Sunday, July 31, 2005


"One swallow does not a summer make." The epigram reflects the heart of Aristotle’s ethical philosophy. Character isn’t the product of random acts of kindness or of good intentions as evanescent as the head on a mug of cold beer. Instead, practice and habit are keys to transforming good ideas into virtuous reality.

Live 8, the international rock concert christened by Coldplay’s Chris Martin "the greatest thing that’s ever been organized probably in the history of the world" flies under a different aphoristic banner--this one offered by the event’s producer, Bob Geldof: "Something must be done, even if it doesn't work."

Only the term "probably" reflects well on Mr. Martin’s sense of historical proportion. Not much more can be said of Geldof’s urgent plea that endorses opening windows in a house on fire under the theory that it’s better than doing nothing.

It isn’t surprising that Aristotle’s party-pooping point-of-view doesn’t generate much enthusiasm among the Pepsi X-Generation. After all, what could be more attractive than an eleemosynary approach that distracts from a group’s own moral failings, makes a show of concern for individuals living far away, and features puerile music that fans would pay to hear in any case--a pathological trifecta.

Such one-shot exhibitions of emotional solidarity amount to little more than sops to consciences sated with excess. They resemble Andie MacDowell’s character in the opening scene of Sex, Lies, and Videotape where she ponders for her psychiatrist the fate of a trash-filled barge cruising the high seas in search of a friendly port-of-call. That mental voyage steered her thoughts away from a troubled marriage.

Aristotle, by contrast, asserts that there is no quick fix--not for individuals and not for societies. It takes more than "doing something" to produce an admirable result. What it takes is doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, over and over again. It’s not a formula that sits well with narcissistic entertainers or undisciplined fans.

As far as Africa is concerned, there are, indeed, "simple" answers--but they involve long-term practices unfamiliar to revelers who mindlessly parrot the musical mantra that self-indulgence is the highest form of integrity. Asian nations like South Korea and Taiwan, for example, have moved from poverty to prosperity because of policies that provide a stable legal framework, foster private enterprise, and encourage education. Absent such basic reforms, money sent to corrupt regimes will only subsidize failure.

In the age of advertising, silver-bullet solutions sell well. People are drawn to Hollywood endings where problems vanish after a single dramatic intervention. For these folks social liposuction is always the answer.

One concert, however, will not a continent remake. Indeed, based on the ideas articulated by Live 8 promoters, it’s likely to make things worse.


lance said...

Mr. Kirk,
I have been enjoying your blogs. I don't know if you saw the two comments I posted on the "California Legislative Follies" article or not. Just had a few questions respond if you like at your liesure.
In response to your most recent article I find it difficult to not be reactionary at first considering I am a member of the lackadaisical Gen. X. I do think your judgements are accurate, however, I have trouble shouldering ALL of the blame for my generation's lack of self discipline and constancy. That is unless of course it is Gen. X that is running major marketing corporations that target youth and manipulate our most base desires in order to turn a profit. I am by no means, however, pointing the finger. I am well aware that Gen. X, perhaps just as much as any other generation, has its own rash of "moral failings." But what ought our parents' generation do to own up to their moral responsibility? I leave that to you to answer as I know you can answer it far better than I.
Lance Gomez

RKirk said...

Thanks Lance,
You're up early in the AM! Sorry I didn't receive an e-mail notice about your earlier comments--as I did for this one. (I'll address those remarks after I've had time to peruse and digest them.)

Your point about this particular article is absolutely valid--and it is one I made again and again when teaching ethics classes. Young folks of whatever generation are taught by their elders. Indeed, the Live 8 concert is an example of that fact. Geldof and friends put it together--the shirts in the music and entertainment business. Their target was the younger generation. The point is not to blame the victim but to analyze the ideas that are "merchandised" to them.

What is distinctive about the moral ecology in America since the mid 50's is the shift in power that has occurred toward adults who are more concerned for profit and fame than they are about the moral impact of the messages they proffer. These adults are, so to speak, electronic traveling salesmen--folks in media and entertainment whose virtual access to young hearts and minds now outstrips (by and large)that of adults who formerly shaped moral sensibilities--persons like parents, neighbors, ministers, and teachers who actually cared about the moral development of children. The image I like to employ is that of an "end-run" around parental authority. An adversarial culture (the term derives from the 50's critic Lionel Trilling)has replaced the moral values inculcated by a traditional culture. In a few respects the adversarial culture has been more morally enlightened (race, e.g.). In general, however, it is a self-absorbed, narcissistic culture that is eager to substitute charity events for character development. The problem as I see it is to change the moral ecology of our society so that it isn't weighted so heavily in favor of ADULTS who, like modern slavers, are willing to corrupt the souls of children in order to achieve wealth and status.

lance said...

Thank you Mr. Kirk for your very insightful (as usual) comments!