"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No More Mr. Nice Guy

“It’s a mistake to think that error is anything but a constant in human life.”
—Philip Thompson

The winds were blowing this morning. I awoke to a loud bang. Then there was another. Then my neighbor called to say that my back gate had blown open. My neighbor’s gate had also blown open; the wind had pulled its latch out of the wall.

I got out of bed, dressed, went out into the wind, and closed and latched the gate. I suspected that it had not been properly latched by a workman. I gathered some ripe oranges that had been blown down and went back into the house.

Having placed the oranges in the kitchen sink to be rinsed later, I was going to look out the window of the kitchen door to see if there had been any damage on the windward side of the house when I noticed an earwig crawling on the white spiral cord of the wall phone. I decided to open the door, to bring the phone receiver outside, and to flick the bug off the wire onto the driveway.

After stepping outside with the phone, I looked for the earwig. It was gone from the cord. I looked down to see whether it had fallen off in the kitchen or outside. Just then the door, which opens outward, caught a heavy gust of wind, like that which had earlier blown open the back gate with a bang, and fiercely slammed into my forehead. The impact knocked me to my knees and also sent the fob of the key in the deadbolt lock flying onto the ground a few feet away.

I reeled into the kitchen, conscious enough to fear the shame of having been seen by any of my neighbors, dropped the phone on the floor as the wind slammed the door behind me, and fell to the carpet in the living room. The tensions pressing on my life—the illness and death of my dog, the invasion of my home by workmen, the end of the school semester, lack of sleep, a low-grade upper respiratory infection, exasperation at my stupidity, and the tragic condition of man—all piggy-backed upon the mental aftershock of the impact to my head, and I burst into tears like a four-year-old child.

The beep of the phone, complaining about being off the hook so long, pulled me out of my abjection. I hung up the receiver and then noticed that the key fob was attached to half the key, which had been snapped from the other half, still in the lock, by the same blow that had felled me. I spent some effort trying to pull what was left of the key out of the lock but failed, one of the needles of my needle-nose pliers having been broken off on some previous day of trial.

Giving up, I turned to put the tools away and saw, dark against the light background of the kitchen floor, the earwig. “And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall / On Mars’s armor, forged for proof eterne, / With less remorse” than my revengeful boot now fell upon that earwig.

Since these events, I have been stewing in a black cloud of rancor, which appears to bear the characteristics of a complete personality change. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Unless this act of writing tempers my condition through venting or sublimation or some other psychological process, anyone who wants anything from me, anyone who expects me to suppress my wishes or my autonomy or my government of my own household, had better watch out. Between the phone call, the neighbor, the workman, the gate, the misplaced compassion, the wind, the door, the vulnerable forehead, the fool behind it, the phone, the key, the tears, the shame, and the infernal earwig, I am myself become a Cyclops and will eat alive whoever has the misfortune to cross me today.

P.S., a few hours later: I’ve got a lump, but the headache’s gone, and the workman found a way to pop the broken key out of the lock. I guess things are looking up.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Socialism and Virtue

A former student has sent me the following note, exercise, and friend’s response:

The note:
“Not sure if you may have seen this exercise floating around the internet…but my friend’s rebuttal was so good I had to share the exercise and his comment. I am curious [about] your thoughts…if you could spare a moment.”

The exercise:

“Professor Is (Not?) a Genius

“An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had once failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said, 'OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan.' All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A.

“After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy.

“As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a D. No one was happy. When the third test rolled around, the average was an F. The scores never increased as bickering, blame, and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.

“All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.

“Could not be any simpler than that.”

The friend’s response:
“Where there is no compassion for the unfortunates and no accounting for luck, there will be a savage race to wealth. The classmates who understood the material and didn't see the value in helping the others understand the material deserved the failing grades they all got.”

My own response:

I like the intellectual exercise you sent, though I doubt it is a true story. But it makes a good point, and I think a true one, about the hopelessness of the socialist theory as a substitute for individual responsibility.

As for your friend’s comment, it is true that compassion for unfortunates is essential to civilization. However, it is essential as a virtue, to be sought individually and to be culturally taught, recognized, and admired. But though such virtue must influence human law, it cannot be secured by law or forced through a political system or dictated from above.

Virtue is called virtue (from vir, meaning "man") partly because it is to be practiced by an individual human being. When individuals surrender to the state their responsibility for acting virtuously, they will cease to be virtuous and the state will redefine virtue to serve its own interests. (Think 1984 and Brave New World, or German National Socialism and Soviet Russia.)

Any theory that purports to substitute a forced system of virtue for individual responsibility for virtue is denying what the founding fathers of the United States knew well--that is, the limits of human perfectibility. This is why Marx and all his offshoots are whistling in the wind and why all Marxist regimes sink into utterly un-virtuous dictatorships.

The real danger is tyranny wearing the clothes of virtue. Without logic and trained reason, people can be manipulated into believing that in the name of the good they should renounce their freedom to be good or bad. What that leads to, over and over again, and inevitably, is bad.

As a nation we are precariously teetering on the brink of such a delusion now, and I hope that the majority of Americans will bethink themselves and return to the wisdom of the best of their ancestors before they sell their individual liberties and responsibilities to buy a false vision of utopia. The word utopia means “no place” for a good reason.