Tuesday, July 14, 2009

slicing the sacred cow


I am not certain when I first learned the word. In my not-to-be-trusted memory, it was in my high school German class.

But the concept is a bit too sophisticated for those post-adolescent years.

It is far more likely that I picked it up in those infamous 1968 Gore Vidal - Bill Buckley debates during the Democrat convention. The word -- and the concept -- certainly would fit their exchange.

Whatever its genesis in my writer tool bag, it is a great word.

A friend once asked me for a quick definition.

I offered the following:

Ivan and Nicholas were neighbor Russian peasants. Ivan's uncle died and left him a cow. Nicholas was jealous of Ivan's new prosperity, and confessed his sin to the priest, who told him he needed to pray to God. Nicholas prayed: "Dear God. Please kill Ivan's cow."

This week I had a similar experience.

I have previously written about my friend John (
a cup of good faith). The two of us are about as far apart on politics and religion as two people can be. But we have always managed to have interesting conversations without breaking a bit of crockery.

John is retired. Just like me. Every now and then, he wants to do Something Worthwhile. Just like me.

His most recent proposal was to put together a group to read Ronald Dworkin's new book: Is Democracy Possible Here?: Principles for a New Political Debate.

Dworkin starts with the assumption that a broad moral consensus exists in the United States in favor of two principles of human dignity: the intrinsic value of human life and the principle of personal responsibility.

HIs argument is that liberals and conservatives are merely talking past one another without realizing how much they have in common. If they start with the common principles, agreement will follow.

In his invitation, John said he would like the group to read the book and to then determine an action plan of how its principles might be implemented.

John informed me he did not receive a single rejection. What he received was mere silence.

I took no real joy in the fact that John's project was -- as he put it -- stillborn. But I understand the danger of wanting to Do Something in retirement.

In my case, I have been trying to control the urge. If I give it full rein, I will be back in Salem volunteering full time in my old community.

I want to, at least, enjoy a year of retirement before I start any new grand projects.

I would never pray that God should kill John's cow. And I do not want one of my own.

I intend to lie down in my green pastures.


American Mommy in Mexico said...

Hmmmmmmm. I confess I do not get IT exactly - not being there myself and far from it given my later age parenting and our need to have income for many, many more years.

Why can't you give back in some social action project? It can be small. It can be local. It can be on the internet. It can be lots of things. Other retired bloggers do it. I do not get IT - the taboo of doing something?

Felipe said...

The invitees must have confused Ronald with Andrea. I would have steered clear too.

Julian said...

Has anyone ever given a lucid explanation as to why they decided to "run with the bulls??"

There is not even the pleasure of descending by parachute when supposed rational people jump out of perfectly good airplanes!!

I love your word, by the way. I have seen it before but had forgotten the meaning. I plan to try and use it soon so I might remember it a little longer this go around. *grin*

norm said...

Basic poli-sci: liberals think change might be a good thing and are willing to give it a try and see how it works out, the right is happy with the way things are and see no need to mess with a good thing and if they are really to the right, they want to go back to the way it was in the past. They are different at their core and will never agree with each other. The trick is to keep it civil and not kill each other.

1st Mate said...

Poor John, how disappointing. I hope he doesn't give up. It's always good to establish what we all have in common.

Steve Cotton said...

AMM -- I thought the same thing. But here is the reality. My life in Salem was consumed with my job and my volunterer work. As I started winding down my work life, I noticed that the volunteer work was filling the "void." And I could see the coming result. I would retire, and I would still be working 60 hours a week or more as a volunteer. (I simply cannot say "no" to good causes.) The result was to quit cold turkey. My plan is to transition back into something after a bit of retirement. But, I fully know: once I start again, I will no longer be retired.

Felipe -- Also my first reaction.

Julian -- It is a great word. As for the bulls -- why do some people love driving in demolition derbies? Maybe we never get past being 8.

Norm -- You have put your finger on one of the big issues. Dworkin suffers from a bit of reductionism. Pretending that there are two camps with a standard set of values is simply not accurate. The varieties of conservatism and liberalism are numerous (even though they both claim the other side is filled with non-thinking orthodoxites). My libertarianism is as different from Ayn Rand's, as Barney Frank's liberalism is from Ben Nelson's. Usually, people who are most interested in consensus, are very rational people who have come to rational decisions and believe that "consensus" will result in everyone accepting their conclusions. There is just a bit too much of Orwellianism in that process.

Steve Cotton said...

1st Mate -- If I were in Salem, I would have joined John's group. But I think Dworkin is probably wrong. All Americans share certain values. That is easy to establish. The methods of getting to those goals is where the divisions occur. As an example, John and I can agree that people find personal value in work. John's default is that government should maximize that outcome. My default is that the market will determine the value of work. We can discuss that forever (and we do). But arriving at a consensus is simply not going to happen on a national level -- or between the two of us. In truth, I suspect that Dworkin is attempting to establish a permant center-left political consensus, and his methodology is simply justification for that end. I just wish he would be a bit more transparent about it. But, of course, he is one of we lawyers. And transparency is not our forte.

Bob Mrotek said...

In regard to democracy all you have to do is go back and read Plato. In the end he didn't think democracy would work either. The Democrats and the Oligarchs of ancient Greek were at constant war with each other and the more things change the more they remain the same. It has more to do with human physiology than anything else, i.e, the way peoples' brains are wired. That is why many wanted George Washington to be king. Plato thought that there must be a philosopher king to watch over the democracy and keep the infighting at a manageable level. That doesn't seem to work either. There is too much opportunity for would be dictators. The only solution that I can see is more education for the common man. Steve, if you want to help you should start teaching. Start teaching English for free in your own back yard. You will be amazed at how much it will improve your Spanish and it is very rewarding. I say that from experience. Amen.

glorv1 said...

I think Bob has a great idea. More education he says and teach English in your back yard. I couldn't think of what to say so I agree with bob.:))) Take care. Regards to the Big J.

Anonymous said...

I really like how you tie everything together—pictures, words, definition.

It is not just enjoyable to read, but gives the mind exercise.


Steve Cotton said...

Gloria -- The last thing I need right now is another project. I am trying to adjust to retirement, not lto look for a new job.

Mom -- Thanks. My Mom, folks.

Anonymous said...

I was not disappointed at the silence with which my proposal was met. I was actually amused, enjoying the irony of it. Sort of: What if I built an 18,000 sq. ft. heated swimming and no one came.

I don't agree with Steve's assessment of Dworkin. I think his two principles are so general that they almost get lost for their abstraction. But they serve a simple purpose: to demonstrate, through dialog, that people of different political bents can share the same general principles and disagree about the best way to implement them.

I do not myself believe it is absolutely essential for two persons to share the same ethical principles in order to make moral headway together. Nor do I think Dworking would make that argument.

I have voluntarily served on a hospital ethics committee for 20 years now, and we use a simple tool, called the Jonsen matrix, to discuss active clinical cases, presenting as moral dilemmas. Our discussion of cases always moves along the same format: medical indications, patient preferences, patient quality of life issues, and socio-economic and justice issues.

As a group, we simply move through each quadrant, filling out the relevant information. When we are finished, we usually have a pretty good understanding of what additional information is needed, what values may be in conflict. And in all the years I have served on the committee, we have never failed to articulate next steps for the care givers to get things on track. Without resorting to the bootless duel of ultimate ethical principles, most everyone comes to agreement on what the next steps should be. It is only when people attempt to give an ethical justification for the practical next steps, that the inevitable and interminable conflict of ultimate ethical principles occurs.

But Dworkin's book is not an attempt to solve anything. It is really an invitation to thinking people, left and right, to lean on his analysis as a tool to help each clarify his or her own political philosophy. He just happens to be optimistic that folks may come to see that their ethical differences are not as radical as the media may wish us to believe. (There is a wonderful book on the shallowness of the media and how they set us up for the worst kind of political non-dialog -- Before the Shooting Begins. I highly recommend it.)

And Steve, I always thought as sacred cow was an idea or object about which nothing critical could be said or done -- as in a sacred Brahmin bull in India, say, which pretty much has free reign to go wherever.

I have written far too much.

Best Wishes,


Steve Cotton said...

John -- You have put your purpose in perspective.

glorv1 said...

Oh. Oooooooookaaaaaay.:) Have a great week.

Steve Cotton said...

Gloria -- I shall. You do the same.

JoS said...


I think you are mistaking your childhood german class for your old lunch table at work. Either that, or it is out and out propaganda to re-write your origins.

And here I would be tempted to break Godwin's law.

(My apologies to all who are not steve for this dreadful comment.)

Steve Cotton said...

JoS (or may I call you "Stan"?) -- Perhaps the reference to German class was merely a platform to let you work in Godwin's Law. Could the blog be that chess-like? Now, where was I? Ah, yes: waiting for Go Dough.