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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why Do We Bother to Study History? (Part One)

(Editor's note: This is the first segment in a three part series.) 

More than a few people have told me they hated history, until they came to relate its relevance to events in their own lives.  Why is the subject of history emphasized as extensively as it is in our K-12 secondary schools?  Why is it maintained as a core discipline in many of the nation’s public universities and most, if not all, of the nation’s elite liberal arts institutions of higher learning?

Why, on the other hand, is history taught so poorly, with an excruciating emphasis on the memorization of reams of facts and figures, absent any particular context or personal relevance?  More simply stated, why do we bother to study history?  What exactly is the point?

Let’s begin with human nature.  I am too young to remember Harry Truman, but the discussion should begin here.  My first connection to the name was as a young boy.  My dad used to refer to my maternal grandfather simply as “Harry S,” because, I was told, grandpa looked like Harry S. Truman.  It seemed that both men were rather short, appeared physically frail, sported closely cropped, gray haircuts, and also wore funny looking top hats.  No matter that my grandfather was of Italian descent, and had come to this country along with millions of other immigrants similarly situated in the early part of the 20th century.

When my grandfather received this greeting, he just smiled.  For all I knew, my grandfather may have had no idea of who Harry S. Truman was.  Fine, I thought, but just exactly who was Harry S?  My young curiosity was piqued.

My next encounter with Harry Truman was when Chicago, the popular band, recorded a song on one of its albums which was simply called “Harry Truman.”  The song began, America needs you, Harry Truman / Harry could you please come home.”  Okay, so here was another clue about this guy.

Although I did not understand its meaning then, perhaps it was just a coincidence that the Watergate scandal was about to break, forcing then-President Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in shame.  This was the same Nixon who grew up in the shadow of the infamous Joseph McCarthy, US Senator, R-WI, one of the key proponents of the communist “Red Scare.”  This was the same Nixon who, as Vice President to then-President Dwight Eisenhower, had attempted to label Harry Truman as soft on communism.  As it turned out, it was a futile effort simply to advance Nixon’s own personal cause.

Some may be surprised to learn that Harry Truman was the last American President who did not attend college.  Nor did my grandfather, for that matter.  But, Truman did have some good teachers along the way, perhaps the finest of whom was his mother.  Mattie Truman’s philosophy had been simple.  "You knew right from wrong, you always tried to do right, and you did your best.  That’s all there was to it."

One of Truman’s many biographers described the little farming town of Independence, Missouri, where Truman had grown up, as a town where people live a long time and have long memories.  Moreover, the people there all seemed to have something in common with Truman.  They had character.  Can we say that about the community in which we live?

(The second segment highlights Harry Truman’s self-education and how he came to concentrate on the workings, the continuity and the consistency of human nature.)

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, January 22, 2012

He Gave Expectations

Should lawmakers be permitted to confer merely expectations? ...

The news brings a familiar story of another corporate bankruptcy, this time of Hostess Brands, the maker of the iconic Twinkies, Sno Balls and Wonder Bread.  The company is hoping to cut costs, working to reach a voluntary agreement with its unions to modify collective bargaining agreements.

In a simplistic view, many ordinary citizens say “It’s all the union’s fault.”  Period.  End of conversation.  The feelings of these ordinary citizens seem to develop on the basis of quick sound bites and talking points picked up on morning television.

How many ordinary citizens understand just how bad things were for industrial workers in America in the days before unions?  Do we know why unions are even necessary, or all the good they have done, and do?  While this is not the time to consider the pros and cons of unions, enough to safely say there are mostly pros.

This ordinary citizen is reminded of a story about the early life of Benjamin Franklin.  Pennsylvania’s governor had promised to lend young Ben money to open his own printing shop.  He was 18 at the time.  The governor further suggested that young Ben travel to London to buy printing materials and arrange for supplies on letters of credit also promised by the governor.

On the strength of these promises, Franklin set off for London, a sea voyage which would take a full 50 days.  But arriving in London, Franklin quickly learned that he had been duped by the governor, who had no credit to give, and summed up the situation thus:

But what shall we think of a Governor’s playing such pitiful Tricks, and imposing so grossly on a poor ignorant Boy!  It was a Habit he had acquired.  He wish’d to please every body; and having little to give, he gave expectations.

Here was a young man who, even at such a tender age, had an extraordinary awareness of the tendencies of human nature.  He would require every morsel to survive in a foreign land.  But not only did Franklin survive, he flourished.  He quickly found work in his field as a printer, working in London for two years.  He knew that it would improve him such that, upon returning to America, he would be able to set up to greater advantage.

His instinct had been correct, and his career subsequently took off.  By age 24, he was named the official printer for Pennsylvania.  And at age 26 came the first publication of his popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, which he considered “a proper Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People, who bought scarce any other book.”

Unions obtain their benefits from corporate boardrooms.  After upper management takes a healthy cut up front, it then cares little for the long term.  Give the unions whatever they want.  There’ll never be money to pay down the road anyway.  It is illusory.  On closer inspection, hasn’t management conveyed just expectations?  The same with legislatures and the perks given to so called public sector unions.  Sadly, nothing more than expectations given.

Perhaps unions are but a symptom of the larger problem.  Both corporate boards and legislatures seek increasingly to abdicate responsibility for their own inept conduct.  They look elsewhere other than upon themselves, to unions in this instance, for a ready scapegoat.  It is another familiar lesson of human nature.

Perhaps corporate boards need public governance and legislatures insulation from special interests which tend to corrupt them at plain cost to ordinary citizens.  Should it be unlawful that neither be permitted to give merely expectations?

-Michael D’Angelo

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Arrogance and Envy

Why do the masses of ordinary citizens pay such a feverish mind to an international event so seemingly obscure as the royal wedding uniting Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, with Catherine “Kate” Middleton?  What is so special about the dress of Kate’s younger sister and maid of honor, Philippa "Pippa" Middleton, that the multitudes can’t seem to tear their eyes away?

More simply put, why do those from a lower station crave obsession with those who appear to be upon the summits of human life?  After all, it would appear that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little over the centuries to the promotion of happiness.  Surely neither the splendor of their rank nor the extent of their capacity has often given any just occasion to envy.

To some, apparent superiority has a tendency to incite great designs and even greater imaginations.  But these are naturally susceptible to fatal miscarriages.  To others, the general lot of mankind is misery.  That the misfortunes of those whose eminence draws upon them universal attention have been more carefully recorded should not be a particularly vexing phenomenon.

Perhaps their misfortunes were more carefully recorded only because they were more generally observed.  Perhaps, too, their misfortunes have in reality been only more conspicuous than those of others, but not more frequent, or more severe.

Some barriers are not physical.  Rather, they are psychological.  The human emotion of fear is of the latter variety, used by those in authority to assure conformity to a desired behavior.  Envy is also a very powerful psychological barrier, as is arrogance.  The rich look down from the summit upon the poor with arrogance; the poor, in turn, look up from their lower station on the rich with envy.

During the early days of industrialization in the late 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt made an astute observation within his analysis of labor-ownership strife and the arrogance of capitalism.  Exhausted from his attempts to balance the competing social forces he sought to mediate, T.R. described the situation thus: “Envy and arrogance are the two opposite sides of the same black crystal.”

To Alphonso X, the Learned, King of Spain, as far back as the 13th century, general credit is given for having said that “Had I been present at the creation I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.”  One then might ask: Better ordering to suit whom?  The learned king no doubt had his own happiness in mind.  His own best interests first.  His people’s second.

In what has been labeled “an expression of the American mind,” the 1776 Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson, states that among the “certain and inalienable rights” which all men possess are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The word “happiness,” however, is without definition.  Neither is the word “property,” the ownership thereof, or “bank” anywhere mentioned.  Nor is a particular economic system contemplated in the 1789 US Constitution.

What, then, is the pursuit of happiness?  To answer this question, the ordinary citizen should recognize that arrogance and envy are antagonists in the predictable “science of human nature.”  This vantage point is provocative yet neutral.

-Michael D’Angelo

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nature: a Higher Authority

Is there a higher authority than the law or made made religious institutions?

Nature is simple in its essence, and seemingly perfect in every way.  Man is a simple product of nature, but human nature is, as we have come to know, imperfect.  The intersection of nature with the birth of a human being constitutes life in its simplest form.  My parents used to say that all a baby really needs are three things: food, warmth and love.  That’s it.  The traditional hospital blanket, which covers the newborn infant for baby’s first picture, is slightly larger, perhaps, than an ordinary dish cloth.

But then, the hospital blanket begins to grow, and so do the problems.  And, somehow, it gets complicated.  The signs are familiar: the loss of Mom and/or Dad’s job, an ill conceived marriage, an ugly divorce, an illness, an untimely death.  Other signs are even less subtle: the birth of a child into poverty with no father, no parents, no adult role model.  Few are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to grow up the privileged child of the rich man.  As a matter of numbers, it’s just not reality.

Somewhere along the line, however, we may recognize how simple turns into complicated.  Those with the special twin gifts of inner strength and mental toughness are able to navigate these choppy waters with great discipline.  And, through a healthy measure of self-examination, we begin to simplify.  Hopelessly lost, for a time, in a race whose value has come into question, we find our way back to basics.  We prioritize, and through this process the journey of life begins anew.

The tricky part is how we go about the process of simplifying.  For some, comfort and solace are found and nurtured within religion or politics, the bedrock social institutions.  Interesting is the fact that in our American democracy each, although sacred in its own right, is kept separate and distinct.  There can be neither politics in religion, nor religion in politics.  It is the law of the land and has been so, since 1791.

Despite the imperfections inherent in each of these institutions, when we begin to peel back the onion and scrutinize the underpinnings, we react quite differently.

Some choose to accept the inherent flaws, whether perceived as minor or major is of little consequence.  They voluntarily submit to the structure of the nominal authorities.  Further, they accept that while these old friends may be far from perfect, somehow we need them.

Others are seemingly oblivious to the flaws.  Here, the word “brainwashed” comes to mind, although perhaps it is more diplomatic to settle on the word “dependent.”  The politics of fear is skillfully deployed, aimed at destroying our basic convictions and attitudes and replacing them with alternative beliefs.  We are controlled through this intensive and forcible transformative process and can be manipulated as necessary to promote the self-serving goals of the leaders.

Still others see through self-interest, reject arbitrary and artificial rules, and choose to go it alone.  Their independent path less traveled is guided not by man made filters or walls but only by the voice in their inner bosom.  These individuals understand that while these institutions started off and mean well, and do good things for lots of people, sometimes they are corrupted.  These individuals also understand that there is a higher authority than the law or man made religious institutions.

But which is the preferred or more correct way to proceed?  There are no right or wrong answers.  All are reasonable.  There’s only us, and the quality of our daily existence, such as what we ordinary citizens make of it.  But the path less traveled has higher upside for greater understanding.  Prudently navigated, this path alone has the capacity to identify and suspend the limiting self-interest component of politics and religion.  The complicated can thus become simplified, permitting the underlying message to shine through.

-Michael D’Angelo