The Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

For John Dominic Crossan

If we take the words of the New Testament at face value, we are led to believe that Jesus could not only draw large crowds but had inventive ways of handling them once they came.

The gospel writer Mark (4:1) says, “A crowd that had gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat on the lake and sat down [to speak] while the crowd arranged itself along the shore.” 

Once settled down, Jesus began to tell them stories called parables for, as Mark adds, “He did not say anything to [the crowds] without using a parable.”

And parables ought not be confused with fables, which the sixth-century B.C. Greek seanchaí, Aesop, made famous, where animals do the talking; in parables, only people speak — and always about some ethical predicament in which they find themselves.   

Jesus adopted the parable as his métier because he thought it the most accessible way listeners could grasp his lessons about what they must do to be a good human being. Mark says, “He taught them many things in parables.” 

New Testament scholars have counted as many as 50 different such stories — though undergirding them all is the same mandate: “Meet the needs of your neighbor as much as you do your own.”

There’s no way to know if Jesus composed his stories off the cuff or got them from somewhere else, but he could have known Psalm 78: “Attend, my people, to my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable, and unfold the puzzling events of the past.”

And the power of the parable is not just that it’s a mirror to see oneself in but a door to walk through and enter a world of deep self-reflection.

It’s pretty well agreed that the two best parables Jesus ever told were the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also known as the parable of “The Lost Son” or the “Forgiving Father” or “Two Brothers.”

Both parables reflect the deep radical economics of personal responsibility for one’s neighbor that Jesus included in all his talks but the Prodigal Son goes a step further by laying out the ideological choices available to a person as to how he will treat someone in need, a view of economics as deep as Marx’s “Das Kapital.”

The story is about a father and his two sons who wind up in an ethical fix. Luke (15:11-32) says the younger of the two boys had grown unhappy with his life on the farm and decided to strike out on his own.

To subsidize the dream, he asks his father for his portion of the family estate — what would come his way once the father died. 

The father, not wanting to stand in his son’s way, divvies up the family’s assets: He gives half to his younger son and puts the rest aside for the older brother who has dedicated his life to the farm.

The peregrinator, Luke says, “gathers up all that is his and takes off for a far-off land” to live the life of a sport. But he parties so hard he “squanders everything he had in reckless ways.” One translation says he engaged in “living riotously.” The vulgate is: “dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose.”

To make matters worse, the country where the penniless soul was living gets hit with a famine and he is reduced to starvation. Scrounging for work, he lands a job on a pig farm, which every Jew was forbidden to do by law: no pigs! 

After pouring foul-smelling slops into pigsties day after day, the prodigal starts to think: “This is crazy; the people working for my father are better off than me. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I’m going home to tell my father I sinned and beg his forgiveness; maybe he’d take me on as a hired hand.”  

The gospel says that, when he got close to the house, the father saw him coming down the road and “felt compassion for him and ran out to embrace him offering a kiss of reconciliation.” The boy confesses his sin.

But the father, overjoyed at seeing his son alive, tells his servants, “Go get the best robe in my closet and put it on the boy; get a ring for his finger, put decent shoes on his feet, then go out and butcher the fattened calf we’ve been saving for a grand occasion.” 

A celebration ensues while the older boy is still out in the field working. Hearing the hullabaloo, he asks one of the servants what’s going on. The servant says, “Your brother’s back! Your father is butchering the fattened calf in his honor!”

The father goes out to the field and asks his son to come in and join the party but, feeling dissed, the son snaps back [my translation] “Are you nuts? I’ve been working my ass off all this time; I did everything you asked of me and you never so much as roasted a goat for me and my friends. And that ne’er-do-well who pissed away the family fortune with whores and harlots — he gets a party with our prized calf? Is that all I’ve meant to you?”

The father, understanding his son’s hurt, says with a heavy heart, “My boy, my boy, you are part of all I am; everything I have is yours but today we must celebrate, your brother who was dead has come back to life; he was lost and now he’s found.” Thus ends Luke’s story.

But that’s not all Jesus had to say. He wanted listeners to know that the older brother’s thinking reflects an ideology of deserving, asserting that people who do wrong deserve nothing; punishment and exclusion should be their reward.

But the father says, “Son, this is not a matter of deserving and reward; it’s about needs. Your brother needs forgiveness, food, a place to stay, and to be part of a family again — and our family needs him to be whole.”

Luke also mentions that, while Jesus was telling the story, he saw a number of Pharisees dispersed among the crowd and reinforced to them that meeting needs transcended their legalistic rights-based thinking as well. The Hebrew scriptures forbade Jews from having anything to do with sinners: “Let not a man associate with the wicked; not even when it involves taking them to court for justice.”

In looking for a moral to the story, the scripture scholar, Howard Marshall — in his scholarly 928-page commentary on the gospel of Luke — feels compelled to bring God in as a deus ex machina saying the father is “meant to illustrate the pardoning love of God who cares for the outcast.” But the story has nothing to do with God. 

As an egalitarian humanist Jew, Jesus was talking about a human father who does not treat people in terms of what they deserve, saying — as he does elsewhere in the gospel — that meeting needs is healthful for soul and community alike — a concept Marx and capitalists never grasp.

But Pope Francis does; in April 2015 he told the world he was calling for a year of deep reflection on “Misericordia,” the practice of responding to those in need with compassion as opposed to treating them like a piece of their résumé.

For those who wished to take up the Pope’s invite, he opened the doors of cathedrals and churches throughout the world, even the Great Door of St. Peter’s. He called them “Doors of Mercy,” passages through which a person could go and reflect on how much he takes Jesus’s mandate at face value: “attend to the needs of your neighbor as much as your own, especially when the neighbor needs loving forgiveness.”

The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux

Because I studied ancient Greek and Latin for many years, I developed a love for the Greek language — its unadorned sophistication — as well as for the great tragedians of fifth-century-before-Christ Greece. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were its Murderers’ Row.

And though their plays appeared two-thousand years before the great Bard of Avon wrote, their work is as good as his and better than or equal to the tragedies of Dante, Arthur Miller, Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese, and others of that ilk.

Sometimes in my mind’s eye I see my younger self sitting in Greek class poring over the text of the “Antigone” of Sophocles, line by line, giving the text what the recently deceased poetry critic Helen Vendler called “a close read.”

I remain grateful to this day that I was able to read the very same language the Bard of Athens used with his wife and friends.

“Antigone” is about a woman who defies a king’s command in order to honor her brother’s death but the stress of the conflict leads to her death and the deaths of those she loved. (Sophocles is pure poet so young scholars are advised to carry their Liddell & Scott as a vademecum.)

There’s no need here to go into what Aristotle says about “tragedy” in his “Poetics,” written two-hundred years after the trio wrote, except to say he draws attention to an ailment called hamartia — the Greek is ἁμαρτία — which is the blind spot a person has about who he really is and how his acts affect others; such loss of vision brings unhappiness and ultimately a person’s demise and is why Aristotle says ἁμαρτία is key to tragedy.

The Greek dictionary defines hamartia as “missing the mark” (maybe with a bow and arrow), or being off course (as in the case of a floundering ship), which in people causes mental anguish. The ailment derives from ignorance in some cases but in others because the tragic soul lacks the tools — to mix metaphors — to keep his psychological boat afloat. He has no overview, no sense of the long-haul, which always morphs into a suspicion of others.

It’s easy to see why some writers define hamartia as “tragic flaw”; you look at the afflicted person and wonder how someone can be so blind, live so crazily as to harm himself and the people he loves, affecting even the health of his society.

With respect to being off course, Aeschylus in his “Oedipus Rex” — considered to be the greatest ancient Greek tragedy — tells of a man, Oedipus, who learns of a prophecy that says some day he will kill his father and then marry his mother — the kind of sex “Playboy” never covered.

Unable to accept such a reality, Oedipus takes it upon himself to hunt down the killer and bring him to justice — Sergio Leone style — all the while unaware that it is he, Oedipus, who is the killer, fulfilling part one of the prophecy.

Because of a mix-up at birth, Oedipus never got to know his “real” parents; then one day on a trip he crosses paths with a man on the road who gets sassy with him; to make short shrift of the nuisance Oedipus kills the man — who turns out to be not only the King of Thebes but his father!   

Once back in the city, the patricide meets a woman he likes and then marries her — has sex with her — only to find out that the woman is his mother! Part two of the prophecy is fulfilled. 

When the facts about the killing and incestual sex come out, the queen — Oedipus’ wife — is unable to withstand the grief and takes her life, thus Oedipus loses not just a wife but his mother. His guilt is so unredeemable he punishes himself by gouging his eyes out.

When I think of great literary tragedies, what comes to mind are: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” even Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.”

But one title I never see ranked among the best is Woody Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Some critics say it’s not even Woody’s best, while “Empire” magazine, in its “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time,” slots it at 267. And yet, when we look at the structure of the film and its continuous flow of primary-category ideas, we are forced to sit Woody aside Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

From beginning to end “Crimes and Misdemeanors” keeps asking: Is there a moral structure to the universe? What about in the case of a society, a community, a neighborhood, even a person’s psyche? Is there a “force” that governs bad behavior while encouraging people to be good?

Allen also wants to know whether, when someone commits a dastardly deed, a society, a family, a person, has the ability to set the ship aright — through punishment or forgiveness — to deal with the harm-done without someone having to gouge his eyes out in reparation.

The protagonist in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” is Doctor Judah Rosenthal, a highly-successful ophthalmologist, who’s had an affair with a stewardess who now threatens to tell his wife unless she can have all of him. She reminds him that she knows about the shady business deals he was involved in and, if she can’t have him, the police will. The doctor turns into a sheet of frozen panic.

When we see Rosenthal for the first time, he’s telling family and friends at a gathering what his father used to tell him, “The eyes of God are on us always”; that is, Omnipresence is the moral governor of the universe.

But when threatened, the doctor discovers that God, and the moral values he grew up with, are unable to assuage his pain; he hires a hitman who kills the woman thereby ending the menace to his upper-middle-class psychological, social, and economic well-being.

While his dark night of the soul was going on, the doctor plied his imagination to see what his elders taught him growing up. Should a person prefer God to Truth? What happens when someone deflects the eyes of God? Can such a person get away with murder? The voice of his Aunt May always seemed to prevail, “Six million Jews burnt to death and [Hitler] got away with it!”

During an office visit with one of his patients, a rabbi who’s going blind, the doctor bares his soul. The teacher tells the killer-to-be, “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power. Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”

Throughout the movie, we hear similar thoughts from a wise Jewish philosopher, Professor Louis Levy, who serves as the traditional Greek chorus. In one of his forays he says, “We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices … [and] We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices.”

And yet, he says, we all need, “a great deal of love, in order to persuade us to stay in life … the universe is a pretty cold place. It’s we who invested with our feelings and, under certain conditions, we feel that the thing isn’t worth it anymore.”

He then commits suicide. The eyes of God failed again.

The curtain comes down in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” at the wedding reception of the esteemed doctor’s daughter; in attendance is the now fully-blind rabbi who inquires of his host, “Tell me, if I’m not prying, did you ever resolve your personal difficulties?”

“Yes, actually. It resolved itself. The woman listened to reason.”  

“Did she? That’s wonderful!” the rabbi says, “So, you got a break. Sometimes to have a little good luck is the most brilliant plan.”

In reparation for his sin Judah Rosenthal does not gouge his eyes out like a maniacal Oedipus. He welcomes the future scot-free, proving what Ivan Karamazov says in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”: “If God does not exist, then all things are permissible.”

People who read are constantly asking other people who read what they’re reading — unless they're part of a book club, then everyone knows. 

Speaking of book clubs, the Voorheesville Public Library has had one since 1996 when Suzanne Fisher invited the community to share her love of literature at monthly meetings.

Suzanne was among a small group of librarians The New York Times picked as the best librarians in the United States in 2005. A plaque recognizing her honor hangs in the foyer of the Voorheesville Library.  

And from one who’s interviewed Voorheesville librarians from the earliest days, I’d say Suzanne’s recognition is no small thing.

I remain amazed at the enthusiasm of book-clubbers; kudos to them and every other soul who views books as an integral part of life. 

Book-lovers can speak intelligently about the classics (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” James Joyce, and the like) as well as appreciate the book as an object of art. Their interest is not just first editions but the feel of a book’s paper, its dust jacket, the width of its margins, the typeface, even the quality of its index.

When I’ve had a say in how a book would look, I pushed for margins wide enough for the reader to open up a lounge chair to sit and enjoy the show of life — which is what all literature is about.

Book clubs or not, what every American in the country should be reading right now is some insightful work on the life of Julius Caesar — the Rubicon guy, the Gaius who brought the Roman Republic down, the man who destroyed Rome’s democracy to set himself up as king.

And because the republics of Rome and the United States are so often compared, Americans would do well to study how that man managed to destroy a nation’s centuries-old political structure — because a sizeable portion of Americans today are working hard to bring the American republic down.

If he were here right now, General Julius would say he was just the last straw in a bale of politico-fascist generals — like Cornelius Sulla and Lucius Cornelius Cinna (Caesar’s father-in-law) — who already had Rome on her knees. 

The latter two butchered the human flesh of any soul who differed politically; Sulla slaughtered thousands and then hung the heads of the dead on pikes stretched across the Forum.  

And Caesar had the gall to give a blow-by-blow description — in Commentarii de Bello Civili — of him slaughtering fellow citizens to become top dog in the ancient world.

It must ne’er be forgotten that it was he, not Augustus, who was Rome’s first emperor/king. (He had a little Richard Nixon in him.)

TRIGGER ALERT! Or maybe the correct phrase is caveat lector, which means “let the reader beware of a con,” because last spring a book of mine came out on none other than Julius Caesar. My colleague at The Enterprise, Sean Mulkerrin, introduced it to our readers.

The title of the book is “Veni, Vidi, Trucidavi: Caesar the Killer, The Man Who Destroyed Nations So He Might Be King.”

The first part is a play on Caesar’s oft-quoted slogan Veni Vidi Vici — which the people of Rome first saw on a placard on a float in a parade down Rome’s main street to honor the general’s victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela in 47. 

The three fricative v’s of Veni, Vidi, Vici sound like the badda-bing of a TV commercial. Remember, Caesar was Italian. Badda-boom.

And scholars are still unsure if Caesar or one of his minions created the text but it did reflect his view of power.

Years ago, every student in any accredited academic high school in America — they didn’t even have to take Latin — knew Veni, Vidi, Vici — maybe not its political implications but had heard it said.

And yet, when I talked to people after my book came out — I conducted a little survey — my subjects said they never heard the phrase and, when I translated it into English, one or two said it sounded vaguely familiar.

By veni Caesar was letting the Senate know he got to the place they had assigned him — for the purpose of waging war. The veni of course is Latin and means “I arrived.” 

The vidi means “I saw,” by which Caesar was saying that, when he arrived at the front, he saw a way Rome could exterminate the blood-poisoning vermin enemy bar-bar without making a dent in the city’s coffers.

And vici is, “Once I got the Roman war machine going, the bar-bars were done faster than a soft-boiled egg.”  (An accurate translation.) 

The viewers of Caesar’s parade that day — which the Romans called a triumph — were stunned at the hubris; he was saying, “See how fast I brought a king down, step out of line and you’re next.”   

The title of my book is a play on the three V’s except, instead of vici, I use trucidavi — the Latin verb to slaughter — thus “I came, I saw, I slaughtered.” By the time of the parade, Caesar was already Rome’s slaughterer-in-chief having destroyed untold tribes (sovereign nations!) in Gaul for nine consecutive years. In my book, I call Caesar carnifex Gallorum, the butcher of the peoples of France.

He carnifexed as well tribes in Germany, Spain, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

In the 25th chapter of Book Seven of his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder says, “I would not myself count it to his [Caesar’s] glory that in addition to conquering his fellow-citizens [in a civil war] he killed in his battles 1,192,000 human beings, a prodigious even if unavoidable wrong inflicted on the human race, as he himself confessed it to be by not publishing the casualties of the civil wars.” 

That million number puts the general in the league of Mao, Stalin, and even Hitler.

And for all the light the ancient documents still shine on the man, it’s hard to get hold of a personality that’s rife with such complexity of thought; the scholar who’s gotten closest is the Swiss-German classical historian Matthias Gelzer (1886-1974) in his “Caesar, der Politiker und Staatsmann” which appeared in German in 1921. How embarrassing it took until 1968 before the English “Caesar: Politician and Statesman” came out.

Toward the end of this classic (page 290), Gelzer says that, once the general had the commonweal under his thumb, “the number of decrees which he [Caesar] issued was so great that there was not enough time to keep to the usual complicated procedure …  he often shortened the transactions of the Senate by simply informing the senior members of what he was going to do and, if he called a meeting of the whole body, he simply announced his decisions and without any discussion, they were entered in the archives as senatorial decrees.” 

Caesar didn’t care if you were a red state or blue state, he wanted control of your Roman body a là Michel Foucault.

He decreed that no one could travel outside of Rome but, if it did happen, how long the traveler could stay; then he started telling his fellow Romans the kinds of clothes they could wear. 

The great historian Suetonius (Div 43.1-2) says he outlawed “litters [taxi cabs] and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days.”   

He moved in for the kill when he made decrees “against extravagance, [which included] stationing watchmen in various parts of the market, to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law … sometimes he sent … soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even after they had been served.” 

Imagine sitting at home eating dinner and a soldier barges in and rips from your mouth the piece of pork you’re chewing on; you can see why Brutus and Cassius planned a surprise party for the fascist on the Ides of March.

How sad that, in the United States of America today, two-thousand years later, we have Julius Caesar Redux in our midst; it’s just as Yogi predicted, “déjà vu all over again.”

— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

The clerk at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney copies the name of Dennis Sullivan’s grandmother, Barbara Sullivan, from the public records.

For Patrick Damien McAnany

Every St. Patrick’s Day, as soon as the sun is up, I go to the front yard and hang a large Irish flag from our magnolia tree closest to the road — it’s my sláinte to the world. The flag measures five by seven feet.

I have a smaller Irish flag — three by five feet — that flies on the hill behind the house atop a tall steel pole encased in cement and stays out all year long. I raised the pole right after I became an Irish citizen to remind me of the duties to my new home.

My grandfather Denis and my grandmother Barbara were Sullivans from County Kerry — Sneem and Kenmare — and when an American has a grandparent who comes from Ireland, he can apply to become a citizen by heritage.

But the Irish do not hand out such things lightly.

I had to get a copy of my grandmother’s birth certificate and then track down her marriage certificate in New York City — and the documents had to be the so-called “long form” with the raised seal of the government. No exceptions.

Then I had to get my father’s birth certificate to prove that the aforementioned woman was his mother — my grandmother — followed by his marriage certificate to prove he was married to the woman who gave me birth — then a certificate of my birth saying I was John Sullivan’s son. 

People who buy and sell property engage in this process all the time; it’s called “chaining,” tracing every transfer back to the original source so nobody gets stuck with a pig in a poke.

I got my grandmother’s birth certificate in person at the Civil Registration Office in Killarney where, at one point, the clerk started talking to me like an Irish Catholic nun. 

I also contacted state and local officials in different jurisdictions in the States, saying I needed papers to prove my line. Everyone was eager to help — though in the National Archives in Dublin an office genealogist started talking to me like an Irish Catholic priest.

If attention has to be paid to Willie Loman, it certainly needs to be paid to the chaining process. Two people I know said that, after sending all their papers in, they got rejected; a letter came back saying they’d made a mistake. They didn’t have to start over, but were put on hold until they sent the right papers in.

I listened to how they described their mistakes so my application flew through with flying colors. Then one day a large white envelope appeared with “Irish Government” as the return address; it contained a small certificate, shaded in green, with a number signifying my new birth; it said sláinte, you’re now one of us.

It was one of my greatest possessions ever; I say “was” because, after enclosing it in a beautiful frame, I gave it to my son as a gift, letting him know what it meant to me.

Though I did then, and still do, cherish my new family, I must admit I’m not such a big fan of the Irish, qua Irish. I find part of their socio-genetic make-up a heavy lift, they ask a lot before they’ll leave their shell — though I think the younger folk are dodging the complex.  

The Brits I’ve met, on the other hand, always seemed to be “just there.”

For many years, I served as editor-in-chief of an academic journal out of the UK called Contemporary Justice Review — published by the esteemed Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis — so at least once a year I was in meetings with Brits who came to discuss the health of our enterprise.

I also did a book with the company (with a colleague/friend) and, because of the journal and the book, the British editors used to take me out to dinner when we met at conferences, the fare paid with the Taylor & Francis American Express Card. 

And though I fully enjoyed the gastronomical outings with my over-the-pond British colleagues, I felt uneasy about my meal being paid for from the corporate till; it seemed like payola. More than once I offered to pick up the tab next time.

Maybe the Brits I worked with were London’s cream of the crop but I always felt they were there for their editor-in-chief. Plus, their sense of humor was more akin to mine than what I’d seen in the Irish.

I went to Ireland seven out of eight years to size up things for myself. In an essay I wrote when I got back, I explained, “When I first went to Ireland seven years ago I went not to see the place but to find out who the Irish were, a much more formidable task.”  

And I warned that the Irish are tricky: “It is possible to walk away after an hour’s conversation with the most personable Irishman to be found, only to shake your head a few moments later realizing that person told you nothing of himself.”

I’m not an ethnographer — I speak cum grano salis — but I sensed that the/many/some Irish have a passive-aggressive, minimalist, irony-ridden, almost cynical, take on things. More than one Irishman and Irishwoman I met had a story to tell but seemed unable to get it out so they spoke in a sideways tongue of wistful mirth.  

But in my relations with the two nations, I found the Irish — I was with them often outside of business — to be extraordinarily hospitable; even though their B&B’s are a business, the hoteliers treat guests with the kindness of a friend.

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking of all the Patrick’s in my life. I have a grandson named Patrick; we used to have a cat Patrick. Years ago, I taught in a Catholic high school in Newburgh called St. Patrick’s; and because I lived eight or nine doors away from the church associated with the school, St. Patrick’s Church became my parish. 

Also, my grandparents, the Denis and Barbara mentioned above, were married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — and my favorite Irish poet is Patrick Kavanagh.

Then there’s my old friend, Patrick McAnany, who died a week or two ago, a man who cherished his Irish line. He and his wife, Charlaine, are two of the best Christians I ever met, having spent their lives treating the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned as one of their own.  

All these things are floating around my mind as I prepare to hang out my flag next week. The flag on the hill, a symbol of love for my second home, will easily take care of itself.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!

— Photo from 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee

The crowd at President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, above, was sparse compared to the crowd at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, estimated at 1.8 million, which filled all of the white rectangular spaces, flowing into the treed areas on either side.

One of the most celebrated research experiments in the field of social psychology is a series of studies the Polish-born Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch began conducting in 1951 with 50 male students at Swarthmore, a small liberal arts college 10 miles southwest of Philly.

The published results of the experiment and various responses to its findings make up a literature that is referred to as the “Asch conformity experiments” or “the Asch paradigm.”

A lot of psychologists — even people on the street — were interested in the “conformity” aspect of the research because a Cold War was going on at the time and there was considerable talk about brainwashing as a way to control people’s minds.

Asch wanted to know what takes place in the psyche of a person who sees something, is asked to say what he just saw, and then says the exact opposite of what his eyes described — the eyes physical entities that ground us in reality — in other words, why would a person lie about something he knows to be true? 

If Asch used the parlance of today he would say “the liar” was not only treasonous but a generator of “alternative facts,” alternative facts being a gateway drug to fascism.

Asch first shared what he did at Swarthmore in a journal article called “Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments.” He describes how the experiment took place in an ordinary conference room where, around a large rectangular table, he situated eight men who had agreed to participate in a psychology “vision test.”

The subjects were told they would be shown pictures on a placard — Picture One to the left and Picture Two beside it — and, after viewing both, were to say what in Picture Two was exactly the same as what was in Picture One. And the content of Picture One was nothing more than a black vertical line against a blank background.

Picture Two had three lines: one was shorter than the line in Picture One, one was longer, and the third exactly the same. The subjects had to call out A, B, or C; it was not a heavy lift.

At Swarthmore, the subjects saw 18 trials, that is, were shown 18 cards one after the other where the length of the line in Picture One varied as well as two of the lines in Picture Two but the third always matched the line in Picture One.

And since eight subjects made a judgment for 18 trials, 144 judgments were made in all. Plus, Asch had the study going on at three other universities in addition to the one at Swarthmore.

But here is the first wrinkle in the story: Before the eight students went into the experiment room, Asch secretly took seven aside and told them — hush-hush — they were going to be part of the research team; they were told what the experiment was all about, that the “vision test” would be rigged, and it was they who were going to rig it by picking a line in Picture Two that did not match the line in Picture One — they were told to speak their choice with confidence and no hesitation.

The purpose of the project was to see whether the eighth subject whom they would meet in the experiment room shortly — a foil or dupe — would go along with their crazy choices and deny the veracity of his own eyes.

All the dupe knew was that he would take part in an experiment with seven other students, that the group would be shown pictures — Picture One and Picture Two — and after scanning them, would make a judgment about their contents.

The research team arranged the seating so the dupe was at the end of the table and the last to voice his opinion.

Here’s the second wrinkle: When the first two sets of pictures were shown, the seven confederates picked the line in Picture Two that was the perfect match for the line in Picture One. They did not lie, so the dupe was led to believe the test a no-brainer.

But, starting with the third set of cards, the seven confederates dissimulated, picking the wrong line in Picture Two trial after trial, and their boldness in saying so rattled the dupe who began questioning his own eyes.

What takes place in a person’s mind who decides to cave to a lie?

And it should be pointed out that none of Asch’s subjects suffered from a visual disability like agnosia, which would radically alter what they saw. (I have in mind a patient of the late great neurologist Oliver Sacks who suffered from agnosia and once, after leaving Sacks’s office, grabbed his wife’s head thinking it was his hat on the hat rack — which Sacks describes in his wonderful book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”)

When Asch examined all his data together, he saw, “One-third of all the estimates in the critical group [the critical group being the dupes] were errors identical with or in the direction of the distorted estimates of the majority [the lies of the confederates].” That is, a third of the time the dupe denied what his eyes were telling him.

But more importantly perhaps was that Asch found “one quarter of the subjects [dupes] were completely independent and never agreed with the erroneous judgments of the majority.” They believed what their eyes said and mustered the courage “to recover from doubt and to re-establish their equilibrium … it was their obligation to call the play as they saw it.”

In several of his trials Asch introduced a ringer, a subject who disagreed with the confederates outright — which gave the dupe the courage to speak the truth as well.

And to test whether caving under pressure was the operative variable, Asch assembled a control group of subjects who were told they could write down their responses in private — under these conditions the dupes made a correct judgment 99 percent of the time.

As a social psychologist, Asch had to limit his conclusions to what took place in the experiment room; he never extrapolated to a family, a neighborhood, community, or society where a group or groups of people publicly contradict what people say they’re seeing — and when power’s involved — the contradiction has the force of a command.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States, his side-show man, Sean Spicer, came to the mic and said the president drew the biggest crowd in inauguration history — even though photos taken from the Washington Monument the day before showed Trump’s crowd paled severely in comparison to the president’s before him.

When NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the new president’s other side-show sophist, Kellyanne Conway, why Spicer would lie like that, she said, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts.” 

The man behind the Orwellian lie added, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening” as if a confederate in Asch’s study.

Trump’s crime is not that he stuck a knife in the heart of the American Republic but that he took that knife and slashed the DNA of homo sapiens — a species whose eyes have evolved to near perfection in seeing what sits before them. The dupes threw over the advances of human evolution.

The result, as we know, is half a country that suffers from fascist aphasia aggravated by the fact that so many of the sufferers have nothing to lose. 

Some days I wake up and feel like a French existentialist imprisoned in a fifties film noire called “No Exit.”

— Illustration from the cover of Robert D. Putnam’s  “Bowling Alone”

This is the preface to a paper, “The New Scotland Law and Order League and the Case of Elmer Peter’s Hotel: The Temperance Movement in Albany County, N.Y. in 1905,” that Dennis Sullivan, the village historian for Voorheesville, will present on June 6 at the Voorheesville Public Library. Another Enterprise columnist, Jesse Sommer, will hold a whiskey-tasting at the event, serving liquor produced locally by his company, New Scotland Spirits.

While engaged in writing history over the years, I have often wondered if communities have genetic traits they pass on to the generations that come after them, in the same way that people say families do, that is, part of them comes from another world.

In the preface to a book I wrote about the village I live in — Voorheesville, New York — nearly 40 years ago, I alluded to the importance of a community understanding the social DNA it was, if you will, born with.

I called attention to the fact that a lot of people look at history as a series of quaint little artifacts, for example the time the postmaster fell in the creek on the way home from the square dance having quaffed too much of Aunt Trudy’s punch. When the locals are in a group and that story is told, everybody goes, “Ha ha; wasn’t that Bill Finch something!”

In our village history, I wrote that, if that is a community’s approach to history, it makes the past an abstraction by which we simultaneously sever ourselves from the present.

I added, “Community-making becomes impossible or at the very least extremely difficult when people lack a sense of place. Sooner or later life becomes haphazard; anything goes.”

Some people say that that’s what’s going on in the United States today, that Americans no longer have a sense of place because America the Beautiful has disappeared. Thus, in the news we see all sorts of stories about young people struggling with mental-health problems: It’s due to a loss of grounding, a sense of place, the cousin of “having a purpose in life.”

Nearly 25 years ago, Robert Putnam in his American classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” said America was in for a rude awakening, that we already were a country whose people bowled on separate alleys with no connection between one and the other.

It’s what American sociologist Mildred Newhall spoke about 100 years ago when she coined the phrase “parallel play.” It’s a 2-year-old madly at play sitting next to another kid madly at play in a common sandbox — the two mentally aware of each other but wanting no further exchange. It’s a stage of youth we all go through but cataclysmic when a nation lives that way.

This booklet is about a town in upstate New York at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a sad story in a way because it involves a cell — the way Communists use the term — of people in our community who sought to stop friends and neighbors from getting together and having a drink after work, gathering the way the Irish do in pubs to talk over the day’s affairs. 

The prohibitionists in our town, mostly from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, frowned severely on people having a drink, constantly mocking the fool-headed “drunkard.” It was this thinking that fueled the W. C. T. U., the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the most doggedly committed (fanatical) groups ever to go against drink.

On one level, the temperance movement those churches championed is understandable because many men — after working like dogs at heavy machinery jobs during the industrial era — frequented bars on the way home and got “hammered,” after which they went home and hammered the missus, women treated as less than dogs. The women couldn’t even vote.

In our town, the town of New Scotland, a group of church-goers got together when the temperance movement was running high and sought to stop drinking in our bars and hotels, even in our homes. They called themselves the New Scotland Law and Order League and, like vigilantes, went about rendering judgment on, and simultaneously punishing, tipsy souls as they left the local saloon — like a grammar school principal washing out the mouth of a kid with soap for saying something naughty.  

Mouth-washing for drinking got serious when the United States forbade the production and use of alcohol through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The national decree lasted from 1920 to 1933 and, as history says, it was a gargantuan failure. Things got infinitely worse.

One of the leaders of the law-and-order league in our town, say in 1900, was Frank Van Auken, a church-going Methodist whose family was here for generations. He lived at 10 Voorheesville Ave. in the village of Voorheesville — an incorporated village inside the town since 1899. For nearly 50 years, I have lived at 14 Voorheesville Ave. two houses away from Frank’s, though he was long dead when my wife and I came.

I have been inside Frank’s house at #10 many times — it’s been beautifully redone — and, when I give historical walking tours of the village — as part of my job as municipal historian — when we come to Frank’s house, I comment on his involvement in the law-and-order league and shake my head in disbelief. (His granddaughter Gert once had a dance school in the barn out back.)

And as village historian — the town has its own — I’ve been involved in researching and writing about our people and its institutions for 38 years. When I walked down Main Street while writing the history book, I saw people from the past come out of their homes and greet me as if I was Thornton Wilder in “Our Town”; I thought of Voorheesville then as “My Town.” Not hubristically, as those who know me know.

I’d like to send this essay to every municipal historian in Albany County and to every president of every historical association in every village and town within its bounds, inviting each and all to come to Voorheesville and share stories about the temperance movement in their community during the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

The town of Guilderland didn’t take kindly to prohibition in those days; they voted for drink pretty much every chance they got.

If our convivium does take place — and I am there — my first question to the gathered throng will be: Does your town have a life? And to those who say yes, I will ask: Who were the mother and father of that life, who were its grandparents and those who came before them? Has the social DNA of those times affected who we are today?

In my capacity as village historian, I was asked to provide an historical snapshot of our community in days-gone-by for the “Village of Voorheesville Comprehensive Plan,” which village officials adopted on June 26, 2018.

I did, and in it I said that the Voorheesville of 2018 was different from its self in 1910. I wrote, “Of course, [today] the churches maintain sub-communities which are important to the social cohesion of the whole — though there are changes in that sphere as well — but in the second decade of the new millennium, a face-to-face community-wide sense of community remains absent.”  

When the plan came out, one of my neighbors called this assessment somber, bordering on depressing. Was I saying Voorheesvillians were bowling alone?

And, if that is true, how would we bowlers know? What are the criteria by which to assess such a thing? And how might such a problem be solved? And if we, at the local level, cannot devise ways to respond to community, how can we expect a nation — bowled over by diversity — to set its ship aright?

What follows is the result of my research into what happened in our town in 1905 and, as you will see, some Voorheesvillians were involved. Is what happened then still with us or did the social genes of that era die with it?   

I love Voorheesville and I love our town, despite their disparate selves, and in this love affair I remain perplexed by our law-and-order league of old and by the man who lived two doors down. Are we they? Are they us?

 A drawing John Keats rendered of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase circa 1819.

The great English poet John Keats caused a sensation when he ended his much-beloved “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with the couplet: 

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In the four-and-a-half stanzas preceding those lines, Keats reveals how he reached that conclusion; the couplet is like the QED at the end of a math problem or a riddle from the Sphinx of Thebes.

Whatever exegeses literary enthusiasts have come up with over the years to decode the two-line cipher — and there have been many — one thing that has not changed is that the 18 words are a statement of “cultural literacy,” that is, Keats is telling us what knowledge people need to have in order to live in the world successfully, which involves sharing a language with others so conversations can occur without folks resorting to aggression or violence.   

In 1978, the great American poet Adrienne Rich came out with a book of poems titled “The Dream of a Common Language” which reflected her desire that someday there’d be a society where people would understand each other’s language well enough so as to avoid engaging in a continuous war of words: Word A would mean A and Word B would mean B, no more no less, as in 1 and 1 are always 2.

Culturally literate people are able to translate the metaphors others use and through that understanding create and maintain the common bond communities and societies need to stay alive, to evolve successfully — and communities and societies that lack such a bond do in fact fail.

The translating in question is a skill that can be learned but requires considerable practice in the same way that mastering French or Greek requires considerable practice. What is sad about America today is that so many Americans have given up on learning that skill—indeed downgrade its value—and thereby fail to add to the social capital that keeps America e pluribus unum.

In the same way that we call someone literate who can read and write — they know their way around the alphabet — we say someone is culturally literate who has the foundational knowledge of the culture he lives in and is able to respond to the tongues of others without feeling threatened and then compelled to start a war of words; to repeat: the culturally literate person is fluent in his own tongue as well as those of others, even subcultures that are diverse and abrasive and requiring great patience to understand and accept: Rich’s dream of a common language come true.

When the subject of cultural literacy arises, culturally literate people — pardonnez-moi — think right away of the American educator Eric “E. D.” Hirsch and his much-lauded “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know” which came out in 1987. Underscore “What Every American Needs to Know;” it’s a tremendously bold imperative. Every American? And nowhere does Hirsch mention that Keats scooped him 168 years earlier.

Hirsch’s basic premise was/is: (1) “all human communities are founded upon specific shared information;” and (2) “culturally literate [people] possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world,” and by “modern world” he means the world a person is living in at the time. And, because there are so many cultures and subcultures, the culturally literate person is a kind of master linguist.

By using the word “thrive” Hirsch was more than implying that the culturally ill-literate person is ailing in some way — is sick — and needs to immerse himself in the ethical culture he’s living in to save his own soul.   

What made Hirsch’s work problematic is that the same year his book came out, there appeared the American classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which is another tremendously bold imperative. Bloom was saying America was slowly losing her mind.

Some readers interested in Bloom’s ideas started taking off the gloves as soon as they got to the subtitle of the book, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.”  

It’s one thing to say someone is failing democracy, it’s quite another to accuse him of demolishing the souls of the young and thereby lessening their chances of getting into heaven.  

One wonders what was in the water at the time because, as those two books were making their way to the best-seller list, William Bennett — the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan (1985-1988) — started accusing American educators of “dumbing down” what they were teaching kids, especially the “underserved.” It’s a form of cultural triage. 

The journal “American Speech,” which publishes articles on the origin of words and phrases, says that “dumbing down” was instituted “so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence” and that it was Hollywood moguls who led the charge by telling script writers and directors during the Great Depression to stop being “too subtle,” that dumbing down “saves time and wearying gestures.” And sells tickets!

Hirsch made a major error by providing at the end of his book a list of the “names, phrases, dates, and concepts every American should know” that ignited a culture war of sorts — some groups claiming that their names, phrases, dates, and concepts were not among the 5,000 Hirsch gave; they felt they were being relegated to the realm of non-American. Hirsch’s list can be viewed as cultural preparation for the SAT exam. 

Forgotten, or submerged, for years, “cultural literacy” came to the fore on Oct. 7 when Hamas slaughtered more than a thousand Israeli people and their associates and the Israeli government responded with (still-going-on) vengeful military strikes.

But what sparked a war of words at home was the statement the Graduate Students for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard, issued on Instagram the day after Hamas’s slaughter; it reads, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It was co-signed by more than 30 other organizations on the Harvard campus. The statement is like telling a woman who’d just been raped about the concept of “victim-precipitated rape.”

As the reverberations of the statement continue to be felt to this day, on Oct. 17 — nine days after the pro-Palestinian j’accuse appeared — the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, Ezekiel J. Emanuel — came out with an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “The Moral Deficiencies of a Liberal Education.”  

He said the pro-Palestinian ideologues at Harvard were able to get away with such a view because their professors — as with professors at American colleges and universities across the board — and by deduction teachers at secondary schools — had dumbed down the required lessons on the ethics and morality of social life.  

Emanuel said the American university system had failed, “to give them [the pro-Palestinian students at Harvard and similar-thinking souls] the ethical foundation and moral compass to recognize the basics of humanity.” He was repeating Bloom’s warning that there were too many ill-literate Americans who could not speak to others without engaging in a war of words.

To pay some degree of homage to Emanuel’s concerns, I suggest that every university in the country require every incoming frosh to take a two-semester Civics 101 course where each student must satisfactorily be able to answer the questions: (1) what does it mean to be a moral person? (2) am I a moral person? (3) what is the payoff for being moral — the psychological and spiritual benefits?; and (4) if such a thing as a moral nation exists, does America fit the profile?

If Keats were alive today he’d say those questions sum up the beauty/truth cultural literacy imperative he laid out, that is, when a person becomes an ethically moral agent, he achieves a psychological and spiritual security that no attack of words or arms can turn him into a machine of revenge and retribution.

¡Les deseo a todos un Día de Acción de Gracias seguro y saludable!

— The Crucifixion by Pietro Perugino, circa 1482

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” said Jesus Christ before he died.

The act of forgiveness — of one person forgiving another — is fraught with psychological tension and contradictions that are constantly fed by a reservoir of competing and antagonistic emotions because forgiving someone goes against the two automatic response mechanisms we have as human beings to survive — fight and flight.

That is, when we feel threatened or pained by some harm, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a stress response that readies us to attack or flee the source of harm.

But forgiveness, as a way to deal with a harm-done, does not permit the “victim” to make war on the “perpetrator,” to take the wrongdoer down a peg to satisfy an eye-for-an-eye tooth-for-a-tooth payback ethic; thus, with forgiveness, the first of the two automatic response mechanisms — fight — is dismantled.

Nor does forgiveness allow the person who has been harmed to avoid dealing with the situation by fleeing. Physical and mental escape are ruled out because such tacks hinder healing, keep the harmed person — the victim or survivor — from moving on with life, from getting back (hopefully) to where things once were.

Anyone who looks into the issues related to forgiveness soon sees the daunting complexity involved; there’s a million permutations: For example, should a person forgive a wrongdoer who will not accept responsibility for his act and refuses to apologize?

And what of a courtroom situation when the wrongdoer, now a defendant, passes by the table where the victim is seated and casts a leering smirk his way, translated as: Why are you making such a big deal of this? Does such behavior lessen the chance of forgiveness?

For Christians, of course, these kinds of questions are moot — especially with respect to the fight response — because one of the fundamental tenets of their religion is: When someone harms you, you turn the other cheek, you do not do to them what they did to you. Indeed, their Scriptures say a person must forgive a wrongdoer seventy times seven times.

The architect of that code, Jesus Christ, after being whipped, beaten, mocked, spit upon, and crucified on a cross — in a state-sanctioned execution — said, as he was about to expire, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23: 34) There was to be no retribution for what they did.

During the years he preached to the multitudes who came to hear him, over and over he said love is the only way to respond to a harm-done and then, when he himself was subject to ignominious pain — bodily torture — he practiced what he taught. He forgave the vigilantes.

And because he acted so under those circumstances, many Christians say he was a god, which some people say is true of Nelson Mandala who, after being locked in a prison for 27 years, forgave the robbers of his freedom, setting up in 1996 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help South Africa’s communities deal peaceably with those who committed grave crimes against their friends and neighbors.

As a concept and as a practice, forgiveness comes into play when one person has been harmed by another. And the harm might range from a spiteful husband making cutting remarks to his wife, all the way to a stranger on the street hitting a passerby on the head and taking his wallet.

And with respect to the latter, it may not be just the bop on the head and stolen wallet that’s at stake because the victim might have lost his eyesight, been forced to leave his job, and even seek public assistance; in such cases, forgiveness must deal with not only the original harm but also the suffering that accrues and takes over a person life.

People have divergent views on how to handle such matters; the 45th president of the United States said his MO is: “If someone screws you, screw them back 10 times harder.”

There’s a perverse kind of pleasure involved in such behavior — physically and metaphorically — as the overlord mouths words from the retributivist’s handbook while beating upon his mark, “Here, take this, you sonuvabitch; see how that feels. There’s plenty more where that came from and I know where you live.”

The avenger who gives issue to that kind of rage could be the wife mentioned above deeply hurt by her husband’s slings but, because of a power imbalance, goes after him in indirect passive-aggressive — but no less-lethal — ways.

In her much-lauded “Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice” the University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum says she cannot fathom the payoff people get from unleashing retributive, revenge-fueled feelings on another. “Why would an intelligent person,” she says, “think that inflicting pain on the offender assuages or cancels her own pain? There seems to be some type of magical thinking going on.”

But the thinking is not magical at all, it reflects the sophisticated logic of an ethic of justice based on the equalization of loss, a desserts-based justice; the real magical thinkers are those who compartmentalize the event by pushing out of consciousness their rage, resentment, and scorn, hoping to find some peace of mind that day.

However, the research of Everett Worthington, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, shows that people who compartmentalize hurt begin to exhibit the same neuro-cardio symptoms people under great stress have. His conclusion: “Unforgiveness” has no redeeming psychological, medical, social, or economic benefits.

Those who choose to forgive, therefore, come from the other side of the room, having made a commitment to confront the violent feelings associated with retribution — rage, scorn, and hate — wanting at all costs not to revictimize themselves by letting such poison infiltrate their blood.

The ancient Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi (ἀφίημι), means: letting go; giving up; handing over; getting rid of; sending away; leaving alone — all of which speak to how to dissolve revenge-based feelings that maim consciousness. But letting go does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, minimizing, or taking any other path that denies the effect of a harm on one’s life.

What it does mean is that the forgiver must descend into the inferno of his psyche’s id and there face the vortex of rage-filled feelings that encourage, activate, and reward retaliatory behavior. It’s a war against the demons of fight and flight.

To start with, the person who forgives must acknowledge the extent of his hurt as well as the source. His inner-dialogue might be, “My body aches; my mind is riddled with rage, revenge and fear; and that person over there caused it.” It’s an internalized victim impact statement that seeks to be shared with the rest of the world.

A 1988 survey by Gallup found that nearly every respondent said it was important for people to forgive, but most said it could not be done alone, and traditional devotional prayers seem to help little.

It seems odd in a way but many who suffer a harm — whether they call themselves victim or survivor — choose to meet with the person who harmed them in a safe milieu like Victim-Offender Mediation or some other restorative justice practice — and our married couple above might seek out a therapist to help them free themselves from a revenge-fueled feedback loop they’ve imprisoned themselves in.

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope is the one responsible for the oft-quoted “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” which is misinterpreted in so many ways.

There is no God or any other divinity involved in forgiveness; it’s a pained and hurt human soul digging deep within — hopefully with the aid of a supportive community — to find the strength to refrain from doing unto others what they did unto him.

George Orwell in 1940, broadcasting for the BBC.

George Orwell began writing “Animal Farm” in November 1943; four months later, at the end of February, it was done. A cloth copy of the first edition runs to 92 pages. 

Too short for a novel, booksellers and publishers called it a novella. To one friend and political ally Orwell described the work as a “little squib” of a thing.

The story has been called a fable, a beast fable, an allegory, and satire; to some, it’s a religious parable.  

And, because the title of the book, when it first came out, was “Animal Farm: A Fairy Story,” unknowing readers thought it was the British counterpart of “Charlotte’s Web”; “Animal Farm” has pigs, Charlotte has her porker, Wilbur.

Early on Orwell thought the chances of the book finding a publisher were iffy. In his classic biography of the writer, “George Orwell: A Life” (Little Brown, 1980), Bernard Crick quotes from a letter Orwell sent to the Russian-born American poet and literary historian, Gleb Struve, where he tells the poet that “Animal Farm” “might amuse you when it comes out, but it is not OK politically that I don’t feel certain in advance that anyone will publish [it].”

Who would turn down a fairy tale? No one; but “Animal Farm” was a political minefield.   

At one point, Orwell told his long-time publisher Fredric Warburg — of Secker & Warburg who eventually published the book — that, while writing “Animal Farm,” he had already conceived of another work that expanded on the socio-politico tenets found in the fable — which we now know to be “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Animal Farm was “the story of the revolution betrayed,” as Crick says, “and [then there’s] the story [‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’] of the betrayers, power-hungry in each case, perpetuating themselves in power for ever.”

And although Orwell did refer to the fable as a squib — and a politically incorrect one at that — Google “Animal Farm” and a zillion hits will come up. People from nearly every age group and cultural stratum say it was on their summer reading list in high school; and these days, those taking the Advanced Placement Exam in English had better know every pig in every sty if they hope to get a Five.

As far back as 1982, a school district in Jackson County, Florida blackballed “Animal Farm,” calling it “pro-communist,” the exact opposite of the words Orwell wrote.

And, internationally in 2002, education ministers in the United Arab Emirates took “Animal Farm” out of circulation with 124 other titles, decrying the book for mocking Islamic and Arab values: They said there were pictures of pigs drinking liquor on the farm, and other “indecent images.”  

And yet more recently, in 2021, Carnegie Mellon University said that, in preparation for the upcoming “Banned Books Week,” it would not offer a list of books for people to examine, but recommend just one title: “Animal Farm.” 

I’m not sure whether they still exist, but the transcripts of the discussions that went into that decision are worth their weight in gold; they’re statements on cultural literacy. A student at the school should be doing a thesis on it.

That Carnegie Mellon took the step in the first place is direct homage to the lasting power of the work.

The story, of course, is about the lives of barnyard animals on the farm of a certain Mr. Jones who, the animals say, has mistreated them and they were not going to take it anymore.

The Spark notes (online edition) begin its summary of the book this way: Once upon a time a prize-winning boar called Old Major, called all the animals of the Manor Farm together into the big barn; he wanted to tell them of a dream he had of a society where all animals lived in harmony, where no boss-man was around to oppress or control them.

Old Major forewarned the community, however, that such societies do not just spring up, but must be worked for; he tells his comrades, “Your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray … among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.” 

Then he adds, “Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.”  

Old Major clearly knew his Marx; he then gave his comrades a Marxist revolutionary song, “Beasts of England,” to sing as a clarion call to animals everywhere to make a society where the needs of every citizen are met — equally, and without resentment. 

But over time — the story continues — differences of opinion arose so that the new chief pig, Napoleon, began to call all dissenters fascists who needed to be annihilated. 

And as the constitution and bylaws of the once-hoped-for just society began to dissolve, the chief pig decreed that thenceforth only one commandment needed to be obeyed: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. The revolution was dead.

Of course, great works of fiction like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” easily stand on their own, but their meaning intensifies when we know that Orwell wrote both books after spending six months on the front fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He was relieved of duty after taking a sniper’s bullet in the throat, the doctors saying a millimeter to the left he would have been no more.

During the war there were three “ideologically progressive” units fighting against Franco — Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists. What shook Orwell’s faith in humanity — the cause of the birth of the two dystopian works — was that at one point the Communists turned on their revolutionary comrades.

Crick says it began when, “The Communists spread the tale that the P.O.U.M. [Socialists] were secretly allied to the Fascists, even receiving arms from them across the lines at night, and that the Anarchists were ‘objectively Fascists,’” a canard, he adds, that “was repeated without question by Left-wing and even by some Liberal newspapers in Britain.”

It ended with four-hundred killed and a thousand wounded.

In his 1947 preface to the Ukranian edition of “Animal Farm,” Orwell told his readers that, “in the middle of 1937 … the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down” every Socialist alive — state Socialists and libertarian Socialists alike.

Among the hunted himself, Orwell says we, “found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.”

He says the “man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Fascists) was the same.” 

Orwell’s Communists were Napoleon the killer pig, the avatar of Stalin, destroyers of every revolution that seeks to meet the needs of all equally and without resentment.

He documented his experiences during the war in the much-lauded classic “Homage to Catalonia,” which, along with “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” makes one of the great, if not greatest, literary triptychs of all time.

To his dying day Orwell could not get over “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries,” as if he were talking about the United States today.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the dissenter Winston Smith is warned that, under Fascism, “There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy … always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.”

And for those who want “a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.”

Lappawinsoe, a chief of the Delaware people, was painted in 1735 by Gustavus Hesselius. Boys in the tribe went through a destiny-discerning ritual to become men.

Ever since Donald Trump got seriously involved in electoral politics, the issue of a person’s character rocketed to center stage, not just the probity of Mr. Trump — twice impeached and indicted now in four jurisdictions for felony crimes — but the character of every politician running for office; indeed, the issue has filtered down to the average person walking down Main Street in Anytown, USA.

And, while this average person walking down Main Street USA might refuse to challenge his ideological counterpart sur la rue about the probity of his character directly, we Americans run around these days judging each other on the Moral Character Inventory Scale (MCIS) as if partaking in a national rite.

Character is one of those words embedded in the personal thesaurus of each one of us but, when someone asks us to say what character is, we stammer like a child. A wonderful essay could be written about the mental gymnastics a person goes through when asked: “Are you a person of character?” Are you a moral person?

Years ago, when I first encountered Norman Brown’s classic “Love’s Body,” I was taken with his statement that “character is not innate,” that it must be developed. 

Such a view runs counter to the belief that character is fixed at birth, that we are born with an already-made moral structure so that, when we get caught doing something wrong, we can say, “I was born that way. I couldn’t help myself.”

That’s what Geraldine — the boisterous alter-ego of the old-time comedian Flip Wilson, used to say when confronted with bad behavior, “The Devil made me do it.”

Brown says, “A man’s character is his demon, his tutelar spirit” referring to the Greek daimon, a person’s inner spirit — what the Romans called genius, “a protecting spirit, analogous to the guardian angels invoked by the Church of Rome … The Greeks called them δαίμονες (daimones).” [Smith, “Dictionary,” 1880.]

In November 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles called, “To Have A Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing Up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Measure of Delinquency Prevention.”  

In that smörgåsbord of ideas I called attention to Socrates’ use of daimon in Plato’s “Apology,” which he called a “divinatory voice,” a voice that comes from so deep within that we think it’s divine.

Socrates said that voice “opposed me even in very small things if I was about to do something I should not rightly do.” For him, the daimon was a kind of superego informing him when he was being treasonous to himself and others. It is this protective voice that people of faith call their guardian angel and that Brown calls a tutelar spirit.

The image most Americans have of such a spirit is Clarence Odbody in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when an angel comes to earth and opposes George Bailey for doing something he should not rightly do.

Xenophon — a student and friend of Socrates — in his “Apologia” and “Memorabilia” expanded on what his teacher said, describing the daimon as inspirational direction, that is, as having a future-oriented visionary dimension. The philosopher Proclus Lycaeus went further by calling the daimon a transformative force, a sort of psycho-genetic energy system from which moral character is born.

Brown says this force is found “in a dream,” that the dream is the mother of our destiny, thus character and destiny are linked in a dream. Freud would call destiny one’s “ego-ideal,” the true self we are meant to be. 

Our aboriginal ancestors in the United States were very much in touch with this process. Indeed, they incorporated a destiny-producing dream sequence in a rite of passage which every young man had to endure to enter adulthood; a young man was forced to look his destiny straight in the eyes.   

In his ethnographic writings, John Heckewelder — a Moravian missionary who lived among the Delaware Indians for more than a decade beginning in 1771 — describes the destiny-discerning process the young male Indian had to go through in his “History, Manners, And Customs Of The Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania And The Neighbouring States.” 

He says, “When a boy is to be thus initiated, he is put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course, he has been prepared beforehand.” 

During the dream ceremony, the young man fancies “himself flying through the air, walking under ground, stepping from one ridge or hill to the other across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and monsters, and defeating whole hosts by his single arm.”

He even connects “with the Mannitto [Manitou] or with spirits, who inform [the young man] of what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. His fate in this life is laid entirely open before him, the spirit tells him what is to be his future employment, whether he will be a valiant warrior, a mighty hunter, a doctor, a conjurer, or a prophet. There are even those who learn or pretend to learn in this way the time and manner of their death.”

It’s what I described in my criminology paper as having a calling in life.

And during the dream encounter, the initiate is given a name “analogous to the visions that he has seen, and to the destiny that is supposed to be prepared for him. The boy, imagining all that happened to him while under perturbation, to have been real, sets out in the world with lofty notions of himself, and animated with courage for the most desperate undertakings.”

To confirm what he saw, Heckewelder spoke to “several of their old men who had been highly distinguished for their valour, and asked them whether they ascribed their achievements to natural or supernatural causes, and they uniformly answered, that as they knew beforehand what they could do, they did it of course.”

When the elders were asked how they knew what they were capable of, “they never failed to refer to the dreams and visions which they had while under perturbation.”  

Christian Miller — a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, a man much in tune with every facet of character development — said in a talk at Notre Dame University not long ago that, even when a person accepts that character can change, he must remember that “it can change in multiple directions so …  just because it changes … doesn’t mean it necessarily will go in the good direction. We can also go in a vicious direction instead.”

Thus, each of us, he says, must be “intentional in thinking about how we can shape our characters … in a more positive direction.” 

His short video on character development is worth the attention of all:

In the meantime, I am willing to wage everything I hold dear that no native American in the history of our country ever emerged from his dream ceremony and described his destiny as, “I will be your retribution.”