Monday, November 21, 2016

Lunacy, Serious and Non-serious, essay posted 30 November, 2004

Lunacy, Serious and Non-serious

originally written 30 November, 2004
At the time, my two kids were 10 (Silvie) and 5 (Tomaso)

I must be getting quite a reputation in this town and not as the author of the "Open Secret." It is hard to miss us coming. Each time I walk down the street with the kids lately they insist upon playing this stupid "ghost" hiding game; it was amusing for a while but now they play so frequently that it has become an annoyance. They will trail behind me hiding behind my back and every time I turn around to find them, they rush to keep behind my back, unseen. I pretend to be perplexed.

"I have lost them, where are they? Hmm," I say as if to myself, "what became of those kids? I can hear their laughter but every time I turn around to find out who it is, all I see is a blur. What is going on here?"

Strangers looking on cannot help but smile. Sometimes, when I reach around my back quickly enough and grab at the air, I catch hold of one of their coats. That became the biggest thrill of all, since they love to shed the coat and disappear behind my back, leaving me wondering how I got a hold of a ghost kid's coat. After practising so long both Silvie and Thomas have become adept at rushing out of view but since their tactic is to walk in a row with little Thomas the third in line, the five year old ends up doing the hardest running to keep out of view. I have to watch myself as it can turn into a game of crack the whip; I especially have to be careful as I come near walls, poles and parking meters, lest one of my ghostly companions is done an injury.

Let us go on to more serious lunacy. Rufus T. Firefly rose to the presidency of Fredonia through the pressure of a wealthy female admirer. Unless they installed him as president she refused to tender a loan to keep its bankrupt treasury afloat. Once inaugurated, Firefly immediately declared war on a neighbouring country because of an imagined slight from its ambassador who also happened to be his rival for that woman's affections. So it was that Firefly led his nation into war for a personal whim. Not so far fetched, considering that Kaiser Wilhelm II's childish inferiority complex prompted the naval arms race that brought on the First World War and Hitler pushed his war to get it over with while he was still young and vigorous.

The only unbelievable aspect of this story is that in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, President Rufus T. Firefly of Fredonia fought actual battles in the front lines. Real politicians and members of the elite never get their hands dirty like that, they stand back and let the ignorant Hoi Polloi fight and die. But otherwise, this farce is an accurate appraisal of how war comes about even today. Towards the end of the Master's stay in California, someone asked Him about war (we do not have the specific question, only the answer) and this is what He said,

"A great war and commotion shall inevitably take place in the world. Things will come to such a pass that the generality of mankind will rise against the statesmen of the world and say, `You sit in your palaces in perfect comfort; you eat and drink sumptuously; you sleep blissfully; you eat delicious food and relax in gardens with beautiful views. But for the sake of your name and worldly fame, you throw us, your subjects, into war, shed our blood and tear our bodies to pieces. But no thorn ever pricks your hands and not for a moment do you leave your rest and comfort.'" (Mahmud, 344)

We cannot allow a few cheats to take away our democratic rights. The general strike in Kiev over the past week reflects the increasing desire on the part of the masses to be free of petty tyrants and their arbitrary measures. Observers have noticed that the majority in these demonstrations are youth, many of whom were not yet born when the Berlin Wall fell.

How long will it be before we can be sure that justice will come before privilege? How can we be certain of true security? What system will assure that dependable leaders will rise to the top, rather than the Lucas T. Fireflies of the world? One thing I believe ever more firmly as I get older is that there can never be an adequate answer to the old Roman question, "Who will guard the guardians?" As long as individuals rule over law, as long as anyone is allowed to take a position of absolute power, nobody can act in time to check the abuse, corruption and loss of trust. Rule of law may seem slow and clumsy but demonstrations and protest movements are even slower and clumsier. We must ever bear in mind that progress comes from agreement, not strife and conflict.

In this vein, one of the most hopeful signs of progress in the political realm occurred during the last election in the United States. In the face of the bitter contention and disunity of that election, the Philosopher's Cafe movement held an "anti-demonstration," a mass walk in the streets of New York during the Republican Party's Convention, led by philosophers rather than politicos. This was not a demonstration because instead of taking a stand for or against anything or anyone the order of the day was to ask this simple question: "What makes a good politician?" As they walked, participants tried to answer that question in an atmosphere of civility and sincere enquiry.

And indeed, what better question could you ask before a vote? If you haven't asked yourself that, what good is your vote in the first place? If those who are elected have not asked that question sincerely, why are they serving? What are they serving? How, for gosh sakes, are they going to do their job? To me, `Abdu'l-Baha anticipated the Philosopher Cafe March's question, "What makes a good politician?" when He was visiting Pleasanton, California. On this occasion He made the following comments upon the presidential election current at the time.

"The president must be a man who does not insistently seek the presidency. He should be a person free from all thoughts of name and rank; rather, he should say, `I am unworthy and incapable of this position and cannot bear this great burden.' Such persons deserve the presidency. If the object is to promote the public good, then the president must be a well-wisher of all and not a self-seeking person. If the object, however, is to promote personal interests, then such a position will be injurious to humanity and not beneficial to the public." (Mahmud, 327)

The Master describes here a surprised person with an unwanted, unwonted duty thrust upon her, not one who has spent years on the campaign trail to qualify for the job. Whatever tests and trials distinguished this leader from others have still not prepared her to slip smoothly into her commission. Indeed the very inner condition or spiritual state that qualifies her seems also at the same time to make her emotionally unprepared for it. It is like seeing your own eyeball, or trying to find someone hiding behind your back.

Such an elected leader must have a deep humility rather like that of the Master Himself, Who always attributed His success and confirmations to the power of Baha'u'llah and His Covenant, and to nothing else. Perhaps more difficult, the electorate must have an almost impossibly high level of discernment in order to elevate only those with the right stuff, stuff that the elected themselves cannot observe in themselves. The only way that such great powers of perception on the part of so many people could come about would be if backbiting were completely eliminated, if the waves of gossip were stilled.

I do not suppose that complete elimination of cruel tongues and personal interplay would be impossible. If you want to see a film about the evils of gossip, especially among young girls, go and see "Bad Girls," in a video store near you. This film is just as if someone had given a Baha'i an assignment in film making school to write a story with backbiting as the real enemy of humanity, not violence, not the usual suspects, just gossip. It is not a superhero story at all, but having seen it I wonder how a superhero would fight the gossip and backbiting so clearly seen in this film.

A superhero would be helpless to stop it because backbiting, like my kids' "ghost" game, goes on between individuals, in private and behind your back, by definition. But one thing you may notice as you watch the movie is this: the enemy is never named. Non-Baha'is are like the Inuit in the ever warmer Arctic, forced to deal with species that could never exist there before; they do not even have a name for it. At least we Baha'is have a set of names for the enemy: gossip, backbiting, calumny.

What election could allow such an attitude and sense of self to come to the attention of the electorate? One possibility might be for each of us to think about it for a while, then try to hold forth on question, "What makes a good leader?" "What kind of person do we need to represent us?" Having expressed my own answer, I then might see among those others trying to answer that question someone worthy of consideration. But the problem is that words are not sufficient; words are cheap. This is a quality that comes in the sum of his or her whole life. This is a huge challenge. An entirely different set of rituals, or indeed an absence of rituals, might be needed in order for the electorate to ask and answer such questions before an election.

A recent Reader's Digest recorded an interview with Donald Trump. Judging by what he says, this is clearly an intelligent man with integrity and great competence as a super-landlord and developer. His argument defending why he worked out his reputation as "The Trump," as the consummate self-aggrandiser, touches upon the very question that voters have to deal with before an election. Trump's unapologetic apology is this: in the present business climate you have no choice but to toot your own horn; if you want to succeed there is no choice, you have to be self confident to the point of arrogance. Only the most egotistical bombast can carry across the noisy void and if you are competent you have to tell everybody that you are the best because nobody is going to come over and uphold your cause for you. It has to be you, and you first, in promoting your cause. Trump's problem is hardly unique to this age. This is the human condition. It was a feverish concern twenty centuries ago. It will be a vexed issue twenty centuries from now.

Ours is a philosophical failure that results from neglecting to ask the right questions, from imagining ourselves too "busy" to think about what most matters in life, who we really are and Who God is. Plato makes this point in the Sophist,

Stranger: "When a person supposes that he knows, and does not know, this appears to be the great source of all errors of the intellect."

Theaetetus: "True."

Stranger: "And this, if I am not mistaken, is the kind of ignorance which specially earns the title of stupidity."

Theaetetus: "True."

Stranger: "What name, then, shall be given to the sort of instruction which gets rid of this?"

Theaetetus: "The instruction which you mean, Stranger, is, I should imagine, not the teaching of handicraft arts, but what, thanks to us, has been termed education in this part of the world." 

(Plato, Collected Dialogues, p. 972)

Not having asked the right questions we allow ourselves to think we know, which leads to unworthy, stupid, lunatic attitudes. Only when we more secure in asking the deeper questions, when we are used to trying and failing to answer them will we be ready to find good questioners to put in the most perplexing positions of all, those that must ask on our behalf: "What are we to do next?"

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