Civil War Agitprop

Agitprop is art directed at getting audiences to take one side or another in a political conflict. It is usually straightforward in its emotional and political message so that audience can at a glance get a sense of what they are supposed to think and feel. We need look no farther back than John Turnbull’s pictures of battles in the American Revolution to see this process at work even if we prefer to think of these paintings as monumental, as evoking personal emotions like bravery as well as the terror of war. But the painting “Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton” is supposed to make you think of the sacrifices that were made in the cause of liberty and so subsequent citizens should live up to their heritage, to feel patriotism towards the government that now presides. One kind of agitprop, therefore, looks back so as to encourage allegiances in the present. Another kind of agitprop looks forward to when the oppressed will be freed of their shackles. Such forward looking agitprop is found in the Soviet agitprop of the Twenties, where the recently downtrodden and those still not free unite in solidarity, their faces stern and handsome, eyes aligned to the future, so as to create the brave new world to which they are committed. To make things even more clear, Soviet agitprop includes words to spell out its messages, this technique borrowed from the poster art that had become popular in late Nineteenth Century France.

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The World You Never Made

People come into life as if into the midst of a movie, trying to catch up with what has gone before as the story continues to follow its course, except that people in their real lives, or so I claim, are so taken up with the decade or two when they entered the scene, and maybe even a little bit with the times before that, that those are the times that continue to transfix and inspire them, that being when they got their bearings and those being what their bearings continue to be, while in movies we forget that we learned the beginning only through inference and cared about when we came in not at all but just want to get on with the story now that one knows what is going on. Let’s go over present, past and future of the moment you came into your own story in more detail.

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Noisy and Quiet Paintings

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Some paintings and painters are noisy and some are quiet, as paradoxical as that sounds because paintings do not have audio boxes attached. They just sit there in their frames and the viewer provides the sound effects when that is appropriate. Poussin is a particularly noisy painter. You can hear the screams of the Sabine women as they are being abducted; you can hear the moans of suffering but also the silences surrounding dead bodies and deserted streets in “The Plague of Ashdod”  You can hear the crash of blind Orion’s feet as he lumbers down the steep path in the painting “Blind Orion”. How the painter evokes sound is a good question. Perhaps Poussin does it with Orion by having people close to him gawking up at him, or maybe it is because the grade of the path is just right for encouraging a viewer to see the giant rushing down it by crashing one foot in front of another. However the painter does it, it gets done. It is part of his art. There are also quiet painters. The Hudson River School is known for its silence, whether Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow”, where the countryside below suffers no sound, there maybe being some birds chirping on the hill where the painter who is observing the scene has his seat, or Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley-The Landing”, where the distance from the camp site means that the sounds of the Indian settlement will not be heard, while a close up, as in Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” allows an audience to hear the chatter of children. Sounds are therefore created as an inference from the information of the painting and the painter is accountable for the inferences that are to be drawn. That is part of his art.

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A painting where the inferences to be drawn as those inform the meaning of the painting and are directly opposite from the meaning a viewer might expect is in John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”, first exhibited in 1778, which is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the rise of the American Republic, the people in the boat representing the various strands of the American community, while the boy in the water is America and the shark is Great Britain, out to destroy the Republic. Or else, as is more usually the case and was so seen when it was first shown, the picture is a tribute to religious salvation: difficulties are overcome by courage and solidarity. But listen to the silences of the painting. The people in the boat are agape with wonder or horror but are not shouting, because there are no such expressions on their faces or mouths wide open. The shark seems dead in the water and so makes no sound and the boy appears to be unconscious and so also makes no sound. So what is being conveyed is a mood where great danger is over, the figures in the picture in the aftermath of some dramatic moment, trying to absorb it, each one within their own solitude. This is the opposite of what Lessing will say is the heart of sculpture, which is the moment before something awful happens, but rather is the moment after a disaster, when its impact is being communicated to the people who observed it, this moment of a drama also caught by Poussin in his noisy way in “The Parting of the Red Sea”, where Egyptian charioteers are washed up on the beach by still noisy waves while some Hebrews are still making their way onto the beach with, presumably, their heavy breathing and clattering steps accompanying the waves breaking upon them.

So what is the significance of “Watson and the Shark” other than that it intrudes upon the timeline in its own way, portraying the moment after rather than the moment before the climactic event? It is, I think, a point that is not political, however easy it is to see the little dingy as the ship of state. It is a sense of the deeps, even here in Havana Harbor, where the event that inspired the painting took place: the shark is one of the demons of the deep, the boy one of the victims of the deep, a victim of circumstance because the shark had found him. All onus belongs to fate. So the people in the boat are looking at their own destiny, whether they are black or white, and of whatever profession. They too will be dragged down into the sea. That is their eventual doom. I therefore read the painting as not about the Enlightenment or religion  but about the nature of life and think there is no reason to think the artist has been documenting the political moment rather than what is always the moment, a modern version of a dance of death painting, the grim reaper coming for all of us.

Some great painters are noisy and that explains what they are up to. Brueghel was particularly noisy. You can hear the laughter and music and bustle in his “The Wedding Dance” just as you can hear the crunch of the snow under the feet of the hunters returning to their town in “The Hunters in the Snow” and you can hear the rustling of the sheaves and the buzz of the flies in “The Harvesters” as the farmer who is taking a post lunch snooze under a tree, even down to his snores. Brueghel provides these sound effects via the viewer’s association of these picture elements with sounds, because Brueghel is giving a realistic account of the fullness of everyday life, even if some of his figures are exaggerated, that snoozing farmer a bit oversized, but not much more so than his fellow harvesters would notice.

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Then again, there are great painters who are very silent. I count Rembrandt as one of these even though he also did some loud paintings, such as “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” where you can hear the roar of the waves against the boat. Some of his greatest works are very silent, notably “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild”, a picture of the solemn burgers who rule Amsterdam’s commerce out of their dour black clothing and unsmiling faces. They say nothing, not caught in the midst of chitchat or great events, as are the Founding Fathers who are caught by Turnbull as they are signing the Declaration of Independence, they perhaps silent for a moment in tribute to how profound is their action. Rather, the sense in the Rembrandt is that these men are known for their decisiveness rather than for their eloquence. They are solid burgers, which is what makes their republic great.

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A modern great painter, David Hockney, is also a silent painter and has been so throughout his career. His early creation of a Los Angeles office building, “Savings and Loan Building”, is not set amidst the bustle of street traffic either human or vehicular, as is the case in the Ashcan School paintings of John Sloan and others. Only a few palm trees stand in front of the building. His late creation, “A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden” experiments with space in that he shows the wings of a terrace without distorting space to get it all in, but the painting is true to Hockney’s silent world in that nothing rustles. The same is true of his greatest paintings. “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” shows a nude man getting out of a swimming pool, his bare buttocks at the center of the picture, but he is not disturbing the water, the indications of ripples in the water not suggesting the splash of wavers, no more than the dashes on the blinds behind the emergent swimmer suggest only the soundless play of the sun on the blinds. Similarly, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” is without a soundtrack, no crescendo of music to accompany the very self assured quality of a couple standing amidst their still incomplete living room, the plush rug softening footsteps, Percy the cat saying nothing, and the phone, still not set on a table, not ringing. What is striking is Mr. Clark’s angular and faintly sinister face, it not needing to say anything to be worthy of notice. What the silence provides to the painting, I infer, is the artist’s characteristic combination of serenity and unworldly eeriness.

Whether or not there is a soundtrack is, I fully grant, sometimes an inference drawn from the sense of what the painting is up to rather than to be garnered from some clue in the painting, as is the case with some of the paintings I mentioned earlier, which give reason to associate sounds with them. But the question of a soundtrack is raised by the nature of painting as a form, one that is largely without words, however much that is not true of pamphlets and paintings in Luther’s time, or in Cy Twombly’s graphical comments on the environment, or in one or another poster that serves as agitprop. It is a form that is also devoid of ideas in that it does not state any directly, that being an abstracted verbal activity, even as many painters represent in their paintings the thoughts that lie behind their paintings. All art forms reach beyond themselves. The novel uses drama and a prosaic poetry. The drama uses spectacle, which is a painterly thing. Poems portray scenes as if they are being painted and music sometimes claims to be programmatic in that it is telling a story rather than being “pure” music. So there are no end of precedents for claiming that painting too drifts off into being noisy or silent, even as, within its own confines, it can be more colorful, as is the case with the Impressionists, or less so, as in the case of Rembrandt. Don’t shortchange the painter’s use of his resources.

Modern Advertising

A long time ago, Marxist social theorists thought that advertising was the new opiate of the masses, up there along with religion and drugs. In making people think they were happy in a society in which they were exploited or at least not dealt with fairly, the rich able to continue in their money grubbing ways by lulling most people into a sense that they were both in control of their lives and also satisfied with those lives. Automobiles let people think they were free because you could get into your Chevrolet and tour the American countryside, going where you wanted when you wanted, when, in fact, people were tied down to their boring and unsatisfying manufacturing and white collar jobs, prisoners of the wage/salary system. People could improve their love life if they wore the right lipstick and deodorant, and that would make up for the unpleasantness of work life, sex another opiate of the masses. Cigarettes would relax them and appliances and dishwasher detergent would make the life of the harried housewife so much easier that she had time to indulge her fantasies of romance. There was nothing that advertising couldn’t fix.

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Debate Fallout

According to MSNBC and network news, the most significant fallout of the two night Democratic debate was that Kamala Harris took on Joe Biden about bussing. Yes, commentators correctly point out, he was not as sharp as he needs to be or as he once was. Earlier in his career, he would have pinned her ears back by saying she didn’t know what she was talking about, but here he seemed to be struggling just not to give in to uhs and pauses, even to the point of saying he had run out of time to cover up the fact that he may have lost his train of thought. His voice was also weak. But on the merits of the issue, he was absolutely right. Back in the early Seventies, bussing was not a way to enforce Brown v. Board of Education but one alternative being tried out to improve the education of black children by integrating them with white children and Biden was a voice that told the simple truth: that bussing would not work as a way to integrate the schools, even if it should be used to end de jure segregation, and bussing would therefore needlessly inflame the passions of whites who were opposed to it even if whites had been perfectly willing to have blacks bussed long distances to attend schools in the previous segregated system. 

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Thomas Cole's "The Course of Empire"

Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire” is so well known that there would seem to be little cause to comment on it except that it is easily misread, as when it is treated by the art historian Ross Barrett as a reaction to the Jacksonian democracy of the period, when there is nothing in the series of five paintings about the rise and fall of civilizations that is even remotely concerned with the politics of Cole’s time. The series is, however, of interest to a follower of intellectual history because, aside from its artistic accomplishments, the series marks out Cole’s conception of human history and this stands on the cusp of two very different ways of understanding human history-- as if we are not always on the cusp of something or other. In his case, on the one cliff lies a theory of history dominant in the late Eighteenth Century that had been so influenced by Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which depicts mankind as going from some glorious level of civilization to a decrepit form of that because of some set of circumstantial events, such as a succession of bad emperors or else because of some fatal poison introduced into the society, such as Gibbon imagined the case to be with a Rome that had become Christian. On the other side of the chasm lies an evolutionary theory of society, where people went from being primitive to ever more civilized, and that mediated by the way they made their livings rather than because of political machinations. Cole works hard to find images to fill out his understanding and, in that early period in the study of pre-literate societies, those are not easy to come by.

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23/23- The Heroic Jesus

If, following the line of inquiry of the last essay, which is that the New Testament is to be regarded as an example of epic comedy, why isn’t it also funny? That is because it has to carry the weight of the supernatural and the archetypical, so that every event is an example of the type of thing it is and that means we are forever reliving the inevitable, such as being a Martha, or having a role like John the Baptist, rather than creating new roles and beings out of history and circumstances. Everything is portentous rather than free, and comedy, whether in sitcoms or in standup, has to at least appear to be free, all a matter of the timing that makes a surprise into a joke. Seeing the comedy in the New Testament is therefore a difficult task that is perhaps best left to Rubens, who peoples the sky just above us with cherubs and other humanized abstract notions as if these figures made up a family scene that is endearing rather than ravaging. 

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Elizabeth Warren's Proposals

Elizabeth Warren has risen to be in a virtual dead heat with Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg for second place behind Joe Biden in the Democratic race for the 2020 nomination and commentators attribute that to her claim “I have a plan for that” in every area of public policy. That is her defining personae: she is a policy wonk. So let’s test that out by examining some of her policy proposals and see if they bear the weight of analysis or are more like the policy proposals of Paul Ryan, which made no sense if you looked into them. Well, Warren’s proposals do bear up under some scrutiny, but only if you also adopt her general view of things, which is to soak the rich for the sake of doing that, which is an ideological rather than a policy matter.

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A political scandal occurs when a person or set of people who have either power or influence are uncovered to have engaged in pernicious conduct that puts a nation at risk. McCarthyism was an attempt to point out that people in high places had been Communists and that they continued to hold their positions of influence until they were uncovered by McCarthy. Watergate was a scandal because it was uncovered that President Nixon and his men had tried to undermine the American electoral system. Sometimes the evidence of a scandal is unclear, as when McCarthy just flashed sheets of paper proclaiming them to be lists of traitors working in the State Department, and sometimes the details are elaborately spelled out, which happened with the Senate Watergate Committee.

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22/23- The Gospels as an Epic Comedy

Mark Van Doren taught me a long time ago that an epic was episodic in that there were many events that filled in the space between the initial action and the final action. These  events did not so much move the action forward as take place within the environment created by the story’s parameters. From that I conclude, upon many years reflection, that epics are different from novels in this respect (as well as many other ways) because while there may be digressions and subplots in novels, much of the plot in novels is used to move the story forward. By these lights, I also conclude, “Exodus” is not an epic. It is too tightly plotted for that. It is more of what Vico would call sacred history, which means that it shows what had to happen rather than what might have happened or what in fact did happen. The Gospels are another sacred history because there too the narrators are recounting what had to have happened and did while the narrator of a novel is just along for the ride, for the telling of the tale, rather than the authoritative voice that commands belief in the inevitability of what is unfolded by a story or set of stories.

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Conversations About Others

A woman is seated with her preteen daughter having lunch. At an adjourning table is a man having lunch with his two preteen daughters. The adults exchange pleasantries about how they will both remember back to how fleeting was the time they had raising their children. The father says something about his daughter. The woman says to him that his daughter could remind him that she was sitting there. The daughter scrunches her shoulder to indicate she had heard both her father’s remark and the woman’s remark. The father says “She knows”, which indicates that his daughter both knows that what he was saying was innocuous and that she knows the rule of social behavior that says you do not talk about people as if they were not there. So I was in the presence of what can be considered a very strange yet necessary custom or social construction, which is that we do not engage in talk about people as if they were not there because, in general, we do not reveal what other people say to us about third parties to those third parties. Sometimes there are exceptions. You can confide in a close friend what a girl said about him because you think he is entitled to know that she dissed him and that loyalty overcomes the general rule. On the other hand, you convey what a third party said about someone even if it is insulting because you yourself are so angry with the person you are talking to that you will let out the information. What is most interesting about this custom, rule, or social construction, or whatever else you choose to call it, is not its exceptions but how it contributes to our understanding of how people manage to deal with one another by setting up limits to behavior so as to cope with the fact that people are inherently unknowable to one another except through words and so have to simplify what might otherwise be a kaleidoscope of information coming at them in any number of directions. People are rational and so they protect themselves so that they can each individually prosper as conscious entities.

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William Merritt Chase

William Merritt Chase was a American Nineteenth Century artist not even all that well known in his time, recognized late in life for his general accomplishments. He was neither original in his subject matters nor in his treatment of them, and so is a suitable subject for letting us know just how much can be garnered anyway from his paintings about the social life of his period, which is the Victorian Era on the East Coast of the United States. He gives us a sense of architecture and interiors, of leisure time, and even of the relation between men and women, each of which could also be documented from other sources including other artists but is also documented here, in the specialized point of view of this particular artist, which traditional sociologists would not trust as a reliable source of information about a period in that the artist reflects what he perceives and not what is generally true. But that is not true in that even Andy Warhol tells the truth about what preoccupies people so much that they will not easily report what he can notice as their preoccupations: soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.

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20/23- Freedom in "Galatians"

To understand St. Paul’s view of freedom, we have to begin by understanding that Christianity is deeply indebted to Judaic literalism. The important events in Old Testament history taken to have really happened, and so subject to the falsifiability principle, in that one can conceive of them as not having happened and so having opened up for ages to come a lively debate about whether the remains of Noah’s Ark lie on top of Mt. Ararat, or whether Joshua could have indeed kept the sun from setting. This has to do with the ways in which human individuality is a kind of freedom, that rediscovered in the Renaissance, but also traceable back from Luther to St. Augustine and to St. Paul himself. The thing is, though, that this is not only an evolution of doctrine but of emotions that are granted by religious experience that can be summarized in doctrine but have a life of their own apart from doctrine. Ideas are the elaborations of what they are sensed to be and that what they are sensed to be is learned intellectually and not just from the unconscious mind or a preternatural sense of the world. Moreover, consciously wrought or acquired ideas also become experiences that are transmitted through their tags or imagistic associations rather than through thought.

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Mueller, Again

The only one who seems to be satisfied with the Mueller Report is Donald Trump, who was all prepared to release numerous memos challenging its findings until the Report exonerated him and now that is what he says the report did. He must be very relieved because he knows what he is hiding and he seems to have gotten away with hiding it. So is his 2020 campaign going to be built on the slogan “At least I wasn’t a traitor”? The rest of us found the Mueller Report unsatisfying because it didn’t answer the key question of what Trump and his people had been doing with the Russians, there having been significant events to prompt the inquiry in the first place. But Mueller, in the Report and in his follow up “clarifying” statement of last week, seems to have further muddied the waters by engaging in the mind boggling legal proceduralism that is the bane of that profession but does not bedevil the rest of us who are, God be thanked, not lawyers. Let’s look at the knots into which Mueller has tied himself.

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FDR The Politician

Conservatives after World War II came after FDR by saying that he had meddled too much in military affairs and that he was a terrible administrator, never letting his subordinates know what he wanted from them. Liberals defended the legacy of FDR by saying he meddled in military affairs only very rarely, such as when he decided to delay the invasion of France for, at first, one year, and then for two, even though his top military advisors wanted him to invade France in 1942. He also intervened when, to the surprise of Churchill, sitting beside him, he announced at the Tehran Conference in 1943, that he was demanding the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis forces, everyone knowing that the Axis would therefore fight the war to its bitter end. And FDR proved not such a bad administrator. What he did was just appoint one new commision after another, with new leadership, to compete with the other governmental agencies, and just see which one was the more successful. He turned over war production to the captains of industry he had for so long excoriated, and they delivered vast quantities of armament and so the Allies won the battle of the Atlantic because they were producing more new  tonnage of ships every month than the Nazi U-boats were able to sink.

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Faith in "Galatians"

St. Paul’s “Letter to the Galatians” must have come from an early part of his ministry when he was still establishing his authority as an interpreter of Jesus. St. Paul gives this away by defending himself at the beginning of the letter from the accusation that he had been untrue to his view that circumcision was not essential for someone who had come over from the Gentile community to become a Christian.  In the course of his discussion of that sacramental and ritualistic issue, he comes to clarify his view of what is very distinctive about Christianity: that it is an allegiance to a belief that Jesus, as a matter of historical fact, that He had arisen from the dead and had by His crucifixion atoned for the sins of mankind. Christianity is a matter of belief rather than a matter of group identity or ritual or law or ecstatic experience, which is what other religions had been. He also explains how the nature of a religion of belief provides its adherents with kinds of freedom they would not otherwise experience and that far transcends the social categories of master and slave. Explaining these two ideas requires St. Paul to delve into topics that would seem too philosophical for someone not professionally trained, but we really don’t know enough about St. Paul’s background to speculate on what kind of learning he had. What St. Paul does in this letter and elsewhere, regardless of his intellectual training, is elaborate on the idea of what a proposition is and requires and so is his own way of introducing what will serve, somewhat down the road, as the basis for the scientific revolution: the assertion that propositions are either true or false and not merely having some grain of truth within what is largely a metaphor. Down the road will also be found the doctrine of freedom that is, when it becomes shorn of its religious associations, a crowning achievement of the early modern world: freedom means voluntary choice.

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Abortion Politics

I have been asked by a reader to comment on the recent spate of anti-abortion legislation in Southern states. I am reluctant to do so because, as appalling as I find the anti-abortion legislation, I think the abortion issue is more complicated than either side is willing to admit. The nation is at an impasse, some half century after Roe v. Wade, the issues surrounding the beginnings of life and what to do about it no closer to resolution than they were then.

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Steady Life

Both life and literature are usually understood in terms of drama. People make choices which alter them and their circumstances and it is problematic what will come next. That is especially true of courtship, where people know that life with this person will be different and somehow unexpected, and so our romances, which means potential marriages, makes each of us a hero or heroine within our own lives, and that is even true of arranged marriages, where at least the woman is going to live with a new family and put up with a man whom she may barely know. It is also true of the years one spends in college, transforming oneself into a different person, each person the hero of his or her own bildungsroman. So everyone is either young Werther, or the young artist portrayed by James Joyce. Prince Hal became a different person when he became Henry V and Hamlet became a different person we find out only when he returned from college to a home he found passing strange. This dramatic texture of life continues throughout the life cycle, though often, in its later stages, because of changes not of one’s choosing: the death of a spouse leading a person to alter their sense of their place in the world as well as possibly their living arrangements. Even retirement can lead to life alterations if for no other reason than that a person has to find out what they want to do with their time, which is a matter of choices not previously thought possible. Are their hobbies to be expanded into new vocations? Is it time for something different: a bucket list rather than an intensification of an already established side of one’s personality?

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19/23- The Golden Rule Revisited

The substance of the Ten Commandments, however radical the form in which it is stated, is conventional in that it refers to what is owed to God, now that he is defined as a single God, and what is by the way owed to other people, in that it is still about settling family disputes: families don’t steal from one another or seek to appropriate one another’s wives, which is the same thing. It says nothing about what has come to be called social justice in that it does not refer to the condition of the poor or the sick and it does not refer to how people should get along with one another, except insofar as they should not get in one another’s way.

The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the quality of human interaction, how people get along with one another whether in friendship or in opposition, and not just with regard to extreme violations of decorum. It therefore supplies a way of life rather than a way to safeguard a way of life not otherwise open to question. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, suggests a new moral tone that is to be brought into the world that is so important it is to inveigle itself into everyone’s personality and a person should feel guilty for not living up to it every day and in every way. It does so by proclaiming an adage which can be distinguished from other adages, such as “Do unto others as it suits your interests” or “Do unto others more graciously than you expect them to do unto you”. In trying to guide everyday behavior and not just strictly moral conduct, indeed by reducing moral conduct to an advisory about everyday behavior, it is a species of etiquette or politeness and remains the sort of thing that underlies advice columnists: do the decent thing, which is defined as the kind of thing that takes other people’s feelings into account, and you will feel better for it. Treating morality as a form of politeness, as does the Golden Rule, is every bit as radical as treating morality as a law, which is what the Ten Commandments established. Referring morality to the more general category of politeness also expands rather than just defines more accurately the scope of morality.

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Carol Gilligan

I have come to understand that Carol Gilligan, whom I thought would be a passing fad when she first published, has come to be treated as a serious psychological theorist, taught along with Freud and Erikson, all of these psychological theorists treated as purveyors of what are, after all, just their own opinions about the driving forces in human psychological life. Well, that is not what theory is about, and any sensible theory of theory would not find room within it for Gilligan.

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