10 April 2010

Teaching Values (Whenever Opportunity Knocks)

A few days ago, one of my classes got on the subject of “end of the world” scenarios. It was the result of discussing the end of Fahrenheit 451 – one of the novels I had students read this spring. Teaching literature is a wonderful thing because there are many times where I have no idea where the conversation will lead. Two interesting topics came up: why people find end of times scenarios so engrossing and choosing between common values and material goods.

The end of Fahrenheit 451 is somewhat apocalyptic; the society is ruined by a massive attack – one would assume that the other side was as well – and the main character, Montag, and his newfound friends move to help pick up the pieces. This discussion brought up the theory, and the movie, regarding 2012. Students noted that like the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, it was not the end of the world in the movie. It was more of a starting over “from scratch.” I put that in quotes because there really is no chance that such a thing could happen. We always have memory, history, and mores to pull our past into our present, to project our present into our future.

And yet, it seems a frequent human desire to “start from scratch,” to happen upon or create a societal tabula rasa. Perhaps it happens when there is anxiety about the future, when folks aren’t quite sure in which way history is taking them and their culture. Perhaps it happens when there is a loss of hope or a feeling of certainty of rough times ahead. The students and I talked about these things and it lead directly to the second topic.

One student commented, in response to this discussion, that the outside world could be wiped clean, so to speak, as long as luxuries that ensure personal comfort were not affected. While this is a very teenager thing to say, I posed a somewhat unfair question, but for a purpose. I asked if the student had to choose between a “destroyed” society keeping their material comforts or a common set of social values – in our case, American values: liberty, e pluribus unum, in God we trust – which would the student choose. The student chose material comforts. I thought it would go that way. So I closed off the discussion by making the point that a society with only shared material comforts will most likely lose those. However, a society whose people have shared values such as our American values can, over time, create material comforts (as well as provide security and foster community). This is a point which young folks may forget; indeed, may forget often. But adults must always remember and teach, and remember and teach.

04 April 2010

Easter and the Necessity of the Divine

It seems to me that a human being needs some thing greater than himself; there is a necessity for hierarchy. Human beings must have some thing above them, guiding them, in order to not be subject to dawdling apathy. When a human being rejects God – that which is wholly different in kind and greater than man – he must replace the divine with some thing. The rejection of God demands a replacement.

At best, this replacement could be something relatively superior – not benevolent – which is beyond man’s ability to fully comprehend and which cannot be bargained with. (Though clearly what would be missing is any positive component; chance or fate or nature might be one’s guide, but none of them compels one to act with kindness or demands gratitude.) Worse, the replacement could be another man, an elevation of one above the rest, making him viewed as somehow different in kind than other human beings. Still worse, the self could replace the divine – a wicked bit of Orwellian doublethink wherein the self is greater than and different in kind to the self. Nothing appears to me more hellish than a multitude of humanity, each of which is a monotheist worshipping himself; a heard of finite, little gods.

I am thankful for the life, the opportunities, and the limitations which God has given me. I am thankful for his forgiveness, which is celebrated on this day. And I am thankful that I am not more than what he made me; that I may practice – fail and succeed – and attempt to live well while under God’s watch.

03 April 2010

Ortega and Granting Inalienable Material Rights

While considering the current legislative road America is travelling down, and indeed has been travelling down for some time, I happened to begin reading Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. While he was writing about the early twentieth century, I have found myself underlining a number of passages which make the leap from that century to this. Not surprising, as human nature – regardless of what some would have us believe – does not change from one century to the next, only the guise of its interaction with the world around it.

So, with regard to the current expansion of enumerated “rights” in the United States, I highlighted the following from Ortega:
“The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree.”
It would seem that our “new man” (as Ortega might refer to him) wants what is his due, what he is told are his material rights, and cares not where they come from, who id demonized to get them, or what may be wrecked so as to sustain them. The short-term Eden of material rights, like those found in health care insurance reform or forgiveness from home and student loans, are to be his. It is as if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not the only inalienable rights; along with them would be health, home, food (as long as it is government approved), and risk-free life as his birthright. Where these expanded, inflated rights come from are of little concern to him, and the cost of their maintenance never occurs to him.

But what is even more worrisome to me about this is that our “new man” is that he seems to not question, let alone lose sleep over, under whose authority these new rights come from. And in his not doing so loses understanding of where his true inalienable rights, as delineated in the Declaration of Independence, actually come from. Thus, if government is in the business of handing out new rights, it may be accepted by the unquestioning “new man” that it was government which granted inalienable rights as well. Or perhaps worse, he begins to consider new material rights as inalienable. And worse still by extension, that man confers inalienable rights upon man. Consequently, man himself becomes the highest authority, supplanting God, that which is truly greater than to which appeal can be made and which is simultaneously immutable by vacillating impulses.

Rank material benefits, government-granted largesse to the electorate, must be removed from our civilization in order for it to survive. While I may be mocked by some for using such a phrase, I do not doubt that it is appropriate, because when citizens buy into the idea that they deserve a set course of life and that such can be provided for by government, then government becomes men explicitly directing the lives of other men. Individual freedom – and the responsibility which comes with it – is sacrificed for individual security. The arrangement becomes, in short, an agreed upon servitude whose wages are thought to be the safe, care-free living of the one in servitude as provided for by the power of the state, the government. It is an utopian vision which, like all utopian visions, will end tragically. Thankfully, it appears that perhaps half of the American electorate is questioning the utopia being sold by big government types. One hopes that enough of the electorate – and those who they elect in the next two cycles – have the fortitude to back away from the utopian vision.

01 April 2010

Obama Sell-a-Thon

Nearly two weeks after the passage of the health care insurance reform bill and its severed conjoined reconciliation twin “fix” bill – which, incidentally, has its own split personality in the form of a federal takeover of student loans – President Obama is still attempting to “sell” the fix to Americans. This should tell us something about the contents of the bill, which Speaker Pelosi said would have to pass before we could all find out what was in it. Now that the bill is under even greater scrutiny, as it is law and not one of an array of squishy-fungible-voluminous proposals, the administration is convinced that the selling must continue.

Indeed, only today in Maine, Mr. Obama, according to the Associated Press, “urged Americans not to judge the nearly $1 trillion legislation he signed into law last week until the reforms take hold” – though perhaps not mentioning that such a wait would also push judgment past the midterm and next presidential elections. Very convenient for the perma-campaigner. It is a political case of having cake and eating it as well; health care insurance reform is a monumental achievement which the Democrats proudly claim as the president insists that it must not be judged until it is more fully implemented.

This administration is long on promises which differ greatly with what it delivers. The rhetoric does not match policy. Mr. Obama doesn’t want smaller government, he has claimed. However, the student loan takeover nationalized the student loan business. The health care insurance reform bill adds another sixteen thousand-ish IRS agents. One wonders just how many government minions will be employed by education “reform” – the reform of the NCLB reform, one might add – and senseless carbon taxing might be. Might the IRS need another ten thousand agents to “monitor” industry compliance with carbon emissions? Might a small army of new “experts” be hired to enforce curricula implementation?

Of course, we are at the moment a long way from those things. But if Mr. Obama manages to sell the current health care insurance reform bill without much complaint from the electorate, he will no doubt feel that he has a mandate to push through other “reforms.” Thus, his message – as false as it is – must be knocked down with hard facts as often as possible, and then some. When someone comes out and claims that the bill – excuse me, the law – will save somewhere around $100 billion, ask them to justify spending $1 trillion in order to save such a small sum. When someone claims that it is only humane to give health care to all, retort that the law itself is about insurance, not health care itself (though it will without doubt impact health care delivery, and very negatively). When someone claims that health care is a right, pull out a pocket copy of the Constitution and ask him to point to the exact location within the document which guarantees health care insurance for every citizen. Ask folks who tout this law just how much they value individual liberty. Ask them who has responsibility over the individual in our free country. Ask them, to paraphrase Dennis Prager, at what point the size and power of the government reduces the citizen to a mere subject.