How We Got Here: The Loss of Faith In Listening

This is the beginning of a series of posts written from the point of view of a retired English professor reflecting on the changes in American society that started taking place some years ago and that foreshadowed the divisions, political and social, we are now facing.

Fred Trump, the President’s father, is reported to have set down the following rule for his now famous son: “eat or be eaten.” But surely one lesson we learn from growing up is that there is such a thing as sane competition. We do have legitimate needs and desires that we should insist upon if we are not to be taken advantage of, much less bullied. But there is also what I would call insane competition–the kind that rolls over the egos of others like a cement mixer.

The central problem with this screwball brand of competition is that it makes no distinction between truth and falsehood. The crazy competitor is never wrong; he has no need to listen to the opinions of others (except for formality’s sake) because he never doubts that his opinions are the right ones. This inability to assert oneself without first abolishing the assertions of others makes patient discovery of the truth impossible. There is simply no difference between what’s true and what the bully thinks is true. Such a person lives in a closed world where there is no need to take another person seriously for the simple reason that the other person, whenever he opposes the bully, is by that very fact wrong. Insane competitors like this readily become dogmatists in religion and dictators in politics.

The world is now overrun with dogmatic, dictatorial competitors for whom truth does not exist outside themselves. But the core of a liberal education, as I understand it, is precisely finding that very truth. Higher education is not merely a ticket into the middle class (and an absurdly expensive one at that). Neither do educators like me who claim it is definitely more than that belong to an outdated set of dreamers.

Thinking it through

Of course social developments that make searching for truth sound like a laughably high-sounding educational goal have indeed occurred: the great Recession led to an unusually high degree of financial anxiety; college costs rose at a frantic pace; scholarships were hard to find; too many graduates had to live longer with their parents; marriages had to be postponed; child care was difficult to afford and college debt nearly impossible to pay off; affordable housing was scarce, and divorce more frequent under those tense circumstances.

When I insist nevertheless that the truth is outside us, and not within easy grasp, and that a liberal education can help us find it, I am not talking about some fixed truth we can live off of for the rest of our lives. In fact it is the dogmatic and dictatorial competitor, the one whose absolute confidence in himself has made carefully listening to others unnecessary, that thrives on the grand, standard answers and has difficulty associating with anyone who thinks differently from him. The liberally educated, on the other hand, like to think small. By talking to others on a particular subject they do not necessarily want to repeat what they argued for in a paper they wrote twenty years ago but to decide on what is best in today’s changed circumstances, which may or may not require a different thesis. These are the sane, thoughtful competitors, the open minds that a democracy thrives on and that, when we lose them, will cause democracy to shrivel.

Pope Francis Listening

Inclusion and diversity is an admirable goal for education, but I will return in my next post to a student I taught years ago who had the courage to question that goal at least in the particular circumstances with which she was familiar. I have lost track of her since then, but I am as certain as I can be that the care she took to listen carefully to those with whom she disagreed has made her by now a non-dogmatic, non-dictatorial but highly valuable contributor to our democracy.

Egypt Since the Uprising: 2011-2019

Mary and I had been home two weeks before we began seeing television accounts of the Egyptian Uprising that began on January 25, 2011. In hindsight the fact of political and social unrest in Egypt should not have come as a great surprise to us. When I asked our tour guide why we had to take a plane ride from Luxor International Airport to Cairo, she frankly admitted that violent extremists made it dangerous for the group to travel any other way. When I asked if a cab was a safe way to get to old Cairo, the site of Coptic churches founded according to tradition by the apostle Saint Mark, she told me not to go there at all because of recent attacks on Coptic Christians by Islamic extremists–attacks that have a long history and continue to this day.

The Egyptian Uprising (also called the Arab Spring) began in Tunisia a few weeks before we arrived in Cairo. A humiliated street vendor whose goods were casually confiscated immolated himself. Similar acts of self-immolation then spread to Egypt and other Arab countries. It is reasonable to assume from the strong impact of these events that the main sources of Arab unrest, aside from government corruption and police brutality under the likes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were as follows: hopelessly high unemployment, hopelessly low wages for those who were employed, and the near impossibility of well educated young people (already ingenious enough to use social media to spread their frustration) to find meaningful work. It was remarkable that this justly discontented group was able to unseat Egypt’s Mubarak in 2011, leading to the failed presidency of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, and the coming to power of the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in 2014. But it was incredibly naive for Westerners to hope for abrupt change from this slow-moving “revolution,” which could produce no president whose roots were not in the military.

Nearly 50 % of Egyptians live in poverty. They lack the interest in, and means to, effect significant government change. Historically what has helped them most has been the technology that, through the building of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, has irrigated the desert to make consistent farming possible, moved water traffic via the Lock at Edfu (see my earlier posts on these subjects) and currently, with El-Sisi’s major expansion of the Suez Canal, promised to double the number of ships passing through that waterway and so vastly increase international trade with India, China and Southeast Asia for all participating countries.

Whether the economic advantages of this expansion will seep down to the ordinary Egyptian remains to be seen given the brutality of the early stages of El-Sisi’s hold on power. (At the recent G7 Summit President Trump reportedly referred to El-Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”)

I am ending this series on Egypt from 2011 to 2019 with photos we took of 5 Egyptians whom we hope, no doubt naively, will benefit from El-Sisi’s initiatives.

Egypt 2011: Alexandria

Alexandria existed in my imagination long before I ever got to see the place. It rained miserably the whole day when I finally did get there, but the sogginess didn’t matter to me as much, perhaps, as it should have. When Mary and I got off the bus from Cairo, there sat Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt looking pretty much like my imagined Alexandria, which was way too distant from the facts of history to be what the city undoubtedly was, namely Egyptian. My Alexandria was Greek. Its air was that of my youthful reading–of the Homeric epics, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Medea along with the wisdom of Socrates who, in a line that makes little sense in today’s White House, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.

A mere 9 years before my 2011 arrival in Alexandria, a new library was built there, replacing, but my no means equaling, the one probably built by Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt from about 283 to 246 BCE. That library was rich in the scrolls of Greek culture, but it was also a gathering place for scholars worldwide. It may have been partially burnt, but most likely it just declined over time as a result of the wholesale scorn often visited on impractical “intellectuals” whose so-called expertise it has recently become so fashionable to scorn. (Alexandria, it should be noted, helped give rise to the highly significant 3rd century AD philosophical school of Neoplatonism, which included the likes of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and eventually such early fathers of the Christian Church as Origen and Saint Augustine.)

The New Library of Alexandria, impressive for its developing system of Supercomputing

The question Alexandria made me finally face up to was how my college training in the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome stood up against the nearly universal educational emphasis these days on preparation for the technological demands of society in the world of today and tomorrow. The obvious answer for most is that Huawei, the Chinese company with an apparent solution for every technological problem you could ever have simply must, fortunately or unfortunately, replace Plato and Aristotle, to say nothing of Plotinus and Proclus, on the typical college syllabus.

You may think I will now proceed to a stout defense of the liberal arts over mere trade school advancement, however sophisticated. It certainly looks like I will from my choice of a classical amphitheater for two of my last Alexandrian photos.

But I remain fixated on the photo below of the child laborer, who must be almost 20 by now, looking back at me as I snapped my camera at him. As long as there are youngsters like him growing up all over Africa, the Middle East, and the world for that matter, how can we say that as a country we are becoming “great again” and not be found laughable. A slogan is one thing but surely “greatness,” for a country as rich in resources as ours, is another. And if skill in locating algorithms is what it takes to help this young man or his sister along, so be it.

Where is he now?

Egypt 2011: Ramses II

Ramses II (1304-1213 BCE) was pharaoh during a comparatively peaceful period in Egyptian history. His was a time of construction, though Ramses also lead major military expeditions, not all of them entirely successful. Ramses had many wives and many children, the tomb of his wife Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens near Luxor being especially famous for its elegant art work. Ramses II’s mummified remains may be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, though images of him are visible (as below) all over Egypt. Ramses II is the pharaoh that the 19th-century poet Percy Shelley’s refers to in the short poem Ozymandias for those of you remember reading that poem in college. Below you may see how readily the name of Ramases is used to advertise even the least impressive Egyptian tourist bazaar.

Ramses looking pleased with himself
Note the little girl’s apparent fascination with the big fellow
Mary braving the big guy’s formidable arm

Egypt 2011: The Valley of the Kings and the Approach to the Pyramids of Giza

The Valley of the Kings is an archaeologist’s dream but was something of a disappointment to us in 2011. It is a collection of tombs that a number of Pharaohs had constructed for themselves in the hope of guaranteeing their survival into the afterlife. The god Osiris had a lot to do with this because Osiris, according to Egyptian myth, was resurrected from the dead and the Pharaohs thought this divinity was the source of their own enormous power. So they devised various means of having themselves buried, including leaving their treasures and artifacts in their tombs. thereby carrying them from this world to the next (they could take it with them, or so they thought). Inevitably these tombs were robbed even by some of those who built them, a tradition that apparently continues to this day.

All this happened during the so-called New Kingdom, a period roughly from 1500-1300 BCE when Egypt, whose power then extended all the way to the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq, was for the most part at peace. A good many of the artifacts to be seen in these tombs were not available to us because they were closed or the archaeologists were working in them.

We left the Valley of the Kings for the international airport at Luxor for a return flight to Cairo, where our first tourist stop was Giza and the Pyramids. What impresses most about the Pyramids is their age. As far as we are from the time of Jesus, that’s how far in time Jesus was from the Pyramids.

Our first sight of the Pyramids
Closer Up
Even Closer Up

The first photo of the next post will be the gathering of the camels, followed by photos of guess-who riding one. If you think it was me, you’re wrong. I was too scared..