31 August 2010

A Truly Heroic Feast of Cynicism

You've really got to hand it to this anything-is-possible country of ours. Even today. Because even now - as things seem more than ever to be crashing down round our American ears (but is anyone listening, I wonder?) - even now, I'd swear we Americans have managed to become wiser than ever before in our history: wiser, I mean, in the ways, and in that ever-popular knowledge, of good and evil. And particularly in all those clever ways in which evil - or what we'd surely recognize as evil in any situation but the one we're in - nearly always trumps good, or makes good seem fussy, or redundant, or irrelevant. Or, worst of all, obstructive to growth and progress.

Fortunately most of the time the trumping evil does is for good's own good, so to speak. The whole problem with Good, you see, is that he's really a very stubborn and ignorant little boy, who too often fails to remember his place, and who has a habit of asking many extremely ignorant, embarrassing and uncomfortable questions. And who, as a result, often stands in the way of our getting so many things done. Not just any old tiddly-wink things either, but things pretty much all of us would like to do - if only we had, we feel, the sufficient gumption and drive. Yes, even big, important, world-shaking things, like amassing great power or wealth, or political influence (and by no means always in that precise order). After all, who's this little punk to get in the way of our dreams? And as for the very worst of the little boy's questions - as to whether these grand things we'd all like to do are really likely to effect anything good, or make anyone's life better - why, you insufferable little snot, where's your spirit of adventure, and opportunity? You never know till you try, right? Surely we can sort out all your precious ethical concerns later? And in the meantime, haven't we all got a solemn moral duty to keep things going any blessed way we can? And doesn't that sometimes involve the breaking of a few unfortunate eggs?

In this clever way, as I've said, what would otherwise be known as evil, along with its seemingly much greater fund of practical knowledge and experience, increasingly trumps the good. Until soon there becomes less and less of anybody worth believing in, or trusting, or taking the word of. And even if we bothered to look, I mean, where would we find the people? or they find the time? We're all too busy thinking of ourselves, or taking advantage of the stupid and the suckers, or in general just trying to get and stay ahead, to be a rock for anyone to lean on. And just as well too, since only by pushing ourselves ahead do we move anything else along. Particularly in the public, the business and political, arenas. Seriously: Would you trust a man who always told the truth to get anything done?

Meanwhile, those few whom - whatever their political instincts or allegiances - we find genuinely worthy of our trust and belief are soon consigned to a lovely, museum-like irrelevance. How many of us remember Illinois governor Richard Ogilvie?

And again, why should we? By now the reason not to should be obvious to anyone with half-a-brain working. It's that we've grown up. We no longer have time for the obnoxiously honest little boy with his heroes and role models. Indeed, we haven't just grown very adept at tarnishing heroes, or at perfecting that process which ensures that all our leaders get tarnished (aka corrupted) eventually. We're way past that point now. We're so grown up, in fact ("I said get that little boy OUT of here!"), that we see very little practical point to heroism of any kind. I mean, this is the enlightened 21st century, right? Progress forbid there should still be anyone entering business or politics with the aim chiefly of serving the public. And least of all one who intends to keep true to her very oldest, most stubborn, most inborn sense of decency, fair play and compassion, and that to all human beings for no other reason than because they're human. Really, who does she think she is anyway - GOD?

Oh, I'm aware some may argue that if she genuinely believes these things, and is happier believing them, where's the harm? But honestly, do you know anyone half-way competent who does? and who is not mentally and physically the worse for it? And even supposing she were boneheaded enough to adhere to such muddled, antiquated sentiments as the incalculable worth of every human creature in the sight of God, just what would she hope to accomplish by it? Certainly whatever can be said in such notions' favor, they're hardly any self-respecting way of taking Life's bull by the horns. Why, at that sort of rate nothing much of any substance would ever get done. Or else it would get done much more slowly, or kindly, or considerately. And since when has any great man (much less woman) ever got that way by being kind and considerate?

Again, we all want to be great, right? The only thing that hinders most of us, as I stated earlier, is lack of nerve or opportunity. So why get in the way of someone else's nerve and opportunity? He's only doing what you would do if you had half the spine, or one-quarter of the character. Of course you're free to be as childishly noble-minded as you like. Go ahead, lie to yourself all you want: you know you'd be as big a "bastard" - if not altogether worse - if only you had a decent-enough chance of never getting caught. Meanwhile, if someone else of real backbone is aiming at success, why should you care a fig how he gets it? And if the real aim of all of us is to win, why give a damn how any of us plays the game?

Call it cynicism if you like. But even so, you must admit, it's cynicism of a far more buoyant, hearty, zestful, even life-affirming kind than most of our other variations on that theme. Indeed, it is to me if anything a kind of reverse-cynicism, in that those same human vices that traditionally have made us most pessimistic about man's prospects - our pride and impatience and effrontery - are made the very basis of our hope. What shall we call it then - the flip side of our famous optimism? Or better yet, the fuel that drives it? For my part, I'm convinced our "new" American cynicism is not just inseparable from our recently unbridled optimism: it is its bone and sinew. For here's basically how it goes. On the one hand we're all "bastards" under the skin (unless we're psychotics or otherwise mentally impaired). On the other hand, where would humankind be without "bastardy" - other than still in swamps and caves? It's what gets things done and keeps them going: what opens every door and washes every floor. All things are possible to him who deceives.

Thus do we get - in case it's escaped your attention - exactly the kinds of business and political leaders (to say nothing of business and political commentators) we deserve. And then we wonder at how their continued success continues to mean failure for most of the rest of us. And we marvel at how they go on winning what may be the biggest high-stakes game of our time: The game of making our country less and less unified, and more and more confused, conflicted and ineffectual, in our actions abroad anywhere. While meantime the whole world is graced and blessed with:

(1) global ideological - and religious - movements, many of a kind unimaginable even thirty years ago;
(2) global organizations of every kind and purpose and ambition, both profitable and not-for-profit;
(3) global syndicates driven by some of the vilest ambitions imaginable to anyone.

And all of them entities, please note, in whose delicate hands human beings may yet prove - or are already proving - to be far more interchangeable, malleable and disposable things than they've ever been for any mere country. Best of all, what with the gross vacuum of power we patriotic Americans are cheerfully creating, more and more of the globe is being parceled out for these newcomers' playgrounds, to which all the other "kids" must quickly adapt or die.

"What?" you sputter and mutter with indignation. "Entire countries being sidelined, or even relegated permanently to the margins by these new players? For heaven's sake, what about CHINA? Or even [note the more subdued, cautious tone] India?"

Well, frankly I wish I could be sure how India is going to escape the ever more vise-like grip of an expanding China and an exploding Pakistan. I only pray and hope she does, and quickly. And without becoming more fanatically "Hinduist" - in other words, more globally armed and dangerous herself - in the process. As regards a possible third Asian "giant," let me just say for the record that I'm much more worried over Russia's future than India's. On the one hand it is possible - just - that Russia may again become a kind of regional hegemon or even superpower (though I have the strangest feeling that, whatever future eminence she may attain, it will be one that is closely if not inextricably yoked with Germany's and China's). On the other hand, Russia is at least as much capable of disintegrating - or decomposing - as the result of certain bold and stupid things she initiates, as on account of the bold and stupid initiatives of other parties.

As for the thing we call China, that for me is an entirely different animal. The People's Republic is neither a nation nor a country, but rather a politically-organized (indeed, for the most part politically-brutalized) civilization. And that is something vastly different from the rest of us, for all the many superficial resemblances (though we in the US may be playing a strange game of catch-up in this department - more on that in the last paragraph). Indeed, all prevailing signs suggest China is becoming, once again, the kind of ambitious, aggressive, self-vindicating civilization with which history is so nauseatedly familiar: the kind out of which great empires are made, and whose ordinary folks are bought and sold a dime-a-dozen. And in particular (unlike the case of even, say, Imperial Japan) those folks who make up the empire's "own people." The reason is that in mainland China we have an entity not only fully capable of covering every part of the globe - in one fashion or another - but one that will essentially keep on going, and covering, until it bumps into something or somebody equally strong and worthy of (its) respect. The problem is that, before that happens, it may well have succeeded in covering more or less all of us. And I suspect the more of us it covers, the better will be the opportunities for those three most engaging global monsters I mentioned earlier - or at least those among them who have the biggest stake in the Success of China Inc.

This, in short, is the deliciously slick, clever, cocky little hyper-Americanizing world we've fashioned, in which for some mysterious reason there is less and less room for any coherent, sovereign, self-functioning entity known as the USA. Or likely even - eventually - any sovereign country. A world whose most endangered species consists of citizens who know how to respect one another's common humanity, as opposed to hating or despising each other for something as shallow and trivial as a mere opinion. In sum, just the kind of world we need - don't you think? - to prepare us for confrontation with real evil, real tyranny, real inhumanity. And what a nourishing feast of righteousness and peace for the globe's burgeoning populations! So if nothing else, I hope you've brought yourself a decent appetite. And please don't wait to be seated, but go straight to the buffet-table. See, and taste, the fruits of our wondrously optimistic American cynicism; savor the rich harvest of (roughly) four decades of "Attitude" and "Yeah, right," of "Been there, done that" and "Ask me if I give a s***." Above all, be encouraged. As mere Western nations go, our American influence and credibility in the world, our global leverage and prestige may be nearing their lowest points in the lifetime of anyone living. If not their final expiry dates. But as a defiantly post-Western, world-debilitating, world-corrupting civilization, why, there's no telling what depth of longevity - or depravity - we may reasonably expect to enjoy. All the more reason, it seems to me, for us to thank whatever god we really believe in that our good old American "smarts" - our snide, knowing, ever-so-worldly wisdom - is at an all-time premium.

14 August 2010

Towards a Leaner Body

Whatever Today's Visible Church may be or fail to be, or do, or fail to do, I think few of us would deny that as modern institutions go it's very busy. Indeed, when I imagine the American Church today - and by that I mean pretty much any and every visible US church - about the most vivid image that comes to mind is that of a vast, unbroken, and not only unbreakable but largely uninterruptible stream of activity. And certainly one that appears to be covering immense ground in its pursuit of that Great 21st-Century Project known as doing more with less. Which, in practical terms, usually translates into trying to do more in five years than any mere organization should ever contemplate doing in fifty. And with less of just about everything one needs to run a church well: Less judgment, less patience, less understanding, less discernment, less charm, less delicacy, less passion, less truth . . . but above all, less people.

And that in turn - assuming my experience is not atypical in the extreme - usually translates into less help, and more bitterness, cynicism and self-pity.

What I fear more than ever nowadays, concerning a Church adrift in the (corporate) World, is more and more of her priests and other religious, her ministers and other workers, getting caught up, pulled along, and so immobilized by the irresistible momentum of the machinery of their work, that they can neither step outside of it, nor reach up (to God), nor reach down (to man), but must keep on doing what they've already been doing, ever more rapidly and mindlessly. Until at length both they and others are locked, so to speak, between the multiplying gears and sprockets, and "crushed."

What I fear, in short, is an organizational Church not only:
(1) less and less able to give much in the way of help to anyone (other than, of course, the usual advanced-reservation parties of six or more); but also
less willing to ask for help; and even
less willing to accept help when it's offered (as in "we happen to like our feelings of overwork, stress and burnout, thank you very much").
And of course
(4) always willing, like any good perfectionist, to pick to pieces whatever help it does bother to enlist. Thereby lending a new and wholly unexpected meaning to the ever-popular phrase "lean and mean."

Or even, perhaps, restoring to that phrase its very oldest meaning of all?

But don't take my word for it. Here's what St Paul had to say to the Galatians:

"But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another." (Galatians 5: 15 - KJV)

And yes, I know, that passage is commonly read in light of the verses that preceded it - i.e., against the backdrop of 1st-century "Judaizers" ' demands for Gentile Christian circumcision, and the inevitable doctrinal wranglings that followed. But isn't there a wealth of evidence from the rest of Galatians 5 (to say nothing of I Corinthians 8-13!) to suggest that Paul was also addressing the simple, day-to-day business of believers getting along with each other, and learning to work together, in the same House?

04 August 2010

Cravings without Consequences; or, The Fine Line Between Pet and Pest

What a warmly, tenderly animal-loving society we've become! And how unprecedentedly well-attuned to our animals' various needs! Or so at least one might be disposed to judge, from the sheer number and volume of our animal-rescue operations. But what are they being rescued from?

Evidently many of us are about as apt to indulge a craving for a new-born kitten as for a hot-fudge sundae. And to become equally bulimic in our final assessments of both.