Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

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The Ashes and Embers of Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre Dame 2.jpg

How truly sad, ironic and chilling that just days before Easter, La cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris, the haunting 850-year old Gothic masterpiece should be swept by a colossal fire. Predictably, responses have been widely diverse. In addition to the tears shed, Psalms intoned, and vast sums already donated for its reconstruction, many of the cyber-cretins who inhabit their modern version of the Asylum of Charenton have proclaimed that it was a conspiracy - an act of Muslim terror. Just as predictably, the so-called “Yellow Jackets” have begun protesting that the donated restoration funds (already in excess of $1 billion) can and should be spent for aiding the hungry, the homeless and the grossly impoverished of France. The ashes and embers of Notre-Dame have brought people the world over together; so too, these same ashes and embers have torn people both up and apart.

Without question, Notre-Dame de Paris is the most famous of all Gothic Cathedrals of the Middle Ages and is, for its size, antiquity and architectural interest. It was built on the ruins of two earlier churches, which were themselves predated by a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The cathedral was initiated by Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, who, in about 1160 conceived the idea of converting into a single building, on a larger scale, the ruins of the two earlier basilicas. The foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163, and the high altar was consecrated in 1189. The choir, the western façade, and the nave were completed by 1250, and porches, chapels, and other embellishments were added over the next 100 years.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

This is not the first time Notre-Dame has been severely damaged. After the French Revolution it was rescued from possible destruction by Napoleon, who crowned himself emperor of the French in the cathedral in 1804. Notre-Dame underwent major restorations  in the mid-19th century. And the popularity of Victor Hugo’s 1831 historical novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris , which takes place in the cathedral, was said to have inspired the renovations.  (n.b. As of this morning, Hugo’s classic novel is now the #1 best seller on Amazon.com.)

One of the things which has always fascinated me about Notre-Dame is how long it took to be built: nearly 250 years. Imagine that! The people who went to work on the first days of construction - more than 1,000 carpenters, masons, metalsmiths and other laborers knew that they wouldn’t live long enough to see it through to completion. Nor would their children or grandchildren. And yet they persisted, going to work six days a week. Today, no one has that kind of patience; no one takes the long view. A skyscraper must be completed in the wink of an eye; and, without all the architectural brilliance of Notre-Dame de Paris.

In terms of lapsed time, Notre-Dame actually took a fairly short time from foundation stone to completion. Consider, if you will that:

  • The Great Wall of China, the longest man-made structure in the world, took more than 2,000 years to build, cost more than 400,000 lives and has yet to be completed. According to legend, every one of those 400,000 deceased slaves were buried within the wall.

  • No one truly knows how long it took to build the Kufu (Cheops) pyramids at Giza in Egypt. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus  estimated that it took 30 years. This makes no sense whatsoever. Consider that the Great Pyramid consists of 2,300,000 blocks in the largest pyramid,. The average weight of each block was around 6 tons. If Giza truly took 30 years to build, that would be putting in 210 2 1/2 ton blocks a day!, 365 days a year . . . presuming you had nearly a million slaves at work. (For those who assume that these were the Hebrew slaves mentioned in the Biblical Book of Exodus, you’re getting your history from Cecil B. de Mille; the pyramids were already completed before the first Hebrew - Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rebecca - entered Egypt.)

  • Two other Wonders of the World - Petra and Stonehenge (above) - not only took more than 500 years to construct; no one really knows how they were built, considering what tools were yet to invented. Indeed, human ingenuity is truly remarkable.

One of the things which has long attracted me to the study of history and human accomplishment is just how small and relatively insignificant it makes me feel. The wonders created by people throughout the ages frequently defy understanding; how they built, wrote, created and generally brought so much awe-inspiring artistry into the world is to make one mute and dumbfounded. But beyond their urge and ability to create such wonderments, I find their patience, their innate ability to take the long view, all the more compelling. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, the architects and master builders of Cheops and Notre-Dame de Paris, not to mention Petra, Angkor Wat and the Moai Statues on Easter Island Chichen Itza, and Machu Picchu, all understood the value of taking the long, long view.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Of course, none of those involved in creating the timeless classics of the world lived under the shadow of fear; fear that the world could be destroyed by the lethal mayhem of missiles, the pushing of “the button,” or a mostly man-made ecological apocalypse. Without that fear, the giants of the ages were free to build, create and even legislate for the eons . . . not just for tomorrow.

Sadly, we now live in an era where our leaders are far, far more concerned about their todays, apparently forgetting - or not giving a fig - about our collective tomorrows. We hogtie future generations with the overwhelming debt created today, all the while engaging in cacophonous argumentation about our planet’s future - argumentation which blocks out the sound of the ticking clock. Few seem to grasp that having greater riches today cannot save our future progeny or planet from the bill which will eventually come due.

Perhaps - just perhaps - out of the ashes and embers of Notre Dame de Paris we can learn a lesson about working together; about taking a long view which ultimately can help us win the future. I have no doubt that the cathedral which has stood for eight-and-a-half centuries will eventually be shored up and reconstructed.

This is both good and great. One need not be a Catholic to stand in awe of this masterwork.

The question is; can we find the strength and wisdom to take the long, long view which the cathedral so wondrously symbolizes?

562 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

 


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"We're All Right, We're All Right"

This one's for you Jill . . .

Claude Monet's  Bassin aux nympheas et  sentier au bord de l′eau                                                      (1900)

Claude Monet's Bassin aux nympheas et  sentier au bord de l′eau                                                     (1900)

The other day, an old, beloved friend posted on her Facebook page "by the time i finish reading, scanning scrolling through my fb feed, my soul is crushed . . ."  Although understanding of - and largely in agreement with - her sentiment, I was deeply saddened by what she posted, for historically, she's always been an immensely creative artist who sees and responds to the world in colors that would make Monet sit up and proclaim vas-y meuf! (roughly "You go girl"!).  Her plight got me to thinking and fearing that the "crushing" of her soul might put a roadblock in the path of her creativity. This fear got me to thinking:With the dire road our society, our country, culture - indeed our very world - has been traveling on, it is indeed true that each day brings yet another potentially stultifying soul screwing.  But then I remember that at base I,  like my friend, am somewhat of an artist who historically, hears (rather than sees) and responds to the world in literary - rather than literal - colors.  Where my friend garners strength from the easel and art museum, I turn to the word processor and the library . . .

And so, with this brief introduction, permit me to introduce felicitous phrases from three very different sources - Abraham Lincoln, Robert F. Kennedy and Paul Simon - which may give my friend - and all of you - a bit of uplift  . . .

The first, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as read by British actor Charles Laughton in the  1934 film Ruggles of Red Gap, is likely the greatest speech in American history.  At the time Laughton recorded the scene below, he was, ironically, studying to take his citizenship examination.  By the time of the film's release, he was a naturalized citizen of the United States. (BTW, Laughton always considered this scene the best he had ever played)

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Next is a speech by then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy, given precisely a half-century ago.  It is most fitting that we should be reminded of his words at this very point in time, when news about this most recent quarter's uptick in the nation's "Gross National Product" is celebrated  as the greatest accomplishment since the parting of the Red Sea . . .

 

University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. 

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
     
If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world. 

Lastly, one of the greatest songs ever penned and performed by an American songwriter: Paul Simon's "American Tune" The version which follows was performed on October 1, 2011 at Mr. Simon's induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

(©1973 Words and music Paul Simon)

(BTW: Mr. Simon adapted the music for this wonderful song from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, which Bach, in turn, had taken from an earlier German Lutheran song by one Hans Leo Hassler called "Herzlich Tut Mich Verlangen," . . . "Sincerely, I Desire."

And so, at a time when reality is crushing oh so many, it is good to occasionally take a break and immerse ourselves in a an uplifting restorative . . . if but for a few moments.  We will ride out these times of gloom and insanity and once again be able to turn our faces to the brilliant sun.

Smile dear friend; get out your palette and return to your easel.  Giverny awaits . . .

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone

[In]civility & Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play On Words)

In-Civility.jpg

One would have to be all but comatose not to realize that when it comes to politics, Americans are about as polarized as can be. For the most part, things are pretty much black-and-white.  Case in point: According to a recent poll undertaken by Axios's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, '45's approval rating with Republicans is hovering at 90%; among Democrats, the figure is no more than 8%.  A survey underwritten by The Economist and reported in the conservative National Review showed that a majority of Democrats (82 percent) are in favor of banning semi-automatic weapons, which include handguns as well as rifles, while over half the Republicans (53 percent) are against any such proposal.  The partisan black-and-white split is just as obvious when it comes to repealing Roe v. Wade: A new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that while 81% among Democrats and 67% among Independents are against the SCOTUS overturning the landmark 1973 decision, nearly 55% of those polled who identified as Republicans are in favor of its repeal.  Then too, in yet another Axios poll, 61% of Republican voters firmly believe that the FBI is framing the POTUS, while 78% of Democratic voters firmly believe the opposite. 

Talk about black and white!

Of late, there is a highly contentious issue which divides Democrats and Republicans even within their own camps: the matter of civility in political discourse versus political correctness and outright attack in public places.  The issue has been brewing for quite some time.  More than four years ago, then pre-candidate Trump began assigning cutting nicknames to politicians in both parties - not only as a means of garnering added attention (as if he really needed it )but as a way of building himself up at the expense of those who were more politically experienced and civically mature.  As time went on, the slurs became nastier and more obvious.  Then came the almost daily diet of half-truths and outright lies, as well as the assignment of blame to the evil monolith called "Fake News."  Topping all this were the litany of inane executive orders, the all-but total dismemberment of anything and everything Obama, the incompetence, corruption and revolving door quality of his administration and the utter blind devotion of his  "sheeple."  All this led to the hyper-pyrexic (feverish) state we are currently in.

It all came to a head when White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked by the the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia to leave her establishment "because," as she stated in a tweet, "I work for POTUS."  Shortly thereafter, protesters drove Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant by yelling "shame" at her, after a press conference in which she defended her agency's policy of separating children from their parents at the border. At another Mexican restaurant in D.C., one patron went up to Stephen Miller, who is the reported architect of many of the president's immigration policies, and called him a fascist. Protesters have also staged rallies outside of Miller's and Nielsen's homes.

It was at this stage that '45, his staff and much of the Republican hierarchy started bemoaning  what they called "a lack of civility in public life."  In response to what she saw as utter hypocrisy within the GOP, California Representative Maxine Waters voiced support for the public confrontation of Trump officials at a rally in Los Angeles, using the word "harass," which really got people hot and bothered. "The people are going to turn on them, they're going to protest, they're going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they're going to tell the president 'no I can't hang with you, this is wrong,'" Waters said.

In response, the president tweeted "Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!"  Some, reading between this tweet's lines, saw the president throwing down a threatening gauntlet.  Almost immediately,  Rep. Waters -- who admittedly, has been without a functioning rhetorical "off-switch" for much of her political career -- had to cancel several public appearances due to "a very serious death threat." Shortly thereafter, the fired-up Waters told a gathering of supporters "If you shoot at me you'd better shoot straight."

More than one commentator has, in my estimation correctly, pointed out that the debate over the lack of "civility" in political discourse has taken our attention away from issues which really, truly matter - such as the Supreme Court's decision upholding the Muslim ban; the separation of children from their parents at the border; the Commander-in-Chief's decision to discharge immigrant recruits from the U.S. military, and our new - and potentially disastrous - tariff policies.  Then too, there is a secondary debate over precisely what is the difference - if indeed, there is any - between "civility" and "political correctness."  The Republican call for "civility" is loud and clear . . . while at the same time lambasting Democrats for engaging in the unforgivable sin of "political correctness."  

Both Congressional Minority Leaders - Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelos -i have weighed in on the side of civility in political discourse . . . and against their colleague Maxine Waters who has urged fellow Democrats Americans to confront individuals who work for President Donald Trump and “tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere.”  Senator Schumer has counseled: 

We all have to remember to treat our fellow Americans, all of our fellow Americans, with the kind of civility and respect we expect will be afforded to us, No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American. The president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated.”

So there it is in the proverbial nutshell: Should progressives respond to irrationality, bigotry and cupidity with civility or, fight fire with fire by being just as uncivil as '45 and his robotic sheeple?  Many Democrats (and non-sheeple Republicans as well) favor taking the high road - of obeying the Golden Rule and "Doing unto others as we would have others do unto us" (or as the Jewish sage Hillel's Talmudic version [Shabbat 31a] goes, “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” Or, giving in to our communal anger and frustration, should we give 'em a taste of their own medicine by matching insult for insult, barb for barb, incivility for incivility?  

My response is neither.  As angered and frustrated as so many of us are about  the childish locutions coming from the "Make America Great Again!" crew, just as many are  even angrier and more frustrated over how far these puerile, inconsistent mottoes and phrases have taken us as a nation.  To "fight fire with fire" by speaking as harshly as those on the other side of the fence is to sink to a level which, although on one level can be psychologically gratifying, is on another, not only beneath dignity; it is a losing political strategy.  Regardless of what Trump and his sheeple may say, we are simply not accustomed to boisterously damning the darkness.  But to merely ignore and/or remain mute to what is being said (as a means of redirecting attention from what is being done - and in our names) is both cowardly and an even worse political strategy.  Anger, panic and frustration can and must act as catalysts for speaking up about what really and truly is on a majority of people's minds: affordable healthcare regardless of personal financial assets or prior medical conditions; public education which is both sufficiently and sensibly funded; a public American face which can and must lead the world in addressing climate change, international trade, war and peace.  And oh yes: at least a paragraph or two about the wisdom of steadfastly supporting our democratic allies, while just as steadfastly staying out of the beds of blood-stained autocrats.

So share with me your thoughts: Shall it be Civility or Incivility or perhaps a meaningful mixture?  And which issues, do you believe are the most important for restoring hope?

Now I know that many of you, reading the title of this week's essay [In]civility and Its Discontent (Yes, It's Meant to Be a Play on Words), brought to mind Sigmund Freud's most important, widely-read and self-reflective work: Civilization and It's Discontent first published in 1930 under the title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ("The Uneasiness in Civilization"). There is a reason for this not-terribly subtle play on words.  This is no coincidence.  For in this book, which Freud wrote in the last decade of his life, he discussed whether it were possible to discover a purpose in life . . . quite a challenge which the good doctor admitted right at the outset ". . . has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one." Nonetheless, Freud plodded on contenting himself with "the less ambitious question of . . . what men themselves show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it."  Freud correctly explained that in a vacuum, deeds and dreams are largely fueled by our most instinctual desires: to be maximally happy, free of pain and fear, the ABILITY (as opposed to THE RIGHT) to exercise our libidos however and whenever we choose, and being totally unfettered. 

Of course, civilizations - which create cultures - enact laws and promote social norms which  help shape our lives, thus making both civilization and culture possible.  Most accept that laws are necessary. But then there are those who rebel against boundaries and seek a civilization that is their mirror image. As such, civilization can and does leave people in a painful, often debilitating state of discontent.  This, I fear, is what we are currently facing.  While Freud offered no explicit answers for how to deal with and overcome our discontent, he did strongly urge against the "Do unto others as you would have others to do you" approach to solving what ails us.  Why? Because, he argues, on a subconscious level, we desire doing whatever in the hell we feel like doing - of tickling the itch he calls "The Pleasure Principle."  Heady stuff, no doubt, but it does offer a bit of direction in the "shall we be civil or uncivil" debate.  For if we go toe-to-toe with others, matching bluster for bluster, resentment for resentment and discontentment for discontentment, we are, both singularly and collectively, aiding in the dismemberment of civil society.

I urge you to ask yourself where you stand: do you think it wiser to return curse for curse, epithet for epithet, or to take a different less bellicose tact.  It is an internal debate which can help us, together, begin healing a civilization which  has, of late, befouled the pathway of life with the stench of discontent.

537 days down, 936 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone