Morality has always been a problem, for each generation that has inherited it has, of course, had problems with what it inherited. Why does one have to say, “Pardon?” or “Pardon me, ma’am?” instead of just “What?” when one cannot quite hear what an older person has said?
It could quickly be objected that such a slender matter is one of decorum not morality. That may be so, but I would argue that these are not unrelated ideas. One gets one sense of decorousness (derived from the Latin decus, meaning “honor” or “dignity”) from one’s upbringing, and that is the same place whence one acquires one’s sense of morality. The word morality is, in fact, derived from the plural of the Latin word, mos, meaning “habit”; the Romans referred to a person’s character as mores, one’s “habits.” The character of a person was, therefore, reflected by the collection of his habits. Such morality for the Romans was never entirely free-standing: it was often called the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors.” As such, it was implicitly linked to the notion of “looking back” (the Latin respicere), from which we get the English word “respect,” which means treating those who have come before respectfully, not simply because they have given birth to you, but because they have given you your sense of decorum, have helped to shape your habits, and have handed down to you a precious moral code; and that is why you should respect them. I could end this piece right here by simply saying, “Go and think about that.”
But I want to add one more thing, of an anecdotal nature. A friend of mine was being upbraided by his own twenty-something year old child recently. The child had, wittingly or unwittingly, subscribed to the “new” morality. That morality is not inherited but is entirely derived from the individual, or the collection of a mass of individuals’ thoughts. This mass is largely sustained by social media. It is often referred to as political correctness, but that is only one limb of this monster. The new morality is founded upon the principle that the individual is the autonomous central arbiter of all questions. This can only be true, of course, if morality is shifting, nebulous, entirely a matter of grey areas. The individual determines what is right or wrong for him or her. Add to this, that the individual’s generation has its own set of values that is the collective sum of that generation’s thought, again, largely perpetuated by social media. There is no shame in this new morality, but there is “shaming,” which is what used to be called “humiliating” or “excoriating.”
For this new morality, the word character is hardly ever used and its adjectival form, “moral,” is used even less. Why? Because to do so would be to admit that there is a true standard beyond the individual’s determination of what is “right for me.” The new morality is, of course, not morality at all; It is not handed down from the ancestors; it more than touts—indeed it requires—the primacy of the individual over society; it is necessarily irreligious, though it can be “spiritual” (the preferred word). It does not acknowledge societal constraints. It often plays the victim and cannot accept being challenged. Why? The answer should be obvious: it is shallow. But, as it has no shame, it takes no umbrage at such a moniker.
So my friend’s adult child could upbraid him because my friend phrased something in such a way that the child didn’t approve of. The child told my friend that his opinion of a certain moral issue was wrong, and by implication not in keeping with the standards of the current age. And that’s where we are, in the midst of a “new” morality, shallow and devoid of shame, clear direction and, saddest of all, character. It is indecorous, disrespectful, unwittingly nihilistic and, for the most part unwittingly, embraces death. It leads to despair and chaos. Who will deliver us from the body of this death? I seem to recall the last verse of the seventh chapter of a very old epistle, written to Romans, that suggests an answer.
For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or DailyNews, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.
The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the PhiladelphiaInquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.
But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. This picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.
But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.
I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.
Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.
An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.
The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.
Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.
Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.
So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.
Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”
And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…” I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?
Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.
That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.
Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.
That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.
But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.
Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.
Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”
“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”
“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”
He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.
“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”
“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”
“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”
“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”
He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”
I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.
“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.
Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.
As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.
My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.
Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?
And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.
No, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.