Do you use irony in your conversations? It’s when you say the opposite of what you mean.

For example, on vacation you get to your room at the hotel and look out the window and there, 30 feet from your nose, is a solid brick wall. You say: Oh, look: Another great view of America!

To mask your disappointment — let’s call it that — you say the opposite of what you mean, the literary lexicons say for “humorous or emphatic effect.”  

Anyone hearing you knows you did not get what you wanted or hoped for. You were looking for a scenic view and got industrial brick.  

But I’m betting that understanding the nature and purpose of irony in your life is not on your bucket list as it’s not on the list of many others.

But that’s a poor approach to reality because the pervasiveness of irony in the cultural and social institutions of America today, especially through literature and television, is adversely affecting our efforts to forge a new national identity. We don’t know what people mean.

But I should point out that irony is a two-edged sword in that it can have a freeing function while other times, like now in the United States, it has morphed into a corroding sarcastic cynicism.

In a 1987 essay on the poet John Berryman, Lewis Hyde said, as a tool, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” Subscribers are prisoners.

The great American writer of fiction and commanding revolutionary essays, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) — he took his life besieged by despair — called irony tyrannical and useless “when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” It lacks the power to transcend.

He points to postmodern literature’s love affair with irony but especially to television’s “cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist” depiction of social situations steeped in condescending mockery.

Wallace says at some point television swallowed irony whole (as well as its kin sarcasm and cynicism) and once it filtered into every channel it trained viewers “to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form.”

Is not the social commentary program of John Oliver (as was the case with his predecessor Jon Stewart) a savaging session?

When sharp-tongued comics Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce stepped into the arena in the 1950s, they opened the floodgates of a biting criticism that seemed perfect for the post-World War II generation. They skewered the McCarthy-reeking government and any other institution that held people down.

Over the decades, America’s institutions have taken it on the chin so often and in so many ways that an interloper like Donald Trump can come along and call The New York Times and The Washington Post purveyors of “fake news” and the FBI crooked and unreliable in serving the American people, thereby firing up a cadre of torch-bearing cynics.

That supreme generator of scorn is heralded as a savior for shielding the heapers of scorn from scorn. How can those who cherish the values of honesty and sincerity compete?

And the reason scorn, sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and the like remain “so powerful and so unsatisfying,” Wallace says, “is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’”

We have to ask ourselves whether it’s possible to get an ironist to say what he means even when someone “with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for,” Wallace notes, “ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig.”

The mouthing-off ironist, whether personal or corporate, sounds on the surface like a rebel but in truth is an oppressive tyrant because attention is drawn away from his needs and the needs of his neighbor, especially the less-well-off. The primary categories of reality are dismissed as fluff.

How would we ever know what anyone’s needs are when people say what they do not mean and what they mean they do not say?

A great part of the furor of the Trump supporter derives not so much from his supposed dissatisfaction with existing social institutions but from being trapped in a scorn-ridden identity that wears upon his being. He might think lashing out is a source of relief but it creates endless exhaustion for the rest of us.

And enough evidence exists that shows that those afflicted with irony-based despair soon begin to conjure up conspiratorial ghost stories laced with facts that do not exist.

Climate-change-deniers will never be convinced of a historical reality until they deal with the corrosive cynicism they suffer from based on needs not being met. And such cynicism is addictive because it provides a certain kind of neural pleasure; when you’re cutting a fellow citizen down, you feel alive.

What happens in the long run, though, is that the imagination is blunted. The tool that allows us to envision a way out of a morass such as irony, cynicism, and related deep-hole-diggers, loses its grounding.

But the imagination is critical because, as the educational philosopher Maxine Greene points out in “Releasing the Imagination,” it is our means “to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” Transcendence.

It may sound strange but we must start conversing about topics that cynics have long labeled utopian. Take full-coverage-lifetime-health-care as an example. The American cynic says it cannot work even though France and Canada and a host of other nations have provided such care for their citizens for decades. They shame us.

Impractical? Practical? These words pale in comparison to the corrosiveness of cynicism. With it comes to the practical; we have to remind ourselves of what Oscar Wilde said a century ago: “A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.”

Is it practical to suggest an annual income for every person in the United States of $100,000, students included because they work like the rest of us?

Is it practical to stipulate that anyone who makes over $1 million a year must hand over every dollar above the million-dollar mark to the national treasury? The Congressional Budget Office can figure out the details.

What about the provision of a comfortable abode for everyone? How might such a system work? And this would include home-repair and home-replacement for every U.S. resident done in by a storm, even U.S. citizens in the Virgin Islands.

We must include cynics in our discussions forward but must remind them that the agenda is about needs, the rightful needs of all. This means that cynicism must be checked at the door like they used to do with guns in the Old West.

Location:

— Photo by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.it

Stillness predominates in the Sahara, writes Paul Bowles in “Baptism of Solitude.”

In the April 14, 2017 edition of the “Independent,” an article appeared by Katie Foster called “Children as young as 13 attending ‘smartphone rehab’ as concerns grow over screen time.”

Anyone who’s lived in the United States for more than an hour knows the United Kingdom is not alone in this “fight.” There are tables in every food court in every mall in the country where four or five young adults are sitting, eyes glued to the screens of some electronic device withholding presence from their comrades.

I have long wondered what the quality of silence is like in their homes. Is there any? Do members of their family or any family have a time and place for solitude? Are periods of solitude encouraged? Do family members read books of a meditative nature that help them sort life’s plaguing details?

I am especially aware of these issues at the moment because I’m reading a book of essays by the expat American writer Paul Bowles, “Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993.”

Bowles died in 1999 at 81 and, though an inveterate traveler, called Tangier, Morocco his home for more than 50 years. As a person attentive to what is, he began to absorb the bare bones reality of Africa, especially the silence one finds upon entering the Sahara.

In describing that silence Bowles hints as why those addicted to media-screen realities refuse to adjust their lives to include solitude. It’d require going cold turkey.

In a piece he wrote for “Holiday” in 1953 called “Baptism of Solitude,” Bowles says that, whether a person has gone into the Sahara once or 10 times, the first thing that commands his attention is the “stillness.” In that “hard stony place ... an incredible, absolute silence prevails.”

Even in the busy marketplaces, he says, “a conscious force [exists] which [resents] the intrusion of sound.” The underlying silence is so great that noise is minimized and eventually dispersed. Even the sky at night joins in; it “never really grows dark” but remains “an intense and burning blue” as if silence will not let the pilgrim go.

Then Bowles points to an inevitable conflict. He says, once you step outside “the gate of the fort or town” you’re staying in, you either “shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you.”

The French have a phrase for the latter; they call it “le baptême de solitude,” the baptism of solitude.

It’s an experience of aloneness but has nothing to do with loneliness because loneliness presumes memory. Out there in that “wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares,” Bowles says, “even memory disappears.” A person doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.

Then a strange interior “reintegration” occurs and “you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course.” It’s the scriptural paradox: Unless the grain of wheat dies, it will not have life but, if it accedes to reality, it will live and multiply.

Bowles is speaking about the Sahara, of course, but he’s also speaking about the experience of solitude and silence anywhere. When a person encounters silence he’s not “quite the same as when he came.”

William Wadsworth, the poet, spoke of his need for this way of being. Social intercourse with friends and neighbors might be fine, he says in his famed poem “Personal Talk,” but:

 

Better than such discourse doth silence long,

Long, barren silence, square with my desire;

To sit without emotion, hope, or aim,

In the loved presence of my cottage-fire,

And listen to the flapping of the flame,

Or kettle whispering its faint undersong.
 

The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who was one of the 20th-Century’s champions of solitude, was more prescriptive. He said, when silence and solitude are absent from our lives, we never become the person we were meant to be. The latter requires a trip to the desert.

In his “The Silent Life,” Merton says all people “need silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from becoming perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.”

No one can remain happy for long, he says “unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.” He treats it as a law of nature.

How would you begin to explain such a process to one of the screen-addicted teens at the mall? One study said half the teens in the United States send 50 or more texts in a day, while one in three send more than 100; that’s 3,000 a month. The numbers seem high but the study noted as well that 15 percent of the teens surveyed send more than 200 texts a day. Twelve texts an hour?

The screen. A study by Common Sense says that, when added up, teens are logged onto a screen of some sort nearly nine hours a day, with those in the tween category logging in at six, almost as much as they sleep at night.

This oblique disregard for solitude manifests itself in how teens do homework. They have the TV on, and take breaks to text or network in some fashion. One study says three-quarters of teens listen to music while doing homework.

What can be the quality of such work? What can be the depth of thought? Maybe it’s better to ask: How much better could that person’s work be if done with greater thought and concentration, in studious solitude?

Psychologist Ester Buchholz in “The Call of Solitude” links solitude to creativity. In an article she wrote for “Psychology Today,” she says, “Research on creative and talented teenagers suggests that the most talented youngsters are those who treasure solitude.”

By delving into the depths of the unconscious, solitude helps a person “unravel problems ... figure things out ... emerge with new discoveries ... unearth original answers.”

On this point, Merton keeps hammering away. Without solitude, he says, a person is “no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself. He no longer makes decisions for himself, he lets them be made for him. He no longer acts upon the outside world. But lets it act upon him. He is propelled through life by a series of collisions with outside forces. His is no longer the life of a human being but the existence of a sentient billiard ball, a being without purpose and without any deeply valid response to reality.”

Bowles saw how sentient billiard balls begin to carom when silence is rejected. People cling to a phantasm of who they are rather than the person they are meant to be.

 

During a baseball game on television the other night, one of the players smashed a home run into the right-field stands.

— “A Lonely Grave,” by Alexander Gardner, pictures Union soldiers standing near a comrade’s grave at the battlefield of Antietam, September 1862
Current Civil War: “To take away or radically modify the health-support system of 22 million Americans is an Antietam of sorts in that it strips people of the support — MRIs, medications — that keep them afloat.”

 

It’s a national tragedy that the United States is currently engaged in a fight over who deserves or has a right to assistance when they’re in pain or their life is threatened by some physical or emotional illness.

It’s a shame but not a surprise. It’s just the latest explosion in our current civil war, which began when the United States had its emotional breakdown several decades ago. Neurotic symptoms are everywhere.

And let’s not minimize the situation; it is a civil war. It’s not a war of bullets and bombs as in the original War of the States but a war of ideology when threats, identity-slashing labels, lying, and administrative decisions that punish and exclude, are used as assault weapons.

This kind of warfare is like the cyber warfare discussed of late, in that cyber warfare has nothing to do with bullets and bombs either and yet the hacking and invasion of people’s consciousness by electronically rifling through their private lives has deleterious consequences (for everyone).

Thus to take away or radically modify the health-support system of 22 million Americans is an Antietam of sorts in that it strips people of the support — MRIs, medications — that keep them afloat.

It’s also a stripping away of the economic security that supports emotional well-being as well as access to procedures that end pain and allow people to feel life is worth living.

The president of the United States has referred to the current measures to strip people of such supports as “mean” but to support the wellbeing of his fragile ego, has railed against the weak as unworthy for any communal consideration.  

And this from a man who never cooked a meal or washed a dish, from a man whose main source of mental anguish derives from whether to install the Kohler K-4886 or Panorama Round Ceramic bidet in a football-field-size bathroom.

But keep in mind that the issue of the providing for or stripping people of health care is only a symptom. The real issue is economic and has to do with the concept and definition of worth, what or who is worth something.

The current prevailing ethic is: Some citizens are worth more than others and therefore deserve more attentive consideration. The same ethic also says: Some citizens are worth nothing and therefore deserve nothing from the collective coffers.

Worth is a political economic variable — as university professors might phrase it — because it has to do with the differential allocation and provision of resources to those whose needs are defined as worthy versus those whose needs are minimized or dismissed as unimportant.

Worthy means “worthy of our attention” and worthy of our attention means worthy of receiving that attention when we are in need. We allocate resources to those persons, groups, places, and events we say will help the nation progress.

I have a hard time trying to fathom how a person manages — practically as well as psychologically — after he has been defined as having no worth by the collective and is refused support even when his cries for help are loud.

Thus the debate over “pre-existing conditions” is a sinister, sadistic joke. It translates into: If you come to us without being sick, without something wrong, we will attend to your needs. But if you come with medical problems you are out, we will not pay for what ails you. The logic is: Come back when you get better, then we’ll help.

Who we define as worthy of the community’s attention is what constitutes the definition of “united,” whether we consider ourselves a national community or a pack of tribes pitted against each other over supposed scarce resources.

The current civil war is a tribal war fueled by the policies and projects of the financially and culturally worthy who benefit from the conflict. Amid this war the president marveled recently: Hey, the stock market keeps going up!

The guilt of “taking the life” of fellow citizens is diminished or not felt at all through the creation of relational distance. Keeping the victim out of sight.

Thus the conflicting tribes have developed their own language and cultural reference points which serve as buffers between themselves and the enemy — the person or group of lesser or no worth.

In his July 11, 2017 column in The New York Times, “How We Are Ruining America,” David Brooks addressed the issue of relational distance and some of its consequences.

He says the well-to-do, the worthy, structure exclusionary, distance-creating, worthlessness-defining strategies to protect their privilege. In terms of this kind of protectionism he says, “Members of the college-educated class have become good at making sure their children retain their privileged status.” They do this “by making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

In the past 20 years, he adds, the affluent have increased what they spend on education by 300 percent while such expenditures for “every other group is basically flat.”

Those with the cultural, financial, and political capital to define worthiness also create and implement policies that say to some, as Brooks notes, “You are not welcome here.” In terms of health care, your body is of no value.

But it’s far more nefarious because the policies are geared to take away from the unworthy the means to consider membership anywhere. They become displaced.

Surprisingly, Brooks confesses his own blindness. He says he recently took a friend to a gourmet sandwich shop who had “only” a high school education.

When she looked at the sandwich menu with “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients such as soppressata, capicola, and striata baguette listed, she froze. The tribal “cultural signifiers” got to her.

When asked if she would like to go elsewhere “she anxiously nodded yes,” Brooks says, “and we ate Mexican. (He should have known better; he should have inquired of her from the beginning where she preferred to eat.)

In terms of the health-care policies that are currently being asked for, it is possible that close to 22 million people will never see a Padrino M.D., they will never be the recipients of Pomodoro surgery. The medical counterparts of soppressata, capicola, and striata baguettes will never be there for their ailing bodies to taste.

The only way to end the war is to transcend political economies that speak in terms of deserving and entitlement and to adopt a view of life where we meet the needs of everyone. This means treating the poorest among us as the richest treat themselves. That is a 21st-Century Sermon on the Mount.

Healthcare-wise it means that every citizen of the United States, at the very least, will receive the same level of care a U. S. Senator gets from the collective and the president from private coffers. When this occurs we will finally be able to say: Blessed are the Peacemakers.

 

— Bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th Century now in the Museo del Prado

Seneca the Younger wrote that clemency was not a sign of weakness.

It’s always enlightening to see two great minds come to loggerheads over the values they embrace and in doing so shed light on what it means to be human.

What comes to mind first is William F. Buckley’s interview with the great American poet Allen Ginsberg on “Firing Line” in September 1968 — two great thinkers agonizing over what they see at the heart of the American soul. It was Buckley’s show but Ginsberg made it a free-for-all.

Another case comes to mind but it’s strange because the two “contestants” live two centuries apart. I’m thinking of the Roman writer Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C. to A.D. 65), known as Seneca the Younger, and the Argentinian priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whom most folks better know as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis.

Their issue has to do with moral standards as well but more specifically with what is required of a moral person toward those in need, toward the least among us. For Christians the answer’s already there: Matthew 25 says what it is and Mark 10 says how to do it.

Seneca, if your ancient history is fuzzy, was the Stoic philosopher who became the Emperor Nero’s tutor (amicus principis). He had been working with the youth for several years before Nero took charge of the Empire at age 16.

Seneca also wrote Nero’s speeches when the boss had to explain something to the Senate or praetorian guard. In 55, he wrote the much-heralded De Clementia, a treatise on the concept and practice of clemency.

It’s not by chance that clemency came to the fore because Nero had just hired a Roman woman, who was an expert in killing by poison, to toast his several-years-younger adoptive brother, Britannicus — during the family dinner!

By taking on clemency, Seneca wanted to let the Roman Senate and people know that the new emperor was not going to be a neutralizer in the way Caligula and Claudius were; the new man was going to be a man of clemency.

And showing clemency was not a sign of weakness, as Seneca pointed out, but of mensch-hood; it was also a wise political strategy. When someone harmed another, for example, the emperor could demonstrate his power by showing restraint to those in need.

But while Nero’s ventriloquist claims that clemency is good, he makes it quite clear that mercy (misericordia) is not and forgiveness (venia), worse. He said that the person who practices mercy is sick in the head, a pusillanimous soul. A show of mercy is two old ladies being suckered into letting a pleading prisoner go free.

What’s troubling is that Seneca, as a Stoic, also embraced the concept of simplicity. Living like a poor person, he said, was an essential ingredient to living a healthy life (vita beata). And the good person (sapiens) practices what he preaches (“concordet sermo cum vita”).

But in daily life Seneca was a money-grubber; he owned a ton of houses; his personal treasury topped 300,000,000 sesterces. He was a money-lender, a loan shark — though the data on this are slim — whose practices caused great pain and suffering among the Britons.  

The Roman writer Cassius Dio in Book 62 of his history says, “Seneca, in the hope of receiving a good rate of interest, had lent to the islanders 40,000,000 sesterces that they did not want, and had afterwards called in this loan all at once and had resorted to severe measures in exacting it.”

Dio says it was the reason the Britons revolted against Rome under the aegis of the famed Queen Boudica, an ancient Jeanne d’Arc.   

But we cannot fault Seneca for inconsistency; he was walking the walk, that is, he said mercy was for the dogs and so he treated people like dogs — or is that being too harsh?

The ideas of Nero’s tutor are relevant today because last year Pope Francis had declared 2016 the year of “Mercy” for Roman Catholics. He said every Catholic was called to think about the meaning of mercy in his daily life and then find situations to practice it.

At the beginning of the Jubilee year, as it was called, he wrote “Misericordiae Vultus,” a short note in which he laid out the integral relationship between mercy and Christian identity.  

He finished the year with “Misericordia et misera” essentially asking folks how they did thinking about things and whether they planned to make mercy an integral part of their lives.

No one who’s ever read anything about Pope Francis or seen him on TV needs to ask if this guy’s the real deal, whether his “sermo” is consistent with his “vita.” The guy is a font of mercy.

On Holy Thursday 2014, for example, he went to the “Don Gnocchi Center” in Rome and washed and kissed the feet of elderly and disabled women some of whose dogs were bent and swollen. Someone I taught years ago recently remarked that such acts are only symbolic, but look at the photos, watch the videos, this man is in love. When’s the last time you washed and kissed an old lady’s fat feet in a hospital like they were yours?

The Pope lives in a small apartment; he eats with a little community; he drives a little Fiat 500L, which people laughed at when they saw it tootling down Central Park West a couple of years ago.

I’d like to add that for his 80th birthday celebration Francis invited not bishops and cardinals but eight homeless people to his house for breakfast. Once again he was saying that living simply is a component of mercy, which requires that the daily basic needs of the poor and those without be given priority, not stealing health care from the poor to fund tax-cut-handouts to billionaires.

During Bill Maher’s television program “Real Time” two weeks ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich — who lost to Donald Trump in the last presidential campaign — addressed the topic of mercy in terms of health care in the United States.  

Maher asked him: Is healthcare a right or a commodity, is it clemency or is it mercy?

Feeling pressed, the governor gave in; he said it was a right. He said his ethical stance on human relationships does not allow him to embrace “the easiest thing,” that is, “[to] run over the weak and those who live in the shadows and those who don’t have much.” He added: “It is not right.”

All this is going on while the United States is engaged in a civil war, is at loggerheads over, its identity. What is America going to be? What “virtues” are in and which are out? Will we include mercy in our newly-constructed national identity?

A lot of people today talk about the importance of “difference” but they confuse it with the million-and-one varieties of cereal on the supermarket shelves; they refuse to take into account the real needs of others that differ from their own. Difference becomes a joke. Then they stigmatize the weak and needy, calling them cheats, deadbeats, freeloaders, druggies, the incorrigible scum of the earth. Why would anyone want to care for that crowd’s health!

Thus these days I hear more discouraging than encouraging words particularly from politicians who spit on mercy; they are assassins of hope.

I love the National Anthem of the West, “Home on the Range.” It says a good place is “where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.” I think the writer of that song was talking about mercy, taking into account the needs of all rather than loading them onto a slow train to nowhere.

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