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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Judging a Generation

Not infrequently on Facebook I see posts that bring on a wave of sadness. The posts I mean are not personal position statements thought out by the friend posting but what I think of as t-shirt or bumper sticker ideas the friend picked up somewhere else and reposted, so that now other friends are encouraged to “Share if you agree.” I never do. Never share, that is.

Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I identify strongly with the sentiment expressed. Other times I most emphatically do not. Either way, though, what so often brings on the sadness is an immediate gut response that, if put into words, would go something like this (if Fb allowed for italics, which it does not): “Oh, please, friends! It’s so much more complicated than that!”

(Americans, I read somewhere the other day, "don’t like nuance." There’s another blanket statement I can’t buy, because ain’t I an American?)

So now, to make good on today’s subject heading, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The text reads as follows:

1944: 18 year olds [sic] storm the beach of Normandy into almost certain death.

2016: 18 year olds [sic] need a safe place because words hurt their feelings.

Then, of course, “Share if you agree.”


Originally I was going to title this post “Passing Judgments on Entire Generations,” but I figured that was too long a title. The subtext of the Fb post, however, asks us to do just that. It implies that one generation, that of World War II, i.e., my parents’ generation, was manly and courageous (at least, they men were, right?) and that a younger generation, my grandchildren, are a pack of whiny, sniveling, cowardly little babies. One generation all heroes, the other all sissies.

I don’t buy it.

Every generation has heroes and cowards, patriotic soldiers (some gung-ho, some reluctant), principled pacifists, and a majority of ordinary people who serve their country in thousands of diverse ways, at home and abroad. 

What did I learn from my parents’ generation? What was the most important lesson they taught me?

I’ll tell you. We were taught the Golden Rule. We were taught not that crying when picked on by a bully was shameful and babish but that bullying was shameful. That name-calling was shameful. That when we were witness to bullying and name-calling or any other kind of bad behavior, it was our job to speak against the bad behavior and speak up for the innocent.

And my grandchildren are being taught the same lessons today. They know that speaking out for what is right can be difficult, but they have the courage to stand up and be counted, and I am proud of their courage. I am proud of their sensitivity to the feelings of others, both those like them and those different from them.

“Kids today!” It’s a lament as old as the human race, but would any of us change places with our grandchildren? What a world they are inheriting! And well, it’s easy to gild the past and kick dirt on the present, isn't it? And the temptation is especially great as we grow older and seek cheap comfort in nostalgia. But how does that help anyone?

That's my bottom line. Do I have anything to say that's going to help anyone? Will sharing this or that somehow make the world better?

Because we need to ask what we can do to support young people in this confusing, difficult, threatening and threatened world. Because writing off the future of our country and the world makes no sense at all.

Monday, December 5, 2016

And Now, About That Five-Legged Dog

I’ll get to the dog in a minute, but first a couple of questions. How do you feel about living in a “post-truth era”? Are you convinced “there’s no such thing as facts”? 

Dan Rather – bless his heart! – has come out strongly on the side of facts and truth. Here are a few sample paragraphs for those disinclined to follow the link:
If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
You can go to a post-truth doctor who could say "well the elitist scientific tests say you have strep throat but I say it's cancer so let's give you some chemotherapy." 
Or you can go to a post-truth electrician who might say "well those elitist electrical manuals published in New York and those government regulations out of Washington say you should ground your electricity, but that's just a bunch of red tape." 
Or you can go to a post-truth auto mechanic who might say "well those elitist laws of physics say that this is how a braking system works, but let's replace your brake pads with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies because they will smell better when you hit the brake pedal." If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
I was reminded of David Hume’s dizzying bout of temporary skepticism, brought on by pursuing justification down a rabbit hole. “How can I believe in the material world, when the senses sometimes deceive and there would be nothing illogical about nonexistence?” For Hume, dinner and conversation with friends, followed (or preceded) by a good game of billiards, sufficed to banish doubt. And as for the rest of us, outside of our own dizzying moments of metaphysical speculation, we have no choice, either, but to “believe in” the earth we stand on. We can no more doubt it while going about our lives than a fish can doubt the reality of water.

My father was no philosopher but an engineer. A “just the facts” kinda guy? Well, he also had a fanciful side that came out in a long-running serial bedtime story about a family of squirrels, and his inclined enough toward dreams that he encouraged me for years to enter the Kentucky Club tobacco contest to name a thoroughbred racehorse and win the horse. That is, he was enough of a story-teller and dreamer that, when I was a child, we shared common loves and interests.

On the other hand, he was a lifelong Republican and a proud army reserve officer, with very traditional conservative values, and our relationship grew strained during my adolescence. He was gung-ho the war in Vietnam and adamantly opposed to the E.R.A. So if he were still alive, where would he stand today?

I need to believe he would come down firmly on Dan Rather’s sturdy position, out of respect for the English language, as well as for facts. You see, in addition to classical music and serious poetry and opera, my father delighted in doggerel and shaggy dog stories and riddles, and one of his favorite riddles, sparking many riotous debates with small daughters, was this puzzler:

Q: If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have?

When we were little, my sisters and I readily fell for the trick question, eagerly shouting out “Five!” Then came the implacable, rock-ribbed parental lesson:

A: The dog has four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!

Long after my sisters and I had ceased to be gullible enough to offer the wrong answer, my father continued to trot out his old, tired riddle.

But here’s the thing: the answer never changes. The answer would not have changed even if my sisters and I had insisted for all those years that the tail was a leg and that the hypothetical dog in question had, therefore, five legs. We could have chanted in deafening chorus (Yeah, sure! As if my parents would have put up with that sort of nonsense!): “Five legs! Five legs! Five legs! Five legs!” It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Repetition would not have made the wrong answer right then, and it doesn’t make it right today. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg. Repeating a lie as the truth does not make it true, no matter how many times you tell the lie, no matter how long and loudly you shout and chant and intoxicate yourself.