2018

4 January 2017: The dollar sign reigns supreme

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday / Charcoal burning everywhere / Here in status symbol land

The mid-twentieth century conservative writer and academician Russel Kirk was a “man of letters,” a term no longer in vogue. A man of letters was well-rounded, educated and multi-dimensional in his thinking, steeped in classics as in current learning. He stood for refinement as opposed to one-dimensional, mundane conservatism rooted in wealth, status, and pride in financial accomplishments.

In his essay “The Inhumane Businessman,” Kirk writes, “American businessmen are inhumane. I do not mean that they are inhuman; they are all too human. I do not mean that they are insufficiently humanitarian. I mean that American businessmen, like most other Americans, are deficient in the disciplines that nurture the spirit.”

Disciplines that nurture the spirit—art, philosophy, literature, poetry, music, dance—stand in contrast to the base human endeavor: Survival. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, clothing along with safety, intimacy, and esteem address an individual’s deficiency needs. Nurturing the spirit goes beyond to what Maslow labeled self-actualization: compassion, ethical behavior, lack of bigotry, creativity, acceptance of facts.

In the Buddhist energy chakra system, there’s a similar ascendant pattern: The root chakra deals with essential survival needs; the second, sexual energy, creativity; the third, the self and self-acceptance. The upper four, like Maslow’s self-actualization, address the higher self: the heart, love and compassion; the will or voice; the senses, or perceptions of our Universe; and at the top, connection to the Divine. Again, spirit-nurturing disciplines serve to foster growth in those higher realms.

With good reason Kirk states that most Americans are deficient in them. To become the world’s economic and military powerhouse, we focused on science, math, and business at the expense of the arts. While paying dividends in making the United States the world’s sole super power, it’s had debilitating effect upon our national soul.

“A people can live upon their moral and intellectual capital for a long time,” Kirk states. “Yet eventually, unless the capital is replenished, they arrive at cultural bankruptcy. The intellectual and political and industrial leaders of the older generation die, and their places are not filled. The humanitarian cannot substitute for the humane man. The result of such bankruptcy is a society of meaninglessness, or a social revolution that brings up radical and unscrupulous talents to turn society inside out.”

That results, says Kirk, from Americans, particularly prospective leaders, being “largely ignorant of the humanities, which, in a word, comprise that body of great literature that records the wisdom of the ages, and in recording it instructs us in the nature of man. The humanist believes in the validity of such wisdom.”

Simply put: We don’t read. We’re entertained. We watch The Apprentice, NASCAR, and dull our senses with addictive behaviors and opioids frustrated by the reality that despite all we can do, we’ll never become insanely rich. Keep buying those lotto Powerball tickets because you just never know.

Donald Trump’s victory is a triumph for amoral, soulless utilitarianism, for that which will get us through the day, through the year, through our lives. The sum of the utilitarian’s humanity is not to sing, appreciate a sunset, or care for fellow sentient beings, human or animal, or for his/her ultimate home, but to do, to accumulate stuff.

Paradoxically, it’s triumph demonstrates the utter futility of utilitarianism and that’s the great irony: It doesn’t matter. If the system no longer has need for the doer, he/she is in a no-win conundrum. The dedicated doer cannot condemn the system he/she holds omnipotent and omniscient and cannot blame him/herself; instead, he/she must blame others for his/her failures and frustrations.

Kirk holds that our young who are to govern our industry and public policy are in the condition of Aristotle’s slaves because of the necessity of unremitting labor which prevents them from taking part in public affairs.

“When they are in their sixties,” Kirk wryly notes, “they may have time for reflection and public service. But there are disadvantages to society in being led by emancipated slaves.”

Kirk’s fear has come to pass. We’ve squandered the moral and intellectual capital bequeathed us by our founders and pioneering ancestors. We’ve become culturally bankrupt.

On January 20, the deed will be done. The profane ascends. Ostentatiousness supplants the beautiful. Lower the stars and stripes to half-staff and hoist the dollar sign. It now reigns supreme.

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