Saturday, August 04, 2007

Now Is The Time, The Time Is Now...

I can't say that I held an aversion toward reading during my formative years, but I also can't say that I was a voracious reader. When told to read a book for whatever reason teachers tell kids to do so, I went ahead and actually read the book. And all along the way, there were books, mostly novels, that I enjoyed reading. I recall having to read "Great Expectations" in high school and thinking, "This is cool!", or sentiments to that effect. And I was always fond of "A Christmas Carol", so as I actually began to seek out books to read for pleasure, I chose Dickens. Thus far, I've read pretty much every book he's written and have most of them on my bookshelf. (I hope to complete the collection with copies from the same series by the same publisher, but have yet to try and contact them to see if they are still available. Otherwise, guess it's off to E-Bay.)

What I found most enjoyable was the way Charlie would spin a tale. He'd take his time with various details, such as meals and such. And I also like the way the main characters maintained such a sense of character and morals and honor and all the attributes that were once held so precious, at least in books, if not in real life. Currently, I'm reading "The Three Musketeers" for the first time (for pleasure I've decided to read "the classics"), and have found the same sense of what it means to be a man of honor and virtue (though the Dumas characters aren't really the most virtuous of men), or more plainly, what it meant to be a man. It is said that George Washington sought to be such a man and from most sources, succeeded.

What do we have now? We have anti-heroes. Stories of today, though often as riveting, often depict characters as heavily flawed, most likely in the belief that such people are more realistic. To have such people rise above their flaws and resolve the issues of the story line would possibly be something to which many might find easier to relate. It's like "real life".

Seems to me, that this parallels a theme in today's culture. I've been told that romantic notions of how people should conduct themselves is unrealistic and that it goes against human nature and that people just aren't like that. I suppose that might be true to some extent, but why accept it? That's where I have a problem. In so many ways, we're given to believe that mankind is incapable of better things. The weird part is when a person of faith speaks of us all as sinners, the same people who think that teens won't stop having sex, that people are unable to control their desires, those same people go nuts.

But I prefer to believe that while we all are indeed sinners, we are also indeed capable of transcending our base natures and rising to become something better. The classic novels that appeal to me describe without embarrassment the ideal man and woman, those possessing a will to attain that transcended Godly character that can only leave behind a better world for having existed as such. I not only believe we all are capable of becoming more like such characters, I believe it is imperative that we work toward such lofty goals. If we aren't actively and consciously seeking to become a force for good amongst our peers and in the world, can we possibly become better than a force for something far worse? I think it's pretty obvious the answer is "NO!". If an athlete doesn't work to become a better athlete, he will only be an inferior one. By the same token, we must always be aware of how we act, to what we lend our support, what we allow by our silence or inaction.

I don't know what of the above might provoke discussion. I just felt like rambling.

25 comments:

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Part of what makes Dickens so lively is that most of his novels were originally serialized. What became a chapter in a novel originally appeared in a weekly or monthly periodical, needing to keep the reader engaged and anticipatory at the same time. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Idiot were published the same way, to the same effect.

The move in contemporary literature reflects a change in understanding and experience. I agree that there is a great difference between the moral uplift of, say, A Christmas Carol (one of the great protests against capitalism ever written, by the way) and the amoral nihilism of, for example, Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" or Faulkner's tales of the degradation of southern life and culture. Yet the latter two authors were writing out of their own experience, trying to communicate the corrosive effects of contemporary experience upon human lives. Hemingway, for one, experienced World War I as the destruction of any notion of heroism. While reactionary in his social and political views, Faulkner still wrote of the moral and intellectual deterioration in southern life as a result of the stagnation that came with a preference for looking backward rather than forward.

There are tales of heroism still being written. What is the Harry Potter phenomenon but a retelling of the hero-saga? Yet, of what relevance are such tales in an age where individual agency is too often impotent in the face of forces it cannot understand, control, and yet which wield such a powerful influence upon our lives? When our jobs are shipped overseas in the name of globalization, our economy is wracked by high interest rates and inflation through the manipulation of commodity and exchange markets overseas, and lives are lost through the actions of radicals here and abroad? The American belief in the power of individuals to effect change dies hard, but that belief is under constant assault by the realities we all face. Art and literature can set up heroes, but reality often reduces them to lonely figures, often with feet of clay.

Good post. Nice topic.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I wrote an incomplete sentence in that comment. In the third paragraph, the sentence beginning "When our jobs . . ." should have ended something like this: ". . . what relevance is there to reading about a hero who changes or saves the world through single-handed effort and sheer force of will?" Something like that.

The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

The character of Sydney Carton had a profound effect upon me, growing up. The idea of redemption through a selfless love of the spirit and self-sacrifice held strong appeal to the romantic in me.

"The Three Musketeers" is one of my all-time favorites. I actually think Richard Lester's movie(s) version captures the spirit of the book, in many ways.

I loved the morose Athos, and the revelation of the secret in his past.

Les Miserables is another favorite classic.

I've been told that romantic notions of how people should conduct themselves is unrealistic and that it goes against human nature and that people just aren't like that. I suppose that might be true to some extent, but why accept it?

I think we can all be heroic, and do the extraordinary, if we put our minds to it. Sometimes, I wonder why politicians, even from a calculating standpoint, don't take actions that are unconventional and that would inspire. Maybe something eccentric, like President Bush giving all of his Presidential salary to military charities...something that can capture people's imagination.

Pat Tillman was one such hero. It takes an extraordinary individual to give up what he gave up to serve his country at the time that he did.

Marshall Art said...

Very good point about Tillman, Wordsmith, and welcome. Who was in the Richard Lester version? Was that the one with Oliver Reed, Michael York, Raquel Welch? The only other version of which I am aware is the newer one with a different Oliver, Oliver Platt (Porthos), Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland and that dweeb from "Scent of a Woman", Chris O'Donnell(?) BTW, I never knew there were TWO sequels to the story, so I've determined my next two books. Apparently there's a "twenty years later" sandwiched between "The Three Musketeers" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". I can't wait.

For Geoff,

Apparently it was common practice to serialize stories at that time. I was aware of Dicken's beginnings in that manner. It would drive sales incredibly as people awaited each installment (provided they liked the story, of course, which they did in Dicken's case).

I think you're a bit off in your Christmas Carol critique. It's definitely a story regarding greed, not capitalism. Greed was such an unfortunately large part of capitalism in years past, and part of what was the driving force behind unionization and government regulations. Fortunately, it's clear that greed is unnecessary for success, in the sense that you have to screw people to get there. It just isn't required.

For all,

I think the idea of the hero, or the person of character more specifically, is certainly challenged by the realities of life. That is what makes maintaining a solid character seem so noble to some, and a complete waste of time to the rest. But to relegate it to the romantic and not insist upon it for ourselves, our children, and even more importantly, those who lead, is really to become the exact type of person against whom those ficticious characters so nicely contrast.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

In the Introduction to the 150th special edition published by Yale University Press, the tale is told of how the story began. In the late summer of 1843, Dickens went to an orphanage which doubled as a workhouse where small children were forced to labor for up to ten hours. Having spent part of his own childhood in forced labor, Dickens resolved to write a pamphlet, not only against the treatment of orphans, but of the entire structure of institutions that had arisen to abet a society that no longer cared for its most vulnerable members. One of his friends persuaded him that a story, rather than a pamphlet, would be more powerful. The result was A Christmas Carol. Dickens intent, as in Great Expectations and David Copperfield was to describe the corrosive effects of capitalism upon an individual's life and spiritual health; it was also to highlight the destructive aspects of individual vice upon the social fabric, which Dickens believed was being torn apart by the pursuit of profit above all else.

If you believe that the story is just about greed, you need to go back and read the sermon Marley's ghost preaches, and the sermon preached by the Ghost of Christmas present while they are visiting Bob Cratchit's house. Both instances are examples of polemics, not against greed, but against the destruction of human fellow-feeling that accompanies the pursuit of wealth. Capitalism is built upon the erroneous idea that public good comes from private vice. Dickens destroyed that pretense with this very short book.

Marshall Art said...

"Capitalism is built upon the erroneous idea that public good comes from private vice."

This is a typical socialist definition. Capitalism is built upon the idea that market forces, supply and demand, and the providing for those, can lead to wealth creation by filling a niche. That greed abused the system in the manner Dickens spoke of is without doubt. But to say that greed and capitalism is synonymous is untrue. One need not be greedy, specifically in the manner depicted in Dicken's stories, to be successful within a capitalistic system. One need not abuse one's employees, provide unhealthy or unsafe conditions, pay low wages, or be a Scrooge. The very points you present as in Marley's sermon are about the system corrupted by greed and, as you suggested somewhat, the attainment of wealth at the cost of others. Greed. But capitalism does NOT require any such thing to produce widespread benefits. In fact, it works better without it.

This is, in fact, one area where we can actually see a bit of what I as talking about concerning character and honor in today's world. Good employers treat their employees well and as a result have productive employees. A whip will get the job done if you keep whipping, but eventually all you're doing is replacing employees as they find employers that don't employ whips. My current employer, while not the best guys in the world, don't feel the need to constantly crack a whip and I'm still happier (relatively speaking) than I used to be under my previous employer.

There is also a problem for some differentiating between greed and what is needed to maintain both a good workforce and a profitable business. No matter where I've worked, without fail there have been those losers who think that the owners of the company are financially capable of eliminating any and all critiques from the losers. Yet, when shown how those same losers might improve their lot, they balk as if they might be set afire. The owners have taken the capitalistic model and risked their time, money and sweat, as well as their smarts and initiative, and the loser employees they too often employ will always think that the employer owes. It's sickening. They see the employer as Scrooge, but aren't even close to being Cratchet in their own ethic.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

It is not "socialist" to say that capitalism id based upon greed. It is merely the assertion of fact. Both David Ricardo and Adam Smith asserted that the pursuit of private wealth was the engine of the good of an increase in public welfare.

The logic of capitalism drives individuals and corporations to the excesses of Scrooge. That was Dickens' point. The logic of capitalism is to do whatever is possible to increase profit at the expense of all other value, personal, interpersonal, and social. Dickens was certainly no socialist, yet he understood the corrosive effects upon society of an unregulated, unbridled market. By making human beings capital assets, valuable only for the work they provide, human beings become no more than cogs in the machinery of commerce, which devours everything in its path in pursuit of the main chance.

Wealth creation is not the only social good, and must be balanced against other, equally important social goods. Thus the necessity for a regulated market, a much stronger organized labor movement, and progressive income taxes with higher marginal rates. These (and massive military Keynsianism) were the engine of the remarkable post-World War II economic boom the United States enjoyed. Only when we deregulated markets, actively suppressed workers' rights, and lowered taxes did that economic behemoth grind to a halt.

mom2 said...

I can't really arrive at any conclusion from geoffrey's post, as he has posted so exhaustively about truth and that there is no truth (over on his site). Sigh.....my life is so confusing now. :-)

Erudite Redneck said...

Re, "But capitalism does NOT require any such thing to produce widespread benefits. In fact, it works better without it."

It only works without it when it's regulated by the people, which is the only way I want capitalism.

Which is to say, again: FDR saved capitalism from itself. And thank God for liberals.

Erudite Redneck said...

And, ya know, it doedn't take a lit critter to see the underlying narrative in Dickens' work!

Marshall Art said...

Ridiculous. Cite anyone you like, Geoff. To say that capitalism is based on greed is simply untrue. One could say that it is based on ambition, but the two aren't exactly the same thing. One can be ambitious without being greedy. And once again, this doesn't mean I don't concede that greed has driven many a capitalist, only that it is neither necessary nor is it a common trait. It wasn't the "logic" of capitalism that drove men to Scrooge-like excesses, it was the greed that already dwealt within them.

Do you honestly think that it matters what economic system is in play with regards to greed? Do you believe other systems cannot be so corrupted? If greed was contingent upon the economic system in use, would not the same be said for charity? Greed and generosity are human qualities that find their way in any system.

The benefits to capitalism is the opportunity to be as much as one can. This opportunity is open to all in a capitalistic society and anyone who is willing to pay the price in discipline & stick-to-it-iveness has the ability to go as far as one's abilities and desire can take him. Are there snakes in the grass? Of course there are. But once again they exist no matter what.

You might have noticed in Dicken's stories that there are also men of honor who are successful as well. Scrooge himself continued to be a great man of business after his epiphany and realized he didn't need to be a scumbag. Most business men today realize it as well.

Parklife said...

Just how libertarian are you Marshall? Like.. totally all the way.. no tax, no regulation kinda guy?

Cameron said...

To paraphrase Mr. Winston,

Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for everything else that has been tried.

Marshall Art said...

"Just how libertarian are you Marshall? Like.. totally all the way.. no tax, no regulation kinda guy?"

Not at all. In fact, I don't believe mankind is holy enough to survive without some kinds of regulations, and we need some level of taxation to support our government, military and infrastructure. The amount of regulation should be in direct relation to the quality of mankind. A difficult thing to guage exactly, but definitely it should be a consideration that until there is no doubt of its need, no regulation should be put where men have shown they can regulate themselves. They may need prodding at times, but too many regs will have a stifling effect on productivity and overall wealth creation. Safety, of course is a major concern. So is abuse. But I don't favor laws and regs that assume such will occur. I prefer laws that encourage good behavior. A fine line in some cases I'm sure, but the intention should always be to encourage good behavior.

As far as taxes, I don't believe the feds should be in control of too much money at any time. What they need for the above mentioned purposed should be enough, since it's not the job of the feds to do 90% of the things they insist on doing.

Cameron,

The best quote that could have been offered. It sums up and ends the discussion perfectly. (Though all are free to carry on.)

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Actually, Cameron, the quote from Churchill is: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Marshall, I agree that greed is a human failing that is not limited to any particular form of socio-economic policy. The problem with your description of capitalism is that it ignores the history of capitalism. Labor is the most cost-intensive part of any corporate enterprise, and so employers are constantly trying to push the bar lower. In the early decades of the 20th century, states attempted to regulate wages and hours and child labor. The laws were all struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Constitution's commerce clause (only Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce). During the first years of the Depression, when Congress tried to do the same thing, the Supreme Court struck down those laws because corporations successfully argued that any such regulation was a "taking" under the fifth amendment. Apparently, denying the fullest measure of profit is the same as the government confiscating property.

Hundreds of Americans were beaten, shot, jailed, blacklisted, forced from their homes, and otherwise deprived of their life and liberty for the radical agenda of demanding a fifty hour week and a twenty-five-cent-and-hour wage. My grandfather was one of these people. Why? Because corporations exist for one thing and one thing only - profit. Anything that infringes upon a corporation's bottom line is a violation of the demand for ever more and more money. There is more than private vice involved in this, but corporate vice and criminality and evil. Trusting in the goodwill of employers means very little in an unregulated market. There has yet to be a successful argument that paying employees more is good business sense. If it had been, why in the world would we need a labor movement, or wages and hours legislation, or legislation regarding work-place safety? All these things cost a corporation money, and are to be fought.

I am not against capitalism at all. I just believe in economic democracy - the sharing of the benefits and the just distribution of responsibilities across the entire society. There are other social goods before profit, and these goods are arguably more vital to the life of the nation. Just one example - during the Second World War, Harry Truman chaired a Senate committee on war-profiteering. The only argument against war-profiteering is one that assumes the corporate bottom line is less important than national survival during war time. There is nothing in the logic of capitalism that defends the work of the Truman committee. Only when placing the economy under the control of a democratic political system can, in which the people's representatives insist upon adherence to the public good does it make sense. For too long we have allowed our devotion to a particular form of economic organization to overrule our commonsense concerning what is beneficial for the entire public.

Man, I just ranted a bit too long. Sorry about that. Have a great afternoon!

Marshall Art said...

Geoff,

Cameron WAS paraphrasing the Churchill quote, but the intent is accurate in my opinion for this reason: Within a capitalist system, one can direct his profits in whatever way one sees fit. One can direct them in a socialist manner, for example and spread it around evenly amongst all his employees. Feel free to do this should you run a business.

But is it really possible to attain the loftiest of heights within any other system? Would not the redistribution of the socialist and/or communist systems limit the potential to the efforts of the masses? Capitalism allows for everyone to realize whatever limits one might set for one's self. There is no such incentive in any other system that is as powerful without the use of force.

Your history lesson just rehashes what we've already discussed; that there have been those who have been totally selfish in their use of the capitalist system. I would also argue against your notion that "There has yet to be a successful argument that paying employees more is good business sense." One need only look at the number of successful network marketing companies to see that your argument is flawed. The only downside is that too many feel that no work is involved. But every successful distributor for network marketing companies have simply put into practice the methods of the parent company. This is also the basic premise of franchises. In each of these business models, the individual is offered the opportunity to make the most of using what has been shown to be a proven system. Contrary to what most outside these industries believe, the varying degrees of success have more to do with the character and work ethic of the individual than with any alleged "scheme" of the parent company.

In a traditional business, the same dynamic applies in the sense that lazy people are lazy no matter what they are paid. In this case, regulations regarding termination of losers need to be corrected so that employers can make the judgement of who is deserving of the jobs they offer and how much they should be compensated.

It is also good to remember that there is a reciprocity within any business system that at the top, the corporation wishes to get the most work from an employee for the least amount of compensation, while the employee wishes to get the most compensation for the least amount of work. Viewed in this manner, it's easy to see that greed works from both ends of the stick, if greed is the word you insist upon using.

But we're digressing big time. No matter the system, no matter which side of the employer/employee equation one finds one's self, the quality of the individual is paramount in both the success of the venture as well as how that success impacts others.

Cameron said...

Yes, Geoffrey, as Marshall has stated, I was paraphrasing the quote. I am aware of the original. I just thought it was pertinent to the current topic.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

The quality of an individual is irrelevant in a system in which the power is in the hands of corporations with massive assets at their control. The best intentions in all the world do not hide the fact that corporate capitalism erodes public virtue, public policy, and public confidence as it destroys any logic save its own desire for ever more return on an investment. Scrooge may have been redeemed, but that hardly qualifies as a reason to rejoice; Scrooge is not a corporation.

I believe that an individual can make a difference in this world. I believe that individual ethical behavior is necessary. I also believe our current system is designed to reduce the impact of the individual precisely because of that power. I think Dickens' novels serve to show us that the battle for life in a system that devalues human agency is a long, hard slog, but worth it in the end.

Cameron, changing the quote mistakenly equates democracy and capitalism. Capitalism works quite well in repressive environments, and democracy works quite well with socialism and mixed economies. Churchill's concern was with politics, not the economy, and it is important to remember that.

On a final note, I believe that contemporary novels are not romantic or heroic because such an attitude does not reflect a world of social forces and conglomerates that make such notions irrelevant. The novelist is an artist reflecting the larger social and cultural environment in which he or she lives; it is difficult to defend the power of an individual when there is little evidence to suggest the individual is of any worth other than as a producer or consumer.

Marshall Art said...

There's a distinction worth noting. Novels will either reflect realities or inspire new realities. Some blatantly do one or the other. I think Dickens did both, as his "happy endings" were for a purpose beyond simply resolving the story in a pleasant way. His tales were morality tales with lessons to learn.

I would also differ on the notion that individuals are without power in the world or culture. Of course they have power or we'd never have the novels of a Dickens or the songs of some of the 60's dissenters. In the corporate world, what are corporations but collectives of individuals with a common purpose. I think it's naive to believe that those individuals who make up a corporation (and I'm referring to those who run them) aren't affected by the same things the rest of us are. The trouble may seem to be the time it takes to adjust the course of a giant ship. Certainly some corps aren't changing as fast as we'd like, others not at all, but likely all are affected to the point of making some corrections in course if only to maintain market share.

The quality of character of each individual of society is as important now as ever, if not more so. Is the quality of your character strong enough to deny yourself in some way in your everyday life? For example, as insignificant as it might seem, I won't buy gas from Citgo because it's owned by Hugo Chavez. Perhaps others refrain for the same reason. At some point I can express that opinion to others who will also feel as I do and drive to the next station for the same reason. The overall impact might be tiny, but for sure there's a number of dollars no longer going into the pockets of Chavez. Another is Ford Mtr Co. I refuse to buy new Fords due their unwaverign support for the gay agenda. (Their sales have been suffering since a boycott for this reason) The thing here is, since I have bought Ford autos in the past, and I've always liked the Mustang, I am depriving myself on some level. It's a small thing since the rate at which I buy new is low, but the point is that my principles shape my behavior.

Novels that highlight higher principles, character, virtue, standards, have influenced me as has my upbringing and faith. So even if I'm not a perfect example, when the chips are down, I tend to support the high ground no matter the cost.

But back to capitalism, to suggest that the system determines the outcome is to abdicate all human responsibility. This is backward. The effects of any system is determined by the quality of people involved. There is no disputing this. I think we've agreed that any system can be corrupted and that greed or charity can exist in any system as well.

Cameron said...

Geoffrey, my intention was not to equate anything. It was to say exactly what the words mean. Namely, capitalism, warts and all, is the best and most successful economic system mankind has.

Parklife said...

MA/Cameron..

Any thoughts on Chief Justice John Marshall?

What about the central bank? The gold standard?

Marshall Art said...

Parklife,

You obviously have some thoughts on those items. Feel free.

Parklife said...

umm.. not really. Just your standard mainstream view. I dont see JM as an "activist" judge. The central bank does its best to regulate the markets. And the gold standard was ditched for good reasons.

I'm asking the questions to see how libertarian you are. I've chatted with friends in the past that disagreed with me on these issues. Your comments earlier seemed a bit generic. I could see even democrats or myself making similar comments.

Marshall Art said...

Well then. All I can say is that I'm satisfied with the general concept of capitalism as a system that is superior to alternatives. I'm not really down with details on economics and there are certainly far better to speak on the minutia(sp) of the subject. But in general terms, I prefer it for the built in incentive it provides. Each is limited by one's own limitations, either real or imagined. Outside obstacles are generally not insurmountable, but only seem to be to the average person. That there is no ceiling for one who is ambitious can appear to be pandering to greed. Doubtless greed is attracted, but greed and ambition are not synonymous. The line between them might be slim, but the dead and bloody tell the tale (I don't mean literally). Emron was greed. I don't believe most corporations run that way. It's a hassle and potentially very costly to fart around, so why bother? I've read a bunch of the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" books and it's a common theme: Why cheat? It's easy enough to make money honestly!

I think many assume corruption simply because of the amount of power it seems a big corporation has. And of course there is a history of it. There's also the fact that those who lose in the arena of commerce cry foul simply because they lost, not necessarily because anyone cheated them. I think the regs against monopolies are a result. If one can corner a market, why does it mean they MUST give up a piece to those who were unable to compete? At least as long as no wrong-doing is found?

I used to work for a corporation. I recall a sales meeting where the regional dude was speaking about maintaining their niche. He wasn't talking about driving out the competition, but about how the pies big enough for everyone. For some that might seem defeatist, but for others a simple recognition that the differences between our version of a product and the competitors' versions provide a chance for all. The goal was to keep from losing those that would normally prefer our stuff to the other guys'. That was another indication to me from the real world that corporations are always the money grubbing Scrooges many like to believe.

I know I digressed from Parklife's original question, but sometimes I can't help myself. The question of economics and various economic systems is a digression from the thread anyway.

Marshall Art said...

To finish it off, though. I don't mean to imply that there should never be regulations in a capitalistic system. Greed does exist. Corruption will interfere. Man is only human and needs other humans to keep him honest. But honest men don't need regs as they regulate themselves. Too bad that isn't a universal trait of mankind.