Wall Street Protesters: Are their Criticisms Justified?

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Wall Street

The protests against corporate greed on Wall Street has spread beyond the borders of the United States–Italian police had to break up an unruly mob that was throwing rocks into buildings. I wonder if the buildings they damaged were owned by the corporations they despise–or whether they were family owned small businesses who were harmed by the damage.

Despite such bad behavior, I have some sympathy for the protesters. The banking industry almost singlehandedly destroyed the American economy. The repercussions could have damaged beyond repair European economies and led to a world economic collapse. When the regulatory shoe was pulled off the banks, their leaders did everything they could to get richer quickly by selling debt, dealing derivatives, and engaging in other risky behavior. The claim of some conservatives that the program that required banks to make home loans to the poor was responsible for the economic crisis is naive–bad loans were being made across all socioeconomic classes. Like most quick buck schemes, the bankers were bound to fail. Their greed devastated real people and their “punishment” was a reward–a multi-billion dollar bail out that would not have been given to most companies if they were in similar danger of going under. The banks were infamously thought “too big to fail.” Executives who failed were rewarded by the banks with huge bonuses. I can understand how the public can be angry when much of the recent federal debt is due to bailing out bankers.

The problem I have with the protesters is that they confuse capitalism with corporatism. Capitalism can flourish in a world without large multinational corporations. Small, community-based businesses in the older American of country and small towns can compete with each other but be close enough to their  communities to care for the people in them and be motivated by more than the profit motive. Local banks run by people with a stake in their communities have a better chance of being operated for motives other than mere profit. This is the world the Southern Agrarians–especially Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson, wanted to return in a country dominated by huge corporations.

Some of the protestors might have sympathy with the Agrarians–there have been moves by some on the left to approach the right–especially Ron Paul supporters–about setting up capitalism in a way that encourages the local community in  a decentralized governmental system in which there is more personal freedom, a necessary prerequisite to people having room to operate small businesses. Generally, however, protestors support the same old tired socialist and Marxist systems that have failed in the past. By setting up in advance a false dichotomy with no third way, they end up supporting a system which has caused the deaths of millions of people and which has enslaved many more. Communism leads to hard-core oppression as government goes beyond its proper bounds of power and gains the hubris to think it can reverse man’s Fall.

Corporitism leads to a softer tyranny by manipulation (through a compliant media and business community). Social pressure is used to force individuals into molds that fit the corporations’ thirst for profit.  Corporate executives also lack knowledge, for the most part, of the branches of the company they are supposed to supervise–the efficient distribution of needed goods and services to local communities will be lacking. Communities desperate for jobs may sell their souls for a bowl of corporate porridge. Local resistance to large corporations often evaporates in the face of a threat from a corporation that it will not move a plant to the area unless it receives tax breaks and other economic incentives. Local communities need the jobs, and instead of encouraging small business investment, they go for a quick fix. Local banks fail, and branches of  large corporate banks open in their place. This brings jobs and capital temporarily, but corporations have become increasingly disloyal to their initial commitments to the community and have closed U. S. plants in favor of outsourcing to Mexico, Central and South America. Banks have put speculation over fiscal responsibility. In an entity as large as a contemporary corporate, money is the name of the game, and people take a distant second-place unless strong corporate leadership changes the ethic of a corporation. But that is a difficult task in a large corporation; the larger the corporation, the more difficult a change in its fundamental moral practices becomes.

The protestors are correct in much of their critique of corporatism, but are wrong in their Marxist solution to the problem. It would be better if they read the Southern Agrarians, especially Take My Stand, and authors such as D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien. These works offer a tertium quid that can shortchange the greed of the moneychangers.

Are Some Temptations Too Difficult to Bear?

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Orodruin ("Fiery Mountain")

Image by Richard Sugden Photography via Flickr

Is it possible to experience such a powerful temptation to evil that it is practically impossible to resist? St. Paul does not think so; in in I Corinthians 10:13 (KJV) he writes: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

Normally I would accept such a statement as is–after all, St. Paul is in the canon of Scripture, and I am not. So what he says must be taken seriously. Some distinctions are necessary, however, before proceeding. First, what would it mean for a temptation to be “impossible to resist.” Possibilities include the following:

1. Temptations logically impossible to resist–This does not make sense, since whether a person resists or does not resist temptation is not a matter of logical necessity or logical impossibility–there is no logical contradiction to say, “No temptation is impossible to resist.” Nor is it a logical contradiction to say that “Some temptations are impossible to resist.” Logically these are contingent statements that may be either true or false.

2. Temptations naturally impossible to resist: This is not a likely interpretation either. Natural law may be involved if certain temptations are impossible to resist, but it is not the only or deciding factor.

3. Temptations practically impossible to resist: This is the most likely meaning of there being some temptations that a person cannot resist. Some have such power that no human being, short of Christ Himself, could resist them. Theoretically a person could, but de facto this is not practically possible. The issue arises of whether there are such temptations.

J. R. R. Tolkien believed that some temptations are practically impossible to resist. He says explicitly in his letters that Frodo Baggins could not have resisted the temptation of the Ring, and that some radically contingent act such as Gollum‘s cutting Frodo’s finger off and falling into Mt. Doom was the only way the Ring could be destroyed. Tolkien had no problem extending this reasoning to actually existing human beings as well. Thus, he did not agree with St. Paul on this issue. With deference to the authority of the Catholic Church if I am wrong, I must agree with Tolkien. There are some temptations which a person cannot practically bear. I will give some examples.

1. A person who has, but is unaware of, a strong genetic propensity to alcoholism takes a drink. He craves more, and figures another drink is okay. He continues to drink until he is thoroughly plastered. Now if he knew he had such a propensity, perhaps he would not have begun to drink in the first place. But it is, I would argue, practically impossible for him to stop drinking once he starts due to the strong craving his body has for the drink.

2. A married man meets a married woman. She is charming and manipulative, and he trusts her. She has an almost intuitive grasp of what he wants in a woman, and plays that particular role to perfection. He feels safe, figuring that they are both married. She, however, leads the man along slowly, flirting very little at first, but raising up the seduction level so slowly that the man does not notice the web being spun. How he should know better–but perhaps he has mild autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and does not read people well. He is drawn in and starts to have feelings for the woman, and she encourages those feelings, backing away when he gets scared. When she finally offers him her body, he finds he cannot resist the temptation.

Now there is no logical or physical impossibility to resisting these temptations. But I would argue that at a practical level, some people simply cannot resist them. Everyone has a particular issue concerning which they are tempted the most. With some people it is money; with others, power. Others may be tempted by sex; still others by envy or malice. Apart from a near supererogatory effort, the person cannot resist a strong temptation in his most vulnerable area of temptation. Now I am not tempted by money or power, but I have other areas in which I would be vulnerable, and in the right (or “wrong”!) combination of circumstances, it would be practically impossible for me to resist temptation–mea maxima culpa. The sin would still be my fault if I committed it, and I would blame myself and pray for forgiveness–even if a temptation were too hard to bear, I would still be responsible for the sin–there is no logical of physical necessity in my yielding. At a practical level, though, the difficulty in fighting off some temptations may be so high that it is practically impossible to resist such temptations. If someone yields to temptation in those situations, he should take responsibility, repent, and find strategies to avoid such temptations in the future. Human beings are “miserable sinners,” fallen creatures. The fact that with their damaged (but not destroyed) nature they are unable to resist every temptation to sin should be no  surprise.

The Artist as Rebel

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Steel engraving of Walt Whitman. Published in ...

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My previous post concerned the hostility of many literary artists to traditional Christianity. But since the Renaissance, the artist has been envisioned, at least in the West, as a rebel against the standards of his age.  Walt Whitman, Paul Gauguin, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alan Ginsburg, the artist has been associated with rebellion against cultural norms, whether those norms be traditional sexuality or the capitalist economy. Three of the most literary philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, were also rebels against societal norms opposed to conformity. Even traditionally religious artists, such as W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Graham Greene, violated societal norms in their personal lives. Why? There seems to be no necessary connection between being a rebel and being an artist. J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a conservative Roman Catholic whose lifestyle was so traditional that biographers are unable to “dig up any dirt” on him. Why are artists such as Tolkien the exception rather than the rule?

The answer may have to do with the modern concept of the artist. In the Middle Ages and even into the early Renaissance, art was not deemed to be primarily self-expression, but service to God. In such a setting, artists would be less likely to rebel since they are servants–to God, to the church that commissioned them, to the patron who commissioned them. But since the Renaissance, art has become individualized, utterly private, the the artist is sometimes tortured in revealing his very being to the world through his art. Such individualism tends to rebellion against the norm.

When sheer individuality without limits is admired, the artist seeks for uniqueness, to have his own one-and-only voice, birthed into the world. And individuality without limits is a seedbed for rebellion. In addition, the baring of one’s unique self to the world causes psychological difficulties that can increase the sense of isolation, of “being against the crowd.” The fact that too many people “against the crowd” are the crowd seems to have escaped the minds of many contemporary artists. It is quite interesting hearing artists speak about politics or religion; they often sound as if they are parroting one another. Thus, the drive toward limitless individuality leads ultimately to limitless conformity among artists and among their works. A boring conformity is the result, damaging the very art the artist wishes to champion. These days it is the traditionalists in art, such as Tom Wolfe in fiction, who are the real rebels against blind conformity–they are the true avant garde.