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The Eclipse of Character

Character measured by known virtues like honesty and doing good works was a huge concern for classical thinkers. Why do we now find the carnival barkers in our midst more worthy of our time? 

It seems like a paradox that, amidst sufficient information to draw conclusions about the quality of a public person’s character, vast segments of the American public are unable or unwilling to notice disqualifying flaws. To be sure, humans can be taken in by scoundrels in any era. From Professor Harold Hill to Bernard Madoff, the charlatan  “on the make” is a distinct American type. Among many others, historian Daniel Boorstin was especially vivid in chronicling American hustlers with a  gift for self-promotion but a tenuous grasp on the Truth. Even when serious flaws of character become known, many of us have an incapacity to see them. Indifference also seems to be the norm, even when we will pay a deep price for believing fraudulent claims. It was so for citizens of New York’s 3d congressional district, who trusted George Santos . Years ago folks in Wisconsin fell for the the same kind of destructive character in the person of Senator Joe McCarthy. And it many be worse now; Congress has an entire “chaos caucus” of loquacious but slow thinkers.

What thoughts are reflected in those enthusiastic faces we see planted behind felonious candidates at their political rallies? Why do persons with the cultural tools to sense the mendacity of others still fail to act react appropriately? Clearly many of the nation’s collective woes are due to widespread indifference to signs indicating that a person should not be trusted to lead.

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There is a useful thought-experiment here to puzzle out why traditional virtues of character have withered in the public sphere.

Our public reasoning has become inverted. Incredibly, every new formal accusation brought against former President Trump has produced a new levels of support, as if we were talking about parking tickets rather than civil convictions for a sexual assault and tax fraud. The ostensible ‘bad news’ that in more sober times would have disqualified a leader now seems to boomerang. It is not just the shabby spews of ad hominem attacks from Trump that have given our public life an Alice in Wonderland aspect. We can find similar lapses of judgment in other leaders in business and the arts.

The word itself now seems like an antique, but virtue actually has a long history in the classical world representing the general idea of a good person.

                             Aristotle

Giants in western philosophy such as Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.) and Cicero (b. 106 B.C.) have explored the subjects of the virtuous and the good. They are mentioned here because—among their many interests—both were rhetoricians interested in how audiences react in the presence of those who would influence them. For Aristotle, a good person had high ethos, meaning a person was known for virtues that included prudence, sense of justice, temperance, and courage. Their known strengths preceded them. Persons known to be burdened with the baggage of low credibility (meaning an indifference to the Truth, or ways to test it) were seen as lacking high ethos. Having the virtue of good character is reflected in Aristotle’s famous dictum that “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.”

Cicero noted much the same regarding basic morality, arguing that virtue was “the habit of the mind which makes us consistent in doing good.” If this seems too wooly, think of the doctrines in most faith traditions that require engaging in acts of service to others. Or consider the exemplary lives of Americans such as Martin Luther King, Madeleine Albright or Fred Rogers.

Aristotle’s ethical standards for an able advocate included the capacity for reasoning accurately, awareness of what is appropriate to a situation, and the mastery of language. Add Cicero’s recommendations that people worthy of our support cultivate goodwill, kindness, and benevolence. These ideas aren’t alien to us, but we seem lost in the maw of popular media that can distract us from sorting the honorable from the self-promoters.

There’s another an important twist here. In our era we tend to plant false flags that affirm loyalty to certain individuals, mistaking an act of continuous devotion as its own kind of moral absolute.  Interestingly, both philosophers centered their discussions of communication ethics on the agent. Neither had much to say about loyalty as a core virtue: a revealing fact, given the high status we now give to a person who is—not infrequently—totally devoted to an ethically flawed person. Many seem to have developed a withered form of ethics based on a fixed allegiance. What remains is more transactional, and based more on the personal rewards of a settled mind set. Put another way, we make fewer demands that others be “virtuous,” settling instead on their believability. In this realm, public figures with social capital matter more rather than those with integrity. Indeed, a person’s notoriety may be their chief asset in dominating a cultural space.

Perhaps we no longer want to be put to the test of thoughtfully assessing a person’s character. Our awareness of others outside our immediate circle is often nominal and impressionistic. If Aristotle thought the high ethos of a person was set prior to their appearance, we  tend to construct our truncated version of it on the spot. Vetting by using the standards of logic and evidence requires more effort than we are willing to give.

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Music as a Memory Trigger

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Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not deter him from performing his music.

[Music remains unique in its ability to refire memories that have been dormant.  Perhaps it is a trigger to important “autobiographical memories.”] 

It seems impossible to consider the vital sense of hearing without celebrating the special phenomenon of music, which has a lock on many of us. Watch a two-year-old child move to the beat of a song and we are reminded that the ear readily learns to love music’s embedded rhythms.  Often minimized as a pleasant addendum to life, music is more accurately described as central to its enactment. It is undervalued if it is seen as anything less than a prime generative source for refreshing the human spirit.

All of this was eloquently reinforced in Michael Rossato-Bennett’s 2014 documentary, Alive Inside. The filmmaker initially signed on for just one-day to film an effort to reclaim an older American lost to dementia. The experiment soon captivated the filmmaker and became a full-time project.

Most of the film’s subjects were selected by social worker Dan Cohen, who discovered that many seniors reconnected with their own lost memories when reintroduced to the music of their youth via a compact player.  For one older gentleman it was simply enough to hear the restless swing of Cab Calloway through earbuds to lift a fog of non-communication.  Beyond kick-starting lost memories, the music brought the man alive emotionally. He suddenly had access to his distant past as an accomplished dancer and musician. It was the “mental glue” that held his old self together.

The idea of a wearer of a set of headphones experiencing private ecstasy is hardly new.  But it means so much more when the person listening was thought to be little more than a piece of human furniture. It turns out that music is the perfect vehicle for reclaiming memories thought to be gone forever.  Neuroscientists have noted that music triggers well-named “autobiographical memories” that can be tapped in almost no other way. In the words of Australian researchers Amee Baird and William Thompson, music can be “an island of preservation in an otherwise cognitively impaired person.”  Songs “powerfully engage the frontal regions of the brain, which are typically spared from damage.”  The neural pathways that relay music are among the most durable in the brain. Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not stop him from coming fully engaged again when asked to sing his music.

The same was true in Rossato-Bennett’s documentary when headphones were placed on Mary Lou Thompson, a younger woman perhaps in her early sixties with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Even recognizing the purpose of an elevator button was difficult. Thompson’s husband could only marvel at the sight of his wife, earbuds in place, slowly unfolding her lean, tall frame to glory in an old Beach Boys song she obviously never forgot. It was like watching a time-lapse image of a closed flower opening to the sun. I’ve seen very few screen documentaries that so dramatically revealed a person’s instant transformation.

There may be reasons to lament the mobile phone as a device that undercuts the value of direct and immediate experience. But there can be no doubt that a portable music player enriches us by being a potent memory trigger.

Even the crusty innovator Thomas Edison sensed music’s power to mesmerize. Listeners at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago clamored to hear distant voices and songs on his audio cylinders, often through rubber ear tubes. It was then a miraculous idea that voices could be captured in midair to be heard years later. Even though he had become deaf, Edison seemed to understand the regenerative possibilities of sound for rebuilding the human spirit. It’s no surprise he identified the humble phonograph as his most satisfying invention.

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