Recently I saw some TV clips from MSNBC and CNN, one critiquing Herman Cain, the other an interview with Michael Moore. They both reminded me that one of strangest aspects of modern American society is the system of indulgences that permeates our entire culture.
In a nutshell, our American elites, even if well-meaning with real concern for the less fortunate, have adopted the medieval practice of compartmentalization. Loud demonstrations of general progressive piety exempt one from consistency. Our medieval ancestors could practice usury if they helped repair a collapsed nave or joined a Crusade, as traditional Christianity tried to deal with an imperfect world of important Christians who did not wish to live by their doctrine.
Today, liberalism puts a comparable burden on its elites: can one occupy Wall Street and still enjoy the luxury of that iPhone 4s? Did the university professor in Zuccotti Park worry about Wall Street when his TIAA-CREF account used to return 8% plus per annum? Can we still jet to Tuscany and worry about carbon footprints? Can we live in Chevy Chase, Malibu, or Woodside and be stalwarts on the barricades of racial integration and multiculturalism? How can we make $200,000 a year as assistant vice provost for diversity affairs, when a part-time lecturer gets 1/5 for the same class a full-time, top-step professor teaches?
Examine the burdens of modern liberal exemption and indulgence.
Democratic strategist and MSNBC analyst Karen Finney said this the other day, “One of the things about Herman Cain is, I think that he makes that white Republican base of the party feel okay, feel like they are not racist because they can like this guy. I think he giving that base a free pass. And I think they like him because they think he’s a black man who knows his place. I know that’s harsh, but that’s how it sure seems to me.”
Accusing either Cain of being an Uncle Tom sort or his supporters of being racists in backing a supposedly minstrel-like African-American (and that is what the successful entrepreneurial Cane is reduced to) is now a sort of standard left-wing narrative. There are no repercussions in such smears, no charges of racism. I assume that when Cain authentically drops his g’s, he is a sort of embarrassment to the liberal elite; when Obama does that in front of the Black Caucus, apparently we are to assume that this is some sort of wink-and-nod necessity for the former Harvard Law Review editor to do the necessary pandering to his “base.” Indulgences for racist stereotyping are purchased by loud proclamations of liberalism. Were Cornel West or Harry Belafonte a conservative, their rantings would long ago have been written off as false-consciousness racism.
Michael Moore’s wealth is usually pegged around $50 million. If half his fortune were liquid and conservatively put into a savings account at about 2% interest, Moore’s annual income would be about $500,000 per year. That income would easily put him into the now hated “1%”, a group which he and others have blasted as schemers who benefit from capitalism at the expense of the 99%.
Yet when asked about his own 1% status recently on CNN, Moore was left sputtering and grasping for straws about his high-school education and all the philanthropic things he does. In other words, his liberal fides supposedly purchase him an indulgence from the supposed sins of being rich — in the manner that the left, the media, and popular culture do not go after George Soros for nearly breaking the Bank of England (making a $1 billion profit in currency speculation), or being convicted of insider trading in France (upheld on appeal). There are no signs at Occupy Wall Street damning the Soros speculations that fund “good” causes.
Savvy wealthy people — whether the Kennedy Trust beneficiaries, a Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett — understand that minimizing tax exposure, trying to avoid federal inheritance taxes through foundations, or accumulating vast riches are, in the liberal sense of ethics, offset by progressive platitudes. In short, we are supposed to think differently of John Kerry trying to avoid taxes on his multimillion-dollar superfluous yacht than we do of a car dealer’s Lexus. Warren Buffett can praise big government and higher taxes as the indulgence necessary to feel OK about shorting the government billions of future inheritance taxes by giving his fortune to a privately-run foundation that apparently is felt to be more efficient than the Department of Human Services, who, after all, could use the cash in these times of mega-deficits.
Greener Than Thou
Rarely have indulgences been more transparent than in the carbon-offset racket of the early 21st century, in which Al Gore and others established companies to do green audits on millionaires, enabling them to keep the big Malibu beach house, the Net jet account, or the 20,000 sq. ft. estate. Burning nearly 20,000 kilowatts per month or flying on private jets is the sort of indulgence purchased by Earth in the Balance or An Inconvenient Truth.
Green indulgences allow one to consume almost anything one wishes, to such an extent that one can assume that usually the loudest and most influential green advocates are themselves greater than average consumers of carbon. Loud advocacy of cap-and-trade might win you release from the purgatory of a rather large house.
There are even indulgences for war. Take out over 2,000 suspected terrorists? Keep Guantanamo open? Expand renditions? Bomb a country not a strategic threat without congressional approval? How does one purchase an indulgence for all that? By loudly equating someone else’s Guantanamo with a sort of Stalag, with rendering all the anti-terrorism protocols from 2001-8 as little more than Constitution-shredding. Laureate Obama could bomb Iran — and Harry Reid (“the war is lost”), Sean Penn, and Susan Sarandon would lecture us on the dangers of Teheran’s WMD. Being against war in principle means waging it without worry in fact.
Universities are perhaps the best example of this medieval practice. By any fair measure, most are far more exploitive than Wal-Mart or Target. In the CSU system nearly 40-50% of the units offered are taught by part-timers. In fact, the entire California Master Plan of education —UC/CSU/JCs — is propped up by itinerant lecturers, many of whom have PhDs or the necessary terminal degrees. In my 21 years in the CSU system I was often told by fellow senior faculty not to worry about part-timers (I was one myself in the beginning), inasmuch as they were a necessary “cushion,” who could be let go in times of budgetary crises, as a means to protect full professors, noble sorts who usually passed resolutions opposing apartheid and favoring gay marriage in the academic senate.
If one were to study in depth the logic of compensation in terms of hours taught in the classroom across the spectrum — graduate student/part-time lecturer/assistant professor, associate professor/full professor — one would discover huge discrepancies in pay, working conditions, and benefits that were not commensurate with classroom performance or even scholarship. And of course, I am touching only on the professoriate, not the administrative elite, whose numbers have soared to near 1/1 ratios with faculty on many campuses.
But again all such discussion is taboo. The university is a loudly progressive institution and so has bought itself an indulgence that the coal mine owner, retailer, or contractor cannot. So we are left with the near daily appeals from the presidents of our almae matres, appealing in letters and email for cash, citing all sorts of illiberal tendencies in our society that endanger university funding, but never a tad of introspection about the exploitation that props up his university.
Feet of Clay
Somehow Barack Obama became emblematic of all this. The racial reformer seeking equality for the oppressed, after prep school, Occidental, Columbia, Harvard, and Chicago — living in a mansion well apart from the community he organized. The populist redistributionist reeled in the largest sums from Wall Street in campaign history — as the first candidate in history to renounce liberally-inspired public funding of campaigns. The loud antiwar, anti-anti-terrorism laureate become Predator-in-Chief. The green president with the largest of presidential SUV entourages, who rails against private jets with Air Force One and Two in the background — and, crede mihi, will soon undergo a post-presidential global speaking tour via Gulfstream. In defense of Barack Obama, it is hard to lower the seas and cool the planet in this present age of alluring riches that are so easily in the grasp of our technocratic overseers.
The world passed liberalism by once its once noble agenda of civil rights, 8-hour day/40 hour week, overtime pay, disability compensation, fair housing, and unemployment insurance was achieved, and the effort for equality of opportunity became a mandated equality of result. Somewhere in the late 1970s and 1980s, the onset of globalism, the largess from high-tech, computerized breakthroughs, and the vast expansion of government spread such wealth and affluence that poverty was no longer lack of shelter, food, or clothing, but redefined as not having what someone else had (the “1%”). In short, the good life was just too good to pass it up and join hoi polloi in the flesh. And so our anointed purchased their virtue by profession and abstraction rather than concrete action.
But in response to all ossification, a Reformation always follows. And so it will since one cannot preach one life and live quite another, at least for long.
Lichas the Spartan surprises the Thebans at the mountain hut of Gorgos-Kuniskos, and intends to settles things at last with the hated liberators:
“Old Chôlopous. So we meet again, the half- dead Mêlon, son of the long-dead Malgis. You are the father of the dead boy at Leuktra? All has turned out as promised. Or do you remember me? We first met on your farm when you had your first set of teeth, when you ran under your arbors before I could cut off your tiny head— and at Koroneia, and yet once more at the fight at the Nemea. On that night at Leuktra, and then on your recent visit to burn my farm at Sparta. My, my, my friend, how we’ve
grown old together.”
This tall but stooped Spartan stepped even farther forward near Kuniskos while the others stayed put by the doors. Lichas was ageless like his Kuniskos, and likewise he felt no burdens of age or time. In similar fashion, Lichas felt freed by his long years and the end of Messenia and the idea he could do at last what ever he wished— which for Lichas always meant to kill without penalty whoever he wanted. Lichas continued. “I speak for a bit before you bleed. I wanted Pelopidas and Epaminondas to visit our hut and maybe Alkidamas as well, so with a clean cut today we could finish this Messenian mess once and for all and get our boys back
down over there where they belong. Only the hungriest rats scampered up here, I see. Even the best trapper must put up with the rodents who clutter his nets. I brought today my son Antikrates, who killed so many of yours at Leuktra. More of our friends are here as well. You say you will take our helot back down the mountain? Oh no, no. Not this time, Master Mêlon. You will go down no mountain— not even a hill, not even dead. Where is your proud Epaminondas or Pelopidas— or even one of those brutes from the islands here to rescue you? We had soup here for both. Your islander, we hear, has gone feral. He flees the blood guilt on
your Helikon. If he comes up here— and he won’t because he’s dead— by now he would have met our man- bear who bites the throat of all lone wanderers on Taygetos.”
Then his wife Elektra stepped to his side, proud with her long hair, some tresses braided and some dangling out the sides of her helmet. She boasted, “Too much talk, my Lichas. Kill them before that branded helot over there puts a chant or spell on us. Let me cut her tongue out before this Nêto bewitches us all. Or let my boy Thibrachos have a taste of her first.”
The Spartan had drawn his sword, a shiny xiphos with both edges gleaming in the candlelight. Elektra had a black pelekus, a battle- ax given to her by the king himself, and she swung if far better than did her son Thibrachos. The outnumbered band crouched and made ready for the rush, Mêlon and Ainias still covering the flanks, Nikôn and Melissos between
them three steps back with drawn long knives— and Nêto in reserve with an oak staff . She put both hands on the shaft and looked for an opening. The five had backed flush against the wall, as the Spartans by the two doors covered the escapes. They could at least take down Gorgos, and maybe even Elektra before their deaths. These were armored men, Sparta’s best; and Mêlon’s side was without bronze— and with boy and a lame woman.
“Come over here, Mêlon. I want you to join your father and son, so you can all boast in Hades that Lichas sent you there.”
Lichas talked more than a Spartan should, talked more than he ever had, as he shifted his weight from foot to foot to find the right moment to stab. “If you throw down your weapons, I promise a good enough burial. Antikrates over there, my best son, took out that fool of yours who built walls. What was his name, boy? Yes, yes, the soft Plataian rich man Proxenos? The grand
thinker whose belly you cut open when that mob of northerners stormed our tower.”
There was no to be parley with Lichas. He meant to cut them all down and wanted them to know it before they fell. No quarter. Elektra started her ululation. Still Mêlon called out, “If you have an ax, swing, Spartan woman, don’t talk.”
Lichas had a final word. “You have it wrong, all of you. God has made every man a slave. Only a man, if he’s worth anything, makes himself free.” Lichas wanted to get closer, to cut with the sword and taste the blood fly in the air as it dotted his face. Kuniskos pulled from the rafters a cleaver and backed aside to let his friend charge through. The blade had been hidden above the table right near his head. He had taken the idea of hiding it from the dead Erinna. He had hoped to place it at the throat of Nêto and drag her outside for some final sport—or to strangle her slowly and give her his death whisper.
At the back of the cottage, facing his father on the far side, Antikrates pointed his spear with the underhand grip. He and his two henchmen had been hiding in the cave when Mêlon arrived and had quietly sneaked out to block the rear door once the visitors were inside. Lichas, Elektra, and his retainer had come around through the forest path to plug the main entrance.
“That damn Scorpas and his phantom goat- man—and without a helot patrol to be found,” Nikôn cried. “We are surrounded, with no where to go.”
Then Melissos pointed toward Lichas. “Spartans fight in the sun. Let us out. Duel in the open air. Kill or die face- to- face like men should.” Melissos could have run, having no part in war against the tall Spartans. But no words of retreat or surrender came out. Instead, he decided to stand his ground, blade in hand, here with Mêlon, Ainias, Nêto, and Nikôn — and for something more than the love of gore or a Spartan scalp.