Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Que sais-je? On knowing nothing, more or less...

I saw a YouTube video of college students in Texas who did not know who won the Civil War, the name of the Vice-President, or the enemy in the American Revolution, though, to a person, they knew the name of Snooki's TV show, and the names of Brad Pitt's wives.  Despair ensued.

But then I started thinking about my own ignorance--near universal in scope and depth.  Google tells me that Mogadishu is capital and largest city of Somalia, and fronts the Indian Ocean on Africa's east coast well north of Mombasa, similarly placed in Kenya to the south.  I was not aware of these simple facts, though our town has a great number of immigrants and refugees from Somalia, and though I'd have no such vagueness and puzzlement in discussing the location of, say, New Orleans and Galveston in this country, or Marseilles and Cannes on the Med in France.  My knowledge of science and math is rudimentary to the point of shame--maybe high school level, at best.  I never took Calculus, and could not list the chronology or names of standard geological epochs.  I never read War and Peace, nor most of Shakespeare's plays.  I do not know the names of the monarchs in the House of Tudor, nor their dates, much less the names and chronology of the emperors of China.  This is something of a scandal for a man who just passed his 80th birthday, and who spent his life in largely intellectual pursuits--a 30-year veteran of a career teaching in some major colleges and universities.

What kinds of things DO I know?  How to build stuff with shop tools. How to get around in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.  A general outline of some major philosophies from the 17th to the 20th century.  A little about films from the French New Wave, films noirs, and a few classics directed by Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, Bergman, and Fellini. How to roast a chicken.  A bit about sailing and navigation for boating. How to type, build a computer from components, use Photoshop. How to speak and write in English.  Grammar, sometimes. A bit of French. Laundry. Finding (sometimes) weaknesses in other people's arguments.   Some things I used to know better than the average person: skiing, radio circuits, darkroom procedures, art history, jazz--I could go on, but I come quickly to realize how paltry the list would be, even if complete.

Am I then so different from the ignorant Texas students?  Not really.

I seek refuge in identifying with Socrates in the Apology, who is truly wise, according to Plato, since "true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing." The Bible (Micah) gives us, "what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"   Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly do not constitute a call to knowledge/education, but to moral intentions.  My father, who stopped school with the 8th Grade, had only a smattering of knowledge of farming and household maintenance, yet in  many respects he met the requirements outlined by Micah, the ancient prophet, and contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea.

But: What is justice?  What is mercy?  And humility? Plato wrote The Republic in a sophisticated attempt to answer the first of these questions, and we are no closer to a convincing answer 2500 years later, as we watch the deliberations and decisions of our judicial institutions right up to, and including, the Supreme Court and The Hague's International Court of Justice.

My mind drifts back to those Texas students...Oh, my god, they VOTE. They put people with power over life and death into office!  They choose the person with a finger on the atomic trigger and the assassination drones.  On what basis???  It is pretty obvious that they decide in much the same way they'd decide who to cheer in a TV reality show or which celebrity to listen to for fashion tips, makeup secrets, and advice on sexual relationships.

But what of my educated friends?  More or less the same.  They watch Faux News, read the editorials in the Wall Street Journal, "Like" the pundit's Facebook page, and forward stupid, fictional articles to each other promoting whatever prejudice or hatred is burning inside them that particular weekend.

My father, who walked humbly, and tried to act justly and love mercy,...was also a racist.  After his death, my mother, newly married to a wealthy man, and serving as an officer in the National Women's Banking Association, gave a great deal of money to the "ministry" of Pat Robertson, and other televangelists, who prey upon the naivety of otherwise good people in the name of religion.

My old philosophy teacher in college, Doc Hennigar, used to say, "Democracy is the distilled stupidity of the masses."  Maybe more to the point now, 60 years later, in the age of media, marketing, and post-modernism? H. L. Mencken once said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."  And: "Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."

Mr. Mencken, meet Mr. Trump!

And yet, there's no path better than democracy.  It's not democracy that's the problem, it is the wholesale purchase of voter perceptions, and the systematic subversions set in motion by redistricting, restricting voting rights,  lying commercials, dirty tricks, and a press that is slave to their corporate owners.  It is crooked banks, corrupt deal-makers, ignorant believers in anti-science falsehoods, religious/political duplicity, and criminal mixing of deal-making and public programs.  There is no greater arena for human arrogance, thoughtless group-think, faddist enthusiasms, and exploitative malfeasance than the underbelly of politics--a cheapened model of all nine circles of Dante's hell working at full and evil efficiency.

Human beings are a sick species, made combative, neurotic, violent, and irrational by accidents of evolution and unfortunate social practices.  Inflicting--and watching the infliction of--pain, is a major source of entertainment (consider boxing, rubber-necking expressway delays, crowds at hangings, Roman circuses, etc., etc.) Conservatives are right to mistrust people, and to see the need to set limits on their rapacious instinctual excesses.  But conservatives are wrong in exempting themselves from that analysis, adding arrogant self-misperception to the idiocies that they see in Others.  Leftists are right to identify the cruelties that follow from the concentration of wealth and power in the privileged few, but underestimate the beastly irrationalities that live in the pathologies of all humankind, even those victimized by class systems and criminal political organization.  What's needed is a Nietzschean Marxism, a Freudian socialism, that makes science, rather than ideological and religious nostrums the basis of social organization of power and privilege, with the overarching goal of reducing human misery and increasing human happiness.

But then I may well be wrong.

Those Texas students keep coming back to haunt me.  They know things--maybe they "get" contemporary culture in ways that I do not.  Am I just another old man, transitioning into senility?  I go to gallery openings and museums and shake my head, literally having no idea why those objects are there with those price listings. I go to movies and don't get the jokes or follow the plots. I watch the Superbowl commercials with awe--what the hell is the point of that "puppymonkeybaby" dancing and licking the faces of the couch potatoes in the Mountain Dew commercial?  Kardashians? I can't understand much of any pop music, and never get more than a couple words of rap/hiphop "classics," and turn back to my Cole Porter favorites or albums by Nina Simone and Sinatra.  The academic journals are full of juried articles that seem to me to be pure gibberish (though I do understand some of the more arcane segments of Hegel's  Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty's theory of la chair, and Husserl's Epoché--that others have called nonsense.) I listen to a speech by Donald Trump, and stand aghast that he is clear front runner for the Republican nomination for President in every demographic. I watch the Supreme Court slap down Obama's climate initiatives, rule for money as protected "speech" in Citizens United, and interpret corporations as "persons" in decisions upholding the rights and advantages of the wealthy, but not the voting rights of the poor. (WTF?, as they say...)

We know nothing, not even that we know nothing.  Our actions and decisions flow from reptilian urges, biological imperatives, pre-cognitive impulses, and murderous struggles for dominance, recognition, and blood-lust.  What a piece of work is man. What is left, but to laugh?  Time, once again, to go read through the Satires of Juvenal, and click on those YouTube videos of monologues by George Carlin. Though I haven't read it, I nominate as best literary title of all time, Wallace's Infinite Jest. "Alas, poor Yorick..."  He knew us well.