Category Archives: Politics

Pondering Proust

There’s a reason everyone’s heard of Marcel Proust. There’s also a reason so few people have actually read him. Proust’s prose, labyrinthine and obscure, challenges even the stoutest of readers. I’m not saying I could write a dissertation on Pynchon, nor am I asserting that, like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, I can make it to Q (but not R) in her brilliant suggestion of the extent of an individual’s intellectual development as being measured by his progress through the alphabet. But I do like it when my mind is stretched, taken out for a grueling run (sorry if the personification doesn’t work for you), worked over at the hands of a capable literary master, which brings us back to M. Proust. I have compiled a few of his statements. They’re worth pondering, if chiefly for their brevity in contrast with his usual multi-clause marvels.

“A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it.”

“The variety of our defects is no less remarkable than the similarity of our virtues.”

“A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shews us things that no longer exist.”

“Our most intensive love for a person is always the love, really, of something else as well.”

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Random House: New York, 1961. Page numbers of actual quotes available upon request.

 What would Proust think of the lines in the Louvre for La Gioconda?

When Will We Grow Up?

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published this article Oct. 17, 2016:

When I was in the fourth grade, a classmate, Randy, made a remark that showed a slightly different religious viewpoint than my own. As several children playing on the swings at that time shared my outlook, we nine-year-olds got into a heated discussion with Randy about a very minor spiritual topic. He was alone, so we self-righteously huffed and puffed him down, believing him to be a fool for taking such a contrary position. Furthermore, we all gave him the isolationist treatment the rest of the day for his folly. I can remember the pride that I felt for standing up for my beliefs, the smug feeling of being right, even superior… and also a nagging conviction that something was amiss. For goodness’ sake, Randy was a Protestant, just like me, only on a different rung of the high- and low-church ladder.

That’s typical for grade school antics, but I’m surprised to find how little most of us have matured past that fourth-grade mentality of not liking, or not being able to abide, someone because their religious, political, or philosophical views don’t align with our own. The Presidential election and national politics have drawn out the worst in citizens on both sides of the debate, resulting in inability to have regular discussions, deterioration of relationships, and destruction of the unity of our united states.

Considering underlying differences of perspective can help heal some of these breaches. NYU Stern School of Business moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has extensively studied the underpinnings of moral behavior and decisions and distilled five core values that drive the majority of philosophies and actions. More interesting, Haidt, who describes himself as an unapologetic liberal atheist, has identified that some of those basic tenets appeal to one set of political thinkers, while others seem more important to another set. Realizing that our political opposite shares just as strong convictions about his/her ethical standards as our own should take us away from simply assuming “He’s an idiot,” ”She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” ”He doesn’t even know what’s good for him,” or any of the other blanket assumptions both sides address toward opposing political party adherents.

Haidt’s *five moral indices are as follows:

Care/Harm: “It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.”

Fairness/Cheating: “Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.”

Loyalty/Betrayal: “People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.”

Authority/Subversion: “People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.”
Sanctity/Degradation: “The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.”

Each of these foundations contributes to successful civilization. Haidt notes that the first two, Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity, appeal to left-leaning political thinkers, while the last three, In-group Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity, appeal to right-leaning individuals. Even in thinking of those values, readers can identify which foundations are more important to their own worldview. Furthermore, readers can begin to see how, if one political group prioritizes some, while another political group prioritizes others, argument will ensue. To move toward seeing there is more than one political lens is a step in the right direction. And to acknowledge that someone else has a different stance–and respect that stance instead of the mindless shouting down we see offered as entertainment on what passes for news programs promoting both political parties on television–is maturity.

Haidt points out that Rodney King is famously misquoted. King did not say “Can’t we all get along?” He actually asked, “Can we all get along?” Such a small grammatical distinction creates a huge difference in application. If we focus on our similarities: a love of family, a desire for our community to succeed, a yearning for the United States to be “the best she can be” (thought ideas differ on what that entails), we can strengthen constructive components of our citizenship rather than tearing each other, and consequently our great country, down. For goodness’ sake, we’re all Americans.
Individuals can also take the words of Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” to heart: “In minor ways we differ/In major we’re the same.” Even more to the point, the intentionally repetitious ending: “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.”

I wound up getting along fine with Randy for the rest of my school days, and am somewhat embarrassed that the fool in that childhood argument was me. Hopefully we can all step back and focus on what’s good about our fellow Americans then begin to behave more like grown-ups on life’s political playground.

from The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. New York: Random House, 2012, chapter 7. www.righteousmind.com.

*Synopses of moral foundations are taken from “Morals Authority,” Tom Jacobs, in Miller McCune Magazine, May, June 2009, Vol. 2, Number 3, pp. 46-55. Read “Human Family” at https://allpoetry.com/Human-Family

Explore your morality at a website associated with Haidt , www.yourmorals.org.