Phronesis – One of my observations
“What kind of contagion is influencing our young people, and our old people, that they seek to engage in these dramatic mass killings?” That was a rhetorical question posed by Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas in a recent interview.
Americans need to ask such questions more frequently and to consider a wide range of factors, some of which might be direct influences and some of which might embody symbolic meta-messages. The latter are not causal, but they point to a weakened immune system within society.
In that category of indicators, one cultural bellwether is Bohemian Rhapsody, a prescient classic which the band Queen introduced in a 1975 album. Freddie Mercury’s grim but brilliant lyrics, whose full meaning is still debated today, provide an outline of pained imagination present in many people today. The messages may be all too common risk factors for male teens and young adults. They are trying to make sense of their own lives, craving whatever meaning they can find in a bohemian, rhapsodic, ungrounded culture.
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality …”
“Mama, just killed a man … life had just begun, but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away …”
“Too late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time …”
“I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all …”
“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me …”
“Nothing really matters, anyone can see … Nothing really matters to me … any way the wind blows.”
In a world where structures of principle and personal dignity get passed along poorly, thought patterns can become random and the modus vivendi can drift into mere theater. Truths are conjured by the individual, according to the script or the score being written at the moment.
Freddie Mercury nevertheless shaped his message into a creative product that contained a haunting beauty; such was the requirement of his own soul and of the 1970s musical marketplace for which he was writing. His vision included a heroism informed by love, a desire to reach out and cry out to others, and a lingering respect for knowledge and wisdom, order and substance, a search for context befitting a well-educated person.
I hear the message of “nothing really matters” in too many current songs, scripts, and actions of young adults—and older adults, including our leaders. We have allowed the contagion to spread, over decades, by further darkening the theater in which coherent visions could find a way forward. We are implicated in the hyperbole and hypocrisy spreading through our media and politics. We cannot meet today’s challenges, infused into troubled lives, with quick cures administered performatively, without true compassion for young imaginations craving guidance.
Freddie and his band have sent us a message that is deeper than the call to nihilism which too many young people now draw from an “anything goes” sense of reality. Many practitioners of pointless drama, and perhaps our entertainment culture as a whole, have become the modern theatrical “scaramouch,” who loves to get into skirmishes—fandangos that mimic heroism but display unformed, uninformed narcissism.
“Pandevotional” Prayer/ Pandemic Reflection
Keeping in mind the tragedy of today’s dramas about nothingness, and seeking an abundance of grace to replace the vacuum of an atomistic culture, we can pray this “Prayer for Civility” that I discovered on the US Catholic Bishops’ website promoting “a better kind of politics.”
Lord, make me an Instrument of Your Peace.
Where uncivil words prevail, show me how to model love.
Help me remember the God-given dignity of all and invite others to do the same.
Show me how to build bridges and not walls and see first what unites us rather than how we diverge.
Let me seek to understand before asking to be understood.
Give me a listening heart filled with empathy and compassion.
May I be clear in sharing my own position and respectful and civil in describing those of others.
Let me never tolerate hateful ideas. May I invite all to charity and love.
Chewing on This – A story I heard
I learned this from a TV series called Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope. One episode is titled “Bhutan: Gross National Happiness.” View it here.
Bhutan, located in the Himalayas, is the world’s newest monarchy. The first king ruled from 1907 to 1926. Its fifth king is now reigning.
The fourth king, who ruled from 1972 to 2006, introduced the philosophy of the Gross National Happiness, an alternative to the notion of “gross domestic product.” This new metric, incorporating a moral component, proclaims that the country’s development must go hand-in-hand with the happiness of its people. Bhutan’s government, which now has added democratic features, takes the GNH standard into account in the writing of laws.
There is a definition of happiness implicit in the GNH philosophy of governance. The four pillars are: good governance, sustainable development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
I noticed that the GNH philosophy runs parallel to the “ESG” set of standards, which are increasingly popular among global investors and bankers who use “environmental, social, and governance” criteria in deciding which companies merit financial support.
See the description provided by Investopedia. This site’s report points out that one major asset management firm, used as an example, employs ESG to filter out “companies that … have exposure to coal or hard rock mining, nuclear or coal power, private prisons, agricultural biotechnology, tobacco, tar sands, or weapons and firearms.” It also excludes “companies involved in major or recent controversies over human rights, animal welfare, environmental concerns, governance issues, or product safety.”
Companies which are deemed sustainably worthy investments “limit harmful pollutants and chemicals,” seek to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and “use renewable energy sources,” according to ESG guidelines. Firms must maintain an ethical supply chain, “support LGBTQ rights and encourage diversity,” “have policies to protect against sexual misconduct,” and “pay fair wages.” Firms’ governance must, among other criteria, “embrace diversity” on their boards of directors and exhibit financial transparency.
Sounds good, although I’m still chewing on several corollaries:
As applied by various investment firms, do ESG criteria which appear specific and justifiable still leave plenty of room for interpretation and degrees of difference? I’m thinking of words like harmful, ethical, fair, diversity, rights, controversies, and misconduct. This reminds me of the possible danger when someone is defining “happiness” for other people.
Another point regarding Bhutan in the ESG context: How would one decide whether criteria of sustainability and happiness might conflict with the king’s fourth philosophical goal—preservation of culture? Does such preservation include the maintenance of cultural values at the grass roots of the population, where “happiness” must ultimately be sought by the individual and the community?
If “the business of America is business,” as President Calvin Coolidge is apparently misquoted as saying, is it likely that global financial leaders promoting their sustainability platforms will impose the same ESG criteria on both American companies and American society writ large? Are today’s politicians already advancing policies and mind frames which bow to ESG watchdogs?
What would global leaders say about the huge expenditures now under way in industries serving the military? Might the current demands for myriad weapons during the war in Ukraine be deemed to justify the investments flowing to particular companies? Would America’s stated goal of being an arsenal for democracy in this situation be deemed permissible under ESG, even though the value of democracy as an element of sustainability (or happiness) is not addressed on big investors’ private-sector radar screens? Would such spending be justified under a similar situation—regarding relations with China, for example?
If investments in armaments companies are not to be allowed under ESG, is it a happy coincidence that the current increases in military spending are coming at a time when ESG is not explicitly part of US policy?
Word’s Worth – a word or term I heard
I went looking for the origins of the term “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is attributed to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005).
An online text from Media/Culture Journal says the phrase captures “a common spirit that pervades the writings of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche.” Ricoeur cited a “school of suspicion” that seeks to unmask “the lies and illusions of consciousness,” to circumvent the obvious or self-evident meaning of words by digging for hidden contexts and prejudicial backgrounds. This approach to interpretation appears most explicitly in religious studies and philosophy, according to the journal. I have heard it used in the field of feminist studies.
I do not know enough to affirm this, but I am concerned that a spirit of suspicion toward the validity of words and their meanings could become aligned with the Bohemian Rhapsody school of “nothing really matters.” It could advance social polarization through word-use conflicts that render words impotent as carriers of truth.
Moreover, a “healthy” suspicion about words and information should be seen as encouraging curiosity and critiques, a tool for increased learning and understanding. But suspicion as a first principle, even an attitude, in the search for truth is self-defeating if the goal is a public square where the dignity of unique minds and hearts sheds light for society.
That’s the Spirit – an experience of God
Keep an eye out, in a good way, for Judeo-Christian evangelization in the secular sphere. I predict more non-sectarian voices on the internet talking about America’s need to return to a consciousness drawn from religion—a sense of what I would call “right and wrong and why.” These voices will not tell you what religion to belong to, but they respect society’s need for other-centered virtues and values, for a wisdom not limited to science or materialism.
Key exemplars of this pro-faith platform include Dennis Prager and Jordan Peterson, as well as various authors, some of whom are likely liberal-arts liberals. The game show Jeopardy has become more diverse and inclusive, but I sense its meritocracy of broad knowledge does not allow it to go all-in on equity of outcomes. Its celebration of well-educated minds does allow it to continue a tradition of abundant questions (answers!) about religion.
Just kidding – some witty thing waiting to be used
I wrote these, and I hope they make you smile. Late-night hosts, I’m ready for my job interview!
I’m so anxious, I get triggered when my landlord does pressure-washing.
I’m so paranoid, my pronouns are “Who? Me?”
I’m so unpredictable, my Bipolar One sometimes jumps to Bipolar Three.
I’m so indecisive, my Covid tests didn’t come out positive or negative. They came out “reticent.”
Instead of social distancing or masks, our politicians should have just required that we all wear accordions.
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