How, in 1919, could he have known? “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats


   The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


William Butler Yeats       1919


In Praise of Modern Medicine


For those of you who follow my blog, I would like to explain my recent silence.

The serious health crisis that emerged in late February (see An Ode to Nameless Heroes) led inexorably to my undergoing major surgery in mid-April.

Four days ago, my doctor pronounced me fully recovered.  I am now free to resume a regular routine, which will happily include writing.

I am enormously grateful, not least for the fact that through the miracle of modern medicine I am still alive.

More soon!


Quote for Today

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”
― Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)






Ninety Minutes that Changed the World: “Conspiracy” and the Wannsee Conference


Seventy-three years ago, on the bitterly cold afternoon of 20 January 1942, 15 men representing a patchwork of National Socialist (Nazi) military and civilian bureaucracies gathered in a villa outside Berlin.  For 90 minutes they met in formal conference and informal discussion.  They drank beer and scotch and enjoyed a buffet luncheon of the finest delicacies available in wartime Germany.  By all surviving accounts, the conversation over food and drinks was convivial and relaxed.

The goal of the meeting – its “deliverable,” in modern business jargon – was approval of a document to be disseminated to the heads of the departments represented around the table.  Before the meeting adjourned, each of the 15 men present had officially endorsed the document.  Each departed the villa with instructions to communicate details to his superiors and to no one else.

An SS officer edited the meeting’s transcript and distributed numbered copies to the attendees with orders that the transcripts be destroyed after reading.  Fortunately for posterity, one attendee disobeyed that order and kept a transcript in his files, where it was discovered by an American investigator in 1947.

That meeting –  the Wannsee Conference – forged the Schutzstaffel (SS) plan for the assembly-line deportation and murder of all of Europe’s Jews.

In addition to a fundamental opposition to Communism, the precepts underlying Nazi ideology were based upon “racial hygiene,” i.e., a belief that Germans were superior to all other races and a belief that Germans were therefore not only entitled but required to conquer neighboring lands and eliminate or enslave “undesirable” races, thereby appropriating Lebensraum (room for living) for their master race.  The Nazis especially hated Jews.  When the Nazis rose to power in January of 1933, the persecution of Jews, which had been widespread and informal in Europe for many centuries, became codified official state policy.

The April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and other similar laws barred Jews from serving as lawyers, teachers, musicians, doctors, tax consultants, judges, and civil servants.  The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September of 1935, defined racial Jewishness, outlawed the social mixing of Germans and Jews, and stripped Jews and other non-Germans of citizenship.  Throughout the 1930s, systematic persecution destroyed many Jewish-owned businesses and forced Jews from their homes.

Some Jews chose to remain in Germany, believing that since they and their families had been German for centuries they would be spared.  Others fled.  By the beginning World War II in September of 1939, roughly 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated.

Some Jews who wanted to leave Germany were unable to do so because of strict immigration quotas, exorbitant fees, and restrictive visa laws in receiving nations, including the United States.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt’s advisors, and many members of Congress were unwilling to increase quotas on Jewish immigration in spite of horror stories reaching them from across the Atlantic.  Although the U.S. did admit quite a few Jewish actors, film directors, musicians, writers, and scholars fleeing Nazi persecution, Jewish refugees with less impressive curriculum vitae were turned away.  The shameful saga of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of European Jews turned away from the U.S. and sent back, is especially egregious.

During World War II, the Nazis committed against non-Germans atrocities too numerous to list here.  Months before their invasion of Poland, for example, the German leadership ordered the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and others in the Polish ruling class.  By the end of 1939, approximately 65,000 civilians in Poland had been murdered by specialized Einsatzgruppen.

The Nazis officially planned and carried out mass starvation of Slavic peoples – considered by them to be inferior – in order to secure a steady supply food for themselves.  By the end of the war, an estimated 4.2 million people in portions of the Soviet Union occupied by Germany had died as a result of such deliberate and strategic starvation.

For the Jews, the Nazis planned not population reduction (as for the Slavs) but total annihilation.  Extermination of the Jews was a central goal of Nazi war plans.  Near the end of the War, when the German military badly needed resources and personnel in order to conduct its operations in the field, it was on the evacuation and murder of Jews – and especially of Hungary’s Jews – that the German leadership focused its efforts.

Early in the War, the Nazi approach to eliminating Jews was ad hoc and varied, at times spearheaded by official military Einsatzgruppen and at other times carried out by enthusiastically anti-Semitic natives of conquered lands.

In July of 1941, Reichsminister Hermann Göring ordered Reich Security Chief Reinhard Heydrich to formulate a “total solution to the Jewish question,” an official protocol for the elimination of Jews from German-held territories, which they intended would ultimately encompass all of Europe and the British Isles.

Heydrich’s original plan involved deportation of all Jews to slave labor camps in Siberia, where they would be worked to death.  When the tide of war turned against Germany in late 1941 (as a result of Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S. and a successful Soviet counterattack in Russia),  Heydrich, whom even Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart,” and who was known as “The Butcher of Prague” for his barbaric suppression of Czech resistance movements, shifted his strategy from deportation of the Jews to wholesale slaughter.

Heydrich devised a detailed scheme whereby Jews from all regions under German control would be evacuated to camps in Poland, where they would be exterminated.  The plan was to be overseen and carried out entirely by the SS, which would have jurisdiction for the purposes of Jewish affairs over every agency in Hitler’s complex web of sometimes redundant bureaucracies.

Wannsee Conference invitees were told in advance that at the meeting they would discuss the disposition of “the Jewish question.”  As lawyers, accountants, military commanders, and stake-holding representatives of government departments, the invitees must surely have believed that they would be able to contribute useful ideas to the discussion.

In reality, plans for The Final Solution had already been drawn up in advance of the meeting.  Heydrich’s true purpose was to present the plans to representatives of the most affected agencies, extract acquiescence from each attendee (via threats, if necessary), and assert the supremacy of the SS in all matters related to Jews.

Heydrich’s management of the meeting was menacing and brilliant.  While feigning openness to discussion, he presented his fait accompli, demanding obedience and simultaneously rendering each attendee complicit in mass murder.

The Wannsee Conference has been dramatized twice for the screen.  I have not seen the 1984 German production entitled Die Wannseekonferenz, which is reputed to be excellent.

The 2001 HBO film Conspiracy is outstanding.  I highly recommend it for its historical content and for its top-flight acting, writing, cinematography, and art direction.

As is the case for the German film, the meeting scenes in Conspiracy hew faithfully to the surviving transcript.  The characters’ informal conversations are cleverly written to introduce personalities and to plausibly set up some of the exchanges that take place at the conference table.

Conspiracy features Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich – a role that he described as one of the most difficult of his career.  Branagh delivers a charming and coldly psychopathic Heydrich who anchors the story with soft-spoken menace.

Stanley Tucci portrays a hyper-controlled Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who at the Wannsee Conference was Heydrich’s subordinate but who was to assume control of The Final Solution following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans in June of 1942.

Colin Firth delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Nuremberg Laws co-author Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who, though a rabid anti-Semite himself, eloquently and vehemently opposes the SS extermination program on legal grounds.

Firth_as_Stucker Firth as Stuckart in Conspiracy.

The great Shakespearean actor David Threlfall portrays Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery, whose impassioned pleading offers the strongest opposition to the meeting’s deadly plans before he finally capitulates in the face of Gestapo threats.

The rest of the cast is a terrific ensemble of some of the decade’s best British actors.  Many have since achieved fame through parts in popular TV series and films: Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Ben Daniels (House of Cards), Brian Pettifer (Hamish Macbeth), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Ian McNeice (Rome), Kevin McNally (the Pirates of the Caribbean films), Jonathan Coy (Downton Abbey), Owen Teale (Game of Thrones), and Peter Sullivan (The Borgias).  A young Tom Hiddleston appears in a small role as a radio operator.

I have seen Conspiracy several times and derive new lessons from each viewing.  One clear message is that a civilized nation must have founding principles and a written constitution to which all laws must be securely anchored.  Without such principles, law becomes arbitrary, and the civilized and consistent Rule of Law can be replaced by the capricious Rule of Men (which inevitably becomes Rule of the Most Heavily Armed and Most Unscrupulous Men).

The individual characters’ dramas in Conspiracy serve as warnings about “The Banality of Evil” – a term coined by Hannah Arendt to characterize a particular form of human evil resulting from unquestioning conformity, poor quality of thought, formulaic reaction, and other sheep-like behavior.  Like other horrors perpetrated by 20th-century totalitarian states, the Nazis’ Final Solution was carried out by individuals “following orders,” who did not want to “make waves,” and who were unwilling to take principled stands against the evil around them.

In the memorable words attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good men to do nothing.”


Quote for Today

“Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East.  Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.  The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival.” – SS-Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich




Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis


There is no safety net in tennis.

Each combatant stands on court entirely alone, without the support of teammates or coaches, often for hours at a time.  He or she must conquer court conditions, an opponent, and at times him- or herself without any outside help.

Tennis is perhaps the only sport in which a competitor can win more points than his opponent and still lose a match.  Thus, the mental game at least as important as the physical.  The key to a victory is winning what players call “the important points,” i.e., break points (which determine whether a player can win his or her opponent’s service game), set points (which give one player victory in a set), and match points.

A champion tennis player must be able to instantly forget what has transpired and must maintain a keen competitive intensity in order to capitalize on an opponent’s vulnerability.  In addition to talent, technique, and stamina, tennis requires patience, clarity of thought, problem-solving skills, strategic flexibility, and great mental fortitude.

Next weekend, the tennis world will crown its first Grand Slam champions of 2015 at the Australian Open in Melbourne.  One hundred twenty-eight men and an equal number of women entered the singles competitions on week ago.  As I write, 12 men and 12 women remain.

Tennis’ four yearly Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard courts, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard courts again) afford numerous examples of athletic virtuosity – a cornucopia of impossibly fast serves, brilliant defensive saves, and sublime winning shots.  YouTube abounds with “Gee whiz!” match highlights.

To me, the players’ mental ebbs and flows and the psychological contest intrinsic to each match are at least as interesting as the athletic endeavors.  One can learn a great deal from tennis about human nature and about character, especially in the high-stakes crucible of a Grand Slam, in which the men have to play best-of-five-set matches.

One of my favorite stories out of Melbourne this past week starred Feliciano Lopez, a 33-year-old Spanish left-hander with an old-school, serve-and-volley playing style.  Having played the best tennis of his career in 2014, Lopez entered the Australian Open with his highest-ever Grand Slam seed, 12.  This ensured that he would not meet a more highly-ranked player until the tournament’s fourth round.

FL_0124_FP Feliciano Lopez

Danger struck Lopez in his first-round match.  He required five sets, and had to fight off three match points, to put down a spirited challenge from 21-year-old American Denis Kudla.

Two days later, Lopez took to the court for his second-round match on a hot and humid afternoon.  His hard-hitting opponent, 26-year-old Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, blasted winners left and right, bossing Lopez around the court, and won the first two sets 6-4 6-4.

Lopez soon found himself down two breaks of serve in the third set.  Only minutes away from elimination from the tournament, Lopez dug in and refused to concede.  He broke Mannarino’s serve twice to force the contest back onto even terms.

When Lopez served at 3-4, Mannarino broke him and served for the set (and the match) at 5-3.  With his back to the wall, Lopez dug in again and managed to break Mannarino’s serve and keep his chances alive.  Both players held serve until they reached a tiebreak at 6-6.  Quickly, Lopez found himself in trouble, dropping his first service point and falling to a 0-3 deficit in the tiebreak.  Lopez refused to go quietly.  He fought and scraped, making up the deficit, taking a lead, and finally prevailing in the tiebreak to win the third set after fighting off a match point.

In the fourth set, Mannarino began to show signs of incipient heatstroke.  Lopez broke Mannarino’s service twice and raced to a 4-0 lead, at which point Mannarino collapsed onto the pavement.  Mannarino had to be transported to a hospital, where he received intravenous fluids.  Lopez was awarded the win by default.

Lopez could have conceded the match.  He could have said to himself, “It’s hot. My opponent is playing well.  Even if I win the third set, I will have to win two more to take the match. Why not give in?”  Instead, he refused to go away and thereby won a battle of attrition.  As I write, Lopez is still alive in the competition as the oldest player in the men’s final 16.  (He is also the only man still alive in both the singles and the doubles tournaments.)

As Winston Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”

The tale of sportsmanship and valor about which the most ink was spilt last week unfolded on the night before Lopez’s heroic stand.  That story featured Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal and American journeyman Tim Smyczek in the lead parts and the heat that would ultimately fell Mannarino in a pivotal supporting role.

Tied for second on the men’s all-time Grand Slam title list with 14 and owner of an unsurpassable record of excellence on clay courts, Nadal arrived at Melbourne in a questionable state of fitness.  After winning a record ninth French Open title last June, Nadal had suffered a freak wrist injury that kept him out of the North American summer tournaments and the U.S. Open.  When he returned to competition in China in October, he was almost immediately stricken with appendicitis, which effectively ended his season.  An aggressive course of antibiotics enabled him to avoid surgery far from home but forced him to delay his appendectomy for four weeks until early November.  He was unable to begin off-season training until the first week of December.

Injury- and pain-free but rusty and lacking match play, Nadal lost his first and only singles match of the year before arriving in Melbourne.  While practicing hard in the week before the Australian Open, Nadal told anyone who asked him that he did not feel ready to contend for the title and badly needed match wins.  A favorable draw in the first round gave Nadal a veteran opponent whose game he knows very well, which enabled him to chalk up a win.  In the second round, he was to face 27-year-old American Tim Smyczek, whom he had never played before, in a night match on Melbourne’s premier court, the Rod Laver Arena.

Smyczek is a 5’9″ native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Currently ranked 112 in the world, he was forced to enter a qualifying tournament in order to gain entrance into the main draw.  Smyczek won his three qualifying matches and then, having drawn an Australian Wildcard, prevailed in his first-round match in straight sets. Smyczek had never played in the vast Rod Laver Arena (or, for that matter, on the main court at any of the Grand Slam sites).  The tournament gave him a practice hour in the stadium to enable him to get used to its sight-lines and cavernous space.

At 7 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Nadal and Smyczek walked onto the court in front of a lively evening crowd.  After a week of moderate weather, heat and humidity had arrived suddenly on Wednesday and persisted into the evening.

The first set went according to script for the former World #1 and the newcomer.  Nadal controlled the points with his thundering forehand and blistered winners around the court, taking the set quickly and easily.

During the second set, Nadal began suffering from the heat.  He became nauseated.  His head and his stomach ached.  Unable to tolerate the foods and replenishment drinks he uses during a match, he resorted to drinking plain water.  His electrolytes became seriously depleted.  Dizzy and afraid that he might fall over, Nadal became concerned that he might have to default out of the match.


Before he could default, though, Nadal appeared to be on course for a loss.  Smyczek played brilliant ball, sticking to a well-thought-out game plan, and took the second set.  When Nadal became too dizzy to successfully serve out the third set, Smyczek pressed his advantage to take a two-sets-to-one lead.  Nadal began to fear that he might find himself on the next flight home to Spain.

Displaying courage and determination for which he has been renowned throughout his career, Nadal found a way to win the fourth set.  Grimacing after shots and bending over between points, he broke Smyczek’s serve and managed to hold onto his own, pushing the match to a fifth set.

At two sets all, Nadal was not out of the woods.  Smyczek did not waver.  For nearly an hour more, the two men remained locked in nervy, fifth-set combat, staying on serve until Nadal finally broke Smyczek to go up 6-5 and give himself a chance to serve for the match.

While serving at 6-5, Nadal won the first two points with a powerful one-two-punch winner and a successful serve-and-volley play.  He lined up for the third point and tossed up the ball for his serve.  In that instant, a man in the crowd let out an horrific yell.  Nadal missed his serve badly.  As the crowd loudly booed the disruption, Nadal stood for an exasperated moment before returning to the line to attempt his second serve.

What happened next is highly unusual in the increasingly cut-throat world of tennis and will stand for years to come as an inspiring example to all players.

With a signal to the chair umpire and to Nadal, Smyczek said, “Go ahead and take another first serve.”

Smyczek was under no obligation to do this.  Down 5-6 late in a fifth set to an ailing opponent, he could within the rules have accepted the fan’s interference as a lucky break and attacked Nadal’s typically weaker second serve.

As Smyczek explained later, “[The yell] clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.”


Nadal gratefully took the extra first serve and won the point.  Five points later he won the match.  He collapsed to the court in relief, celebrating his victory over physical suffering as he might have done if he had won a title instead of a second-round match.


Nadal’s first words in his post-match interview on the court and in his post-match press conference were salutes to Smyczek’s outstanding sportsmanship.  Tennis players, fans, agents, publicists, coaches, and commentators echoed Nadal’s sentiments in a deluge of praise for Smyczek from literally all over the world.  In an instant, Smyczek became a hero in the world of tennis simply for doing the right thing.

As Nadal later told the press, “[Such good sportsmanship] should not be surprising, but is [a] surprise. That’s not [a] positive thing. But [what Smyczek did] is good. Is great. Is very difficult to [concede that serve] and he did.”

Tennis has historically been implicitly governed by an honor system.  Players are supposed to call themselves for infractions such as being hit by the ball, touching the net before the point has ended, or reaching across the net to hit the ball.

Unfortunately, recent years have seen the rise of a win-at-all-costs mentality.  Players fail to report being hit by a ball (the now-retired Chilean Fernando Gonzalez); fail to report touching the net (Canada’s Milos Raonic); reach across the net to hit winners (Serbia’s Novak Djokovic); and not infrequently take advantage of chair umpires’ mistakes to help their own causes.  The worst offenders among today’s players yell at their coaches when matches aren’t going their way, scream so loudly when they hit the ball that they impede their opponents’ shots, take long bathroom breaks between sets to disrupt their opponents’ momentum, and (with the exception of Nadal, who has never broken a racquet) smash their racquets in frustration.


Tim Smyczek did none of this.  On the largest stage of his career, he played the best tennis of his life.  He served big.  He peppered the court with winners.  When his opponent started to flag, he kept his focus and stuck to his game plan.  Even when the match wasn’t going his way, he never yelled.  He never glared at his coach.  He never smashed a racquet or showed any frustration.  He kept his celebrations modest and was gracious in defeat.  A consummate professional through all five sets, he topped off his performance with the most gracious act of sportsmanship tennis has seen in years.

A few weeks from now, Smyczek will return to competition in low-profile, minor league tournaments, the traditional province of players ranked near 100.  His tennis will take place primarily outside the spotlight for the rest of the year, but his behavior in that split-second in Australia will live on in the sport’s memory.

Tim Smyczek is the only professional tennis player from Wisconsin.  As a Wisconsinite, I am proud to have him representing my country and my state.

Quote for Today

“That was really special tonight. It was pretty clear Rafa didn’t have his best stuff. But it just shows the kind of player, the kind of champion he is because, you know, he was sick and not playing well. That was his C or D game. He found a way to win. So hats off to him. That’s why he’s one of the best.” – Tim Smyczek

Reflections on Apology, Forgiveness, and Clarity of Thought

TROTPS The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt

Raise your hand if you will join with family to celebrate a holiday sometime this month.

If only all such gatherings could be harmonious!

In consideration of the fact that even in this season of hope and light old and new grievances are likely to touch the lives of many of us, I would like to say a few words about two phenomena whose manifestations in popular culture have become unmoored in recent decades from their classical meanings: apology and forgiveness.



Since I cannot claim to be an expert in either etymology or semantics, I would like to base my definition of “apology” upon common sense.

I think an apology ought to be a genuine and heartfelt statement of remorse for a specific action expressed directly by the individual offending party to the injured party.

The following are not apologies.

“I’m sorry if you were offended.”

This is not a statement of remorse for one’s behavior.  It is at best a statement of regret about the injured party’s sensitivity.

“I’m sorry if you were hurt by anything I did.” 

This is too general to be an expression of genuine remorse for a specific bad act.

Also, an apology ought to begin with “I’m sorry that…” – which is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing – rather than, “I’m sorry if…” – which is a dodge.

“I’m sorry that you see things that way.”

This is at best a backhanded swipe at the injured party’s point of view.

“I’m sorry for that bad thing that somebody else did.”

Person A cannot apologize for the actions of Person B, because Person A is not responsible for Person B’s decisions.

Such a perversion of apology, the likes of which politicians are known to indulge in from time to time, is a meretricious act of self-aggrandizement and hubris.

Person A can express regret – along the lines of, “It’s too bad that Person B did that bad thing.”  One can legitimately apologize, though, for only those acts for which one is personally responsible.

“We’re sorry for this bad stuff that the group of us did.”

I do not believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt.  Each individual – even each individual in a large body of wrongdoers such as Nazi Germany – bears responsibility for only his or her own acts (or failures to act).


Ideally, an apology is conducted person to person – face to face, by phone, or via written word – in a form such as this.

“I am sorry that I did X.  It was wrong, and I regret having done it.”

An expression of contrition cannot undo the wrong, but it is a necessary step toward remediation.



What is forgiveness?  I see it as the clearing of a debt.

To me, “I forgive you,” means, “I release you from any obligation to make further restitution to me for your wrongdoing, and I commit the memory of that wrongdoing to the archives of history, where after sufficient time has passed it will probably be forgotten.”

Note my use of the phrase, “further restitution.”  It makes no sense to me to forgive someone who has never expressed remorse for wrongdoing and never attempted to make amends.

As I see it, forgiveness requires that the offender acknowledge wrongdoing, express contrition, and make restitution.  Only after completion of these three steps is forgiveness healthy, or even practically possible.

“Wait!” you might say, “What if an apology isn’t forthcoming?  What if apology and restitution are impossible?  Do you contend that in such a case the injured party should nurture his or her grievances in perpetuity, effectively prolonging and exacerbating the injury, rather than issuing forgiveness unbidden?”

Definitely not.

I would never suggest that an injured party do anything to compound his or her injury.

I am very much in favor of letting go of grievances – i.e., refusing to allocate to grievances space in one’s psyche.

But one cannot forgive someone who has not acknowledged wrongdoing or asked to be forgiven.  To do so would indeed compound one’s suffering, because of the implicit lie.

Contemporary Western culture tends to pervert the concept of apology and to pressure the aggrieved individual to “forgive” in the absence of legitimate apology and restitution.  It seems to me that recent semantic changes serve to deprive individuals of personal responsibility and autonomy.

Life is so much easier – and much more fun – when things make sense.


Quote for Today

A vocabulary of truth and simplicity will be of service throughout your life. – Winston Churchill


This is the third in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’  The second was, ‘“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility.



“Paying it Forward” is a Logical Impossibility


My favorite aspect of the Thanksgiving holiday is its celebration of gratitude.  In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Gratitude is a natural and positive human emotion.  Expression of gratitude promotes health, happiness, and social harmony.

Of late, and especially since the release of the 2000 film Pay it Forward, the idea of “paying it forward” – repayment of a debt to a third party rather than to one’s true creditor – has taken hold in popular culture.

I would like to argue that “paying it forward” is an illogical and immoral misdirection of gratitude that shortchanges both creditor and debtor.  Here is a story to illustrate that point.


Jane and Stephanie are longtime friends.  They have stood up in each other’s weddings.  They share confidences.  They socialize frequently, and over the past several years they and their families have enjoyed celebrating holidays together.

Jane’s father’s health suddenly fails.  His illness requires Jane to fly on short notice across the country and to be away from home for three weeks.  During Jane’s absence, Stephanie hosts Jane’s two children for four overnights and ferries them to and from two midday dental appointments.  Stephanie and her husband drive first Jane and later Jane’s husband and children to the airport for transcontinental flights.  Throughout the ordeal, Stephanie makes herself available to speak to her friend by phone at any time day or night.  Jane calls Stephanie for support at least once a day during her absence.

After three weeks, Jane and her family return home and resume a normal routine.  Because of the support from Stephanie, Jane has navigated her family’s crisis smoothly.

A week passes.  Stephanie sees Jane from a distance on occasion – at the grocery store, at the bank – but Jane does not call.  Stephanie attributes Jane’s silence to grief.

A second week passes.  Jane calls to invite Stephanie out for lunch.  Stephanie accepts.

As they linger over coffee, Stephanie finally speaks her mind. “I’m puzzled, Jane, and frankly a little hurt.  You haven’t said a word to me about all I did for you and your children when you were with your dad.”

Jane stares back in surprise. “I paid it forward, Steph.  I’ve been running errands for my friend Amber, who’s recovering from surgery.  I figured that would balance the books.”


Why did Jane not express gratitude to Stephanie for her friendship and support at a difficult time?

(One might similarly ask why Stephanie was surprised.  How could Stephanie have been Jane’s close friend for years without having recognized Jane’s ingratitude?  By way of answer, I will observe that the human capacity for self-delusion is considerable.)

The social compact under whose terms all of us operate, consciously or otherwise, is based upon enlightened self-interest and an implicit expectation of reasonable recompense for our efforts.  Stephanie’s shock and disappointment at Jane’s failure to acknowledge her kindness and at Jane’s having resorted instead to “paying it forward” is completely understandable.

“Paying it forward” has been hailed as a virtue by some arbiters of popular culture, as though charity to strangers lies on a higher moral plane than the proper treatment of friends and family.  In effect, the “pay it forward” movement is a cynical attempt on the part of contemporary social engineers to circumvent the natural and appropriate expression of gratitude.

One might ask why.

The only way to truly balance the books between a debtor and a creditor is for the debtor to acknowledge the debt and repay it.  For a debt of gratitude, the appropriate response – and indeed the only response that feels right to both debtor and creditor – is a direct expression of thanks.

“Paying it forward” by doing good deeds for others is no repayment at all.


Quote for Today

There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed.  If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude.  – Robert Brault


This is the second in a series of posts on seasonal philosophical themes.  My first post in the series was ‘Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak.’

Giving “Giving Back” Back to the Propagandists of Newspeak


‘Tis the season for giving!

‘Tis also the season for the omnipresence of a phrase which has become one of my linguistic pet peeves: “giving back.”

Not long ago, conversational English accurately characterized a charitable act as “giving.”  Increasingly in recent years, we have been told by the self-appointed monitors of public discourse that such manifestations of generosity are not “giving,” after all, but “giving back.”  Though only four letters separate “giving” from “giving back,” there is a vast moral difference between the two terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb infinitive to give as to freely transfer the possession of something to someone. defines to give back as to return something, as to its owner; to restore.

To describe a charitable act as “giving back” is to imply that the giver must initially have taken or received something.  Thus, supplanting the word “giving” with the phrase “giving back” is a seditious linguistic conceit that transmogrifies a generous act of charity into an obligatory act of recompense, simultaneously robbing the individual of his freedom of choice and stripping the charitable act its inherent nobility.

We all know of powerful figures, always politically well-connected, who amass fortunes by acquiring property of others through extortion, cronyism, or other extra-legal activity.  Probably everyone reading this post can summon up the names of a handful of such “takers.”  It is important to note, though, that very few of us fall into that infamous category.

Some might point out everyone in a community benefits from its social overhead capital, e.g., streets, sanitation systems, public transportation, and public utilities, and therefore owes society something in return.  However, since everyone in a community contributes to the upkeep of those facilities, I would contend that average citizens are not net “takers.”

Most people build wealth over lifetimes of work and investment.  To characterize the charitable activities of productive members of society as “giving back” is to suggest that a hard-working citizen must overcome an innate social debt akin to a secular Original Sin.  One might profitably muse upon the motivations behind this semantic adulteration of a time-honored concept.

I hereby propose that there be an informal grace period for December of 2014 wherein every act of charity, every freely-offered donation, every kind gesture, and every expression of generosity is tacitly accorded its traditional and appropriate honor as an act of GIVING.

Quote for Today

“I am not in the giving vein to-day.” – The King to his hapless and ultimately doomed creditor, the Duke of Buckingham, in a scenario in which “giving back” was manifestly called for!  (William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act IV, Scene II)