Peter Pan Run Amuck in the Era of Passion, Sass, and Exhibitionism

I heard a ballplayer whose glory days were in the Eighties opine on TV yesterday that he wished he had been more expressive while in uniform–more “passionate”, like the studs of today.  Fist-pumps, bat flips, victory dances in the dugout after a home run… he apparently found all this more “honest” on the player’s part and more entertaining from the spectator’s chair.  There’s something (and I should say quite a lot) that this old warrior oddly doesn’t understand about yesteryear’s Boys of Summer.  Yes, they wouldn’t let you get away with such gallivanting-monkey routines.  The pitcher would deck you with his best fastball the next time you stepped into the box–or the opposing team might not even let you get back to your bench before pouring out onto the field.  Why was that?  Was it because the old boys weren’t involved in the game–because they lacked “passion”?

Just the reverse, actually.  They were so absorbed in their chores that, should an adversary dance a derisive jig upon their best effort brought to naught, the insult bit them to the marrow. No one back then was trying to launch balls in some exhibitionist home run derby or spread his bright feathers in a slam-dunk contest: they were, as George Will has called them, men at work. The day’s labor of a working man doesn’t deserve to be scoffed at. Try it at your peril.

The lads of today, in contrast, do not bring an adult’s pride and determination to their job site. They bring a kid’s vainglory and frivolity. Like children, they have not yet fully grasped the self/other distinction. They can sense in any given moment no more than their own exultation, narcissistically–they cannot imagine what chagrin they would feel at the receiving end of a defeat and extrapolate that sentiment to the proud foe they have just vanquished.

We see this pathological childishness in so many theaters of pop culture that I really can’t think of one where it fails to appear. Take but a single further example. Tomi Lehren exploded upon Twitter and YouTube and won herself a nice gig on The Blaze by sassing her political adversaries. My limited exposure to her never suggested to me that she lacked intelligence or sensitivity, given the chance to display them–but her shtick did not involve giving herself many such chances. Young, petite blonde chick who’s twenty-five while looking and sounding all of twelve, Tomi could nyah-nyah at Black Lives Matter or campus protesters in vagina hats with all the joy and spirit of a brat kid at the zoo chucking rocks into the tiger’s cage. This is what people wanted to see her do… and so she did it, right up until the moment when she got a little too sassy and struck the tiger in the eye. It remains to be seen if Glenn Beck will renew her employment after she–in one of those endzone boogies that draws an “unsportsman-like conduct” flag–styled the abortion-opponents of her party hypocrites while congratulating herself for her marvelous coherence. All the issue’s complexities flew away in a toss of golden hair and in tones of juvenile but winsome smugness… and away went the paycheck, too.

Of course, no one made Beck employ Tomi, to begin with–and he knew exactly what he was buying. My dismay is over why such juvenilia sells. Is there no hope for us to recover any gravitas, any internal ballast, and sense of substantial selfhood hidden away from the world’s prying eye, ever again in this age of constant posing? Have we culturally contracted a terminal case of chronic adolescence?


Doctors: The Village Priests of the Twenty-First Century

It sounds really strange to people… but I haven’t seen a General Practitioner since I had to take a physical for my first job, about forty years ago. A doctor set my arm once upon a time when, as a kid, I broke it roller-skating. Thank you. A dentist once told me, when I was in my early twenties, that I’d had the world’s smallest filling. Now, I’ve never had a filling in my life—I think I would have remembered, and I didn’t have much to remember back then. Yet he was adamant, and… doctors are never wrong, you know.

Except when they are. An anesthesiologist almost sent my wife into a coma during what was supposed to be out-patient surgery. Another of the same noble calling shrank my father’s bladder to the size of a pea, so that he had to wear a catheter for the rest of his life. Several members of my family have been given prescriptions for blood pressure medicine which tormented them with unpleasant side-effects, and the few who finally refused to take any more pills never suffered any negative consequences. The flu vaccine has also introduced its share of miseries into my household… and who knows if it works? How would you ever possibly know?

The largest medical database in the world will categorically not consider any studies of homeopathic treatment, yet the medical-pharmaceutical complex’s standard approach to treating cancer—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—is itself dangerously carcinogenic in two of the three strategies. Indeed, the role of radiation in spawning cancer had long been known not only to include x-rays and radioactive material, but also electromagnetic energy in certain doses. While the public fear of power lines strung over one’s back yard has declined before a steady bombardment of professional derision, I well recall that children were warned back in the Seventies not to sit too close to televisions. The computer monitors before which I sat directly during the Nineties contained the same cathode ray tubes and affected my overall health in numerous ways. To this day I feel somewhat diarrheic if I sit for a couple of hours even before an iPad, and most of my computer work has to be done behind an improvised Faraday Screen. Yet medical minds of my acquaintance or that I encounter online continue to pooh-pooh my concerns. I’m a crackpot, and they know everything.

Why should I trust a profession like that? Now, there’s no denying that competent, conscientious doctors exist; but I’m nevertheless amazed at commercials that urge us to “ask our doctor” about this or that drug that will improve our mood, remove an irksome rash, or reduce our stress. If you listen closely, you can usually hear the narrator warn in a rapid-fire undertone of “harmful or fatal side-effects in rare cases” involving destroyed livers, kidneys, and stomach linings. And yet, I’m supposed to have “my doctor” ready and waiting for a quick consultation the way, in a different time, people had a village priest handy to hear a confession.

It’s the arrogance that bothers me the most. Any real person of learning isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” When is the last time you heard those words out of a doctor?

Pampered, Morally Superior Youth: Socrates Saw Them Coming

Honestly, I chose to do Plato’s Euthyphro in one of my classes because it’s short and we didn’t have a very big slot on the syllabus. It came as a shock to me, as I read the work over for last week’s presentation, that this dialogue is a little masterpiece.

Just one point is suitable to raise in the present small space. Euthyphro perfectly represents a type of well-educated, somewhat pampered, under-occupied, morally pretentious young person. As Socrates (answering to the charge that will end up costing him his life) waits outside the law courts with the lad, Euthyphro explains his own business. He’s there to charge his father with homicide. The case is clouded, involving a servant who got roaring drunk, killed another servant, had to be restrained while the authorities back in town were consulted, and seems to have died in his bonds due to inattention. Euthyphro treats his dad’s conduct like straight-up cold-blooded murder. Indeed, he is so eager to demonstrate to one and all his transcending, impartial application of moral standards without any regard for the transgressor’s personal status that one must wonder if he hasn’t painted his father’s criminal negligence in darker colors than it deserves. Perhaps the drunken killer drowned in his own vomit… but that wouldn’t give Euthyphro an occasion to display his high-minded disinterest and utter devotion to pure principle. Though Socrates subtly implies that the young man bears more than a passing resemblance to Meletus, the holier-than-thou firebrand who accuses the old philosopher of corrupting Athens, all that Euthyphro can see is that he, like his persecuted teacher, is being martyred for daring to adhere to the truth.

This kid reminds me ever so much of certain exhibitionists in our society (young, more often than not) who have an insurmountable need to be martyred in a cause. Of course, they would crumple like tissue paper if presented with real martyrdom: theirs is entirely a matter of sound and fury. They see the racism with which the rest of us criminally conduct our daily lives; they see our sexism, our greed, our insensitivity to the poor, our hypocrisy at claiming to believe in a supreme moral being. If we were sincere, we would be like them (though, if we were like them, they would have to find yet another way of creating distance between their lofty plateau and the vulgar mass). We could try to point out to them the complexities of the situation: that indiscriminate charity invites exploitation and indigence, that cultural friction can hardly be racism since race is genetic while culture is taught, and so forth. All such parsing of the issues is just carping and equivocating. They know what we really are… because they know what they need us to be. We must be the squalid, two-faced scoundrels that leave paragons like themselves gleaming in bright contrast.

This is true even—perhaps especially—when we are old enough to be their parents. We don’t deserve any respect: it was our generation that made of the world the mess that it is. And so they consign us to the dustbin as they irresistibly and inevitably age into arrogant, self-righteous ideologues whose orthodoxy emanates from the presumption of their own infallibility.

It’s some small comfort, I suppose, to discover that these same annoying people existed even in the days of Socrates.

Lust for Power: Mankind’s Most Deadly Foible

Old Heraclitus is supposed to have opined that character is destiny.  If the philosopher was right, then perhaps destiny herself is conditioned by forces that precede the full formation of character.

I have a problem with authority.  I’ve known many a person to make this same claim with a kind of pride, or even arrogance.  My problem, however, has tormented me through much of my life, and I find it a crippling nuisance.  Up and down the trap-laden corridors of the Ivory Tower, I have often heard voices plotting against me whose volume was very small or imagined long knives waiting for me in ambush whose blades were relatively short.  I don’t handle criticism well, and I can’t shrug off the knowledge that someone’s out to get me.  I am easily hurt by dishonesty but even more sensitive to blunt honesty (since the truth cuts deeper); and after decades of absorbing unwelcome shocks, I have grown readily suspicious of people.  I have about enough true friends to count on one hand, without using the thumb.

Many’s the time that I’ve wondered if my father (God rest his soul) predisposed me in this direction from the cradle.  He was a willful man who tended to reduce the feelings of others to his level of understanding; and, in the case of those under his sway (such as his own children), he would occasionally sense a holy obligation to punish what he saw as improper feelings—though he hadn’t any idea what he was seeing, more often than not.  This made of me a very introverted boy who learned to hold his sentimental cards extremely close to the vest.

And the result of that, naturally, was that I was styled cold or “stoical” by other children when I started school, a reputation which could be quite painful to wear around in certain situations and made me (in classic runaway fashion) more withdrawn than ever.   I was especially impassive around adult authority figures—teachers, coaches, and so on—who stood in loco parentis.  The last thing in the world I wanted was for one of them to rip into me… and this, I reckoned (on the basis of my father’s example), was likely to be the first thing in the world they’d do if I left a window open upon my soul.

Damn, I wish I weren’t like this!  I wish I could enter into conflicts with other people securely bearing a confidence that we could talk it out rationally—that mere misunderstanding was the source of our disagreement.  Instead, I see whatever shreds of rational argument float to the surface as the camouflaging of a submarine attack.  I sense a power play: I divine a bid to knock me off balance, to seize some of my space, which squirts out isolated logical claims the way an octopus squirts ink.

Thanks to dear old dad, I’m ultra-sensitive in this way… but not, alas, hyper-sensitive.  More and more in my old age, I find that my suspicious, quasi-paranoid defenses are correct.  People really are exploitative most of the time, most of them.  I wish I didn’t see that—and I know that nobody wants to hear me say it.  Hell, I don’t want to hear me say it!

But so it is; and in the long run, we would do better to recover some of that misanthropy that guided the founding documents of our republic and abandon our spoiled-brat vulnerability.  Here’s the hard truth: the lust for power (libido dominandi) seduces human beings more ruinously than any other corruptive tendency.  Even perverse sex drives often hide at their dark core a craving to dominate.  Give the pettiest of functionaries the least smidgen of formal power over a handful of secretaries… and you have an office Caligula on your hands within a few months. Or weeks.

So, Dad… thanks for nothing, since people want to hear this warning about as much as Troy wanted to listen to Cassandra.  I know now that you had your own inner demons to wrestle, and I know that others’ abusive power over you was the origin of your torment.  But however I learned it, and however sad the lesson, the truth is that most people who warble about doing things for us will end up doing things to us.

What’s Insecure About “Security”

I came back from my spring break to find that I could no longer check the email at my place of employ. First I had to add a “device” through which I would initially identify myself: then the email would load. Security, of course: an “upgrade” to respond to new “risks”.

There’s simply no end to this. The new security protocol will last until aspiring hackers devise a way to circumvent it easily… which may take a few months. Then I’ll have to add another device, or else there will be some more arcane and complicated procedure. Then the hackers will render the latest measure obsolete… and on we go. And on and on.

One annoying thought that always nags me in these situations is how many techies we’re paying royally to make our lives more complex and miserable. The cost of doing something as simple as checking your mail has become inflated by a factor of ten or twenty since the days when we just wrote a note and slipped it in a box. What am I saying–that didn’t cost anything but a piece of paper! Try multiplying the cost by several thousand!

And, without fail, the next other thought is precisely, “What was so bad about paper?” You had one transmission confined to one space. To “hack” it, someone would have to break into the mail room. Or you could leave a phone message on an answering machine, which was almost as cheap, a little easier to check, and immensely more secure (inasmuch as one trespasser into the mail room could have access to everyone’s cubby hole, but the same desperado would have to break into X number of offices or houses to raid each answering machine).

I’ve actually been requested several times during the past year to submit in print some kind of report that I had already–under orders–submitted online. The reason? A superior found tracking down the material online to be far too time-consuming. Especially with all the new security measures (and more coming every month), trying to gain access to information not only becomes more intricate but also incurs greater risk of freeze-up or shut-down when the software updates don’t quite mesh with previous gears.

How much of what we do really needs to be secure, anyway? Sensitive info about bank accounts or identification numbers or health problems or (in my case) course grades would be better off sitting in a file cabinet. Why does an online class need to be resistant to Chinese or Russian hackers, though? A lot of such stuff finds its way to YouTube (if it’s good enough to draw a general audience). Could it be that the people who “secure” us for their living have a vested interest in exposing us ever further to embarrassing or disastrous invasions of privacy? As long as we feel “at risk”, they will be assured a lucrative gig.

I wouldn’t be posting this piece without the Internet. I’m not waging a war against the Web. But why do we have to use every technology for everything to which it might possibly be applied, just because we can? Why don’t we select appropriate uses and decline others that involve us in never-ending headaches and nervous sweats?

On the Road: Gen Y Is Hell on Wheels

I noticed a few things about people during Spring Break simply from watching them drive. The most revealing behavior occurs when signage announces the approaching closure of one lane. You’d think that most people would collect in the right lane if the left is soon to be shut off… and I guess most do. Then you have the ten percent or so who race along the almost-empty lane to cut in front of twenty or fifty or however many cars they can. They’re the ones who back up traffic and sometimes bring it to a halt, either because some fool farther along pauses to let them in or else because they dangerously prod their way to a place in the file. These motorists are almost always younger people driving pricey SUV’s, sports cars, extended-cab mega-pickups, and the like: soccer moms, executives-in-waiting, and good ol’ boys in becoming.

They belong to the “me first” generation that’s now nearing thirty. They’re more important than we are: to themselves, they’re more important than anyone.

The same group will often speed up in the right lane when you’re trying to pass them. It’s instinctive, I’m convinced. When they sense that they are about to “fall behind” someone, Mother Nature kicks in and they throw out a foot to trip up the competitor. Why this would happen when all of their vehicles are equipped with cruise control can have only one explanation: they override the setting—instinct trumps technology.

Then again, maybe they like to have their foot on the gas at all times, regardless of convenient technology that allows older legs to relax. It’s their car, and they’re going to give it commands second by second. How else to explain such behavior as surging past you on the right, cutting in front of you, and then sitting beside a tractor-trailer a while so that no one can pass? What’s that about? Obviously, cruise control is again not engaged—but simply pumping the accelerator doesn’t seem to be enough, either. The driver has to cause frustration to those behind him: he has to feel it and feed upon it. Now he’s in control of other human beings on the road.

I seem to see these people all the time on HGTV shows where a young couple is shopping around for a fixer-upper. They have a budget of 800 grand within which they will try (and fail) to stay. He wants a basement for his “man cave”. She wants an “open concept” kitchen that pours itself into the den (or “entertainment room”). He wants a Jacuzzi on the deck. She wants a garden tub in the master bathroom. He wants hardwood floors upstairs. She wants a walk-in closet with an outlet for a TV and a window onto the back yard. They want, they want, they want… it’s simply mind-numbing to hear these regal brats ramble off all the “must haves” on their Christmas list.

When did younger Americans become such people, and why? That’s a question for another day, or for many other days. I sure wish the whole generation would go float away on an enchanted island to another century far from mine.

On the Road: CNN and Indigestion

I’m on my way back now from a business trip that had to be squeezed into my Spring Break.  These days, I really hate to be taken out of my routine by travel (though I also like it–but I never like the prospect of it).  You’re not in control on the road: not of your quarters, not of the clock (which jumped two hours on us), not of the weather (the coldest of the winter here), and not even of your sleep.  I like to control my life, so this kind of surrender can be… nerve-racking, on the way to being refreshing.

But having to listen to CNN daily in the hotel’s breakfast room was not refreshing in any manner.  One of the few unequivocal joys of travel is getting away from the news cycle–an ambition which CNN generously accommodates.  The substitution of incessant propaganda, though, isn’t exactly the kind of escape I’d foreseen.  A lot of rather important things are happening in the world right now.  Erdogan continues to jail dissident journalists and to ramp up his campaign for becoming “legal” dictator in April.  Terrorism has grown so deadly in Myanmar that refugees (real refugees) are pouring into China–which is not only jailing its own dissidents but executing more of them each year than those put to death by judicial order in all the rest of the world combined.  As for North Korea’s lunatic saber-rattling…

Well, let’s just say that none of this seems to show up on the CNN radar.  The first days of the week were consumed with the “news” that Donald Trump couldn’t prove his wiretapping allegations.  The next couple of days were devoted to the hot scoop that millions would lack health insurance by mid-century once the Republicans repeal Obamacare.  That’s assuming, I suppose, that Kim Jong Un doesn’t draw us all into the incinerator.  The CNN crystal ball apparently sees no threat from that quarter.  Nope–what we need to start worrying about today is the volume of uninsured thirty-something years down the road.

But I thought we were all supposed to be robotic hybrids by then?

Honestly, I don’t know why some savvy media mogul doesn’t conceive the brlliant idea of covering significant events around the world for a hour or so per day.