. They use up scarce resources (mostly time) to no real purpose.

5. Teachers respond to leadership from beyond the school best when they are led to form enduring teams with considerable control over ways to incorporate the principles espoused by the outside agency. Regular face-to-face meetings with the other team members is a necessary part of the work.

6. Developing the vision and learning how to collaborate are the “secrets” to accomplishing enduring change. They remain secrets in spite of being broadcast from rooftops because both are hard to do well. Everything worth doing is difficult, at first and for a while.

7. High schools aren’t actually necessary for the real work. It’s just that right now that’s where the young people are. This is helpful to keep in mind now that there are signs that they are dissolving.