“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

Context and Civil Disobedience


These are a couple of posts that came across my social media feed today. As someone who supports the right of gay people to marry if they want (and of people, gay or straight, to choose not to marry without being shamed), I will be happy when there are no more clerks refusing to accept social change.

That said, we are at an interesting moment when people who admire Rosa Parks are saying, “It is the law of the land, you have to follow it.”

The memes above are viscerally satisfying, but the problem with them is that they open up the people who posted them to exactly the same charges of hypocrisy and contradiction. If the underlying question is “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” or “Should people always obey the law?” These are nonsense questions. Anyone who answers the question as posed is made into a hypocrite. The only reasonable answer to such a question is, “I don’t know. What law are we talking about?”

The real question is not “should you follow laws?” It is “which laws must be followed and which should be resisted?” It is not “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” It is “when is it necessary to stand with society and when should you stand against it?”

There is a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

When I watch a Kentucky clerk going to jail to avoid issuing a marriage license to a couple of guys I think, “Really? That’s the thing? With all of the problems in the world– a couple of middle-aged guys wanting to have their status as a couple legally recognized– this is the one you’re willing to go to the mat for?”

The fundamentalist Christian county clerk and her supporters certainly would take a different view of an “activist” who refused to give gun licenses. (That one is much easier to get around, though. You can buy a gun at a gun show or on the internet without a license. Getting married is more regulated.) They would also be appalled by a clerk who chose what services to provide based on fundamentalist Muslim belief.  They may have cheered Donald Trump when he had Univision reporter Jorge Ramos escorted out of his press conference for asking questions without being called on. You have to follow the rules.

People will always feel differently about those who follow and those who resist laws and social conventions based on how they feel about those laws and social conventions. That’s not hypocrisy and contradiction.  Context matters.

Do Liberals and Conservatives Have a Different Understanding of Human Nautre?

I read an article today in a blog called Traversing. I agree with its conclusions about the dangers of economic inequality and an over-emphasis on the financial sector in our current politics, and that these issues should concern everyone, regardless of party.  There was one section of Andrew Hida’s’s article, however, that I disagreed with.  Hida described what he sees as the difference between the liberal and conservative view of human nature.

Liberals tend to have the more trusting view of human nature, proposing that with sufficient nurturance and encouragement in a climate of love and acceptance, free human beings will gravitate to the good and cleave to their better angels. Freedom of conscience is a supreme value, unrestrained by what are often regarded as societal mores imposed by the dominant culture. Modern liberals tend to be relativistic in this regard, and they are either less religious or they embrace religions that emphasize expansive and fluid interpretations of traditional texts.

Conservatives tend to view human nature more darkly, with eternal vigilance required in tending the war between good and evil in society at large and within the human heart. “Law and order” play critical roles in helping to police our darker impulses and help bend them toward the light. Conformity to tradition and prevailing societal mores is a supreme value, with rules seen in more absolute, right-or-wrong terms. Modern conservatives tend to be more religious in general and to embrace religions emphasizing strict adherence to the guidelines espoused in traditional texts.

And then we get to their respective views of the financial world, modern capitalism, and the role of government in its oversight. Now liberals and conservatives both perform 180-degree pirouettes, leading to incessant finger-pointing by both camps that the other is hypocritical in the extreme.

Ah, but to see the beams in their own eyes.

Although people love to point out the “hypocrisy” of conservatives favoring small government except when it comes to moral issues or liberals loving big government except when it comes to social issues, I think this is not a fair way to look at the positions of people aligned with each of these political sides.

Even though our pundits and politicians like to reduce questions to a simple level: “Is big government good or bad?” Most citizens actually see the question with more nuance. We ask: “In what context?”

If you frame a question as “Are human beings in their basic nature good or sinful?” People might give you an answer, and liberal humanists might say “good” and conservatives, especially conservative Christians from denominations with a focus on sin might say “sinful” but most people do understand that human beings are good-bad, with tendencies towards good and temptations to do the wrong thing.

That is to say, neither side “does a 180” because the big underlying question is not “Are people trustworthy or not?” It is “When should people be trusted?”  What is different is not so much a view about human nature as a view about which temptations and behaviors potentially pose the most danger to society.

Conservatives share a strong belief in the virtue self-reliance. You need to earn respect and trust. So if you have shown that you can run a business you have shown that you are self-reliant and have earned trust. You earn trust by behaving in socially normative, respectable ways, working hard, following the rules. Not all conservatives are Christians, but there is a lot of overlap there. The Bible has a strong cultural focus on honor vs. shame. Those who have demonstrated their value by getting (good) educations, “playing by the rules” and acting in morally upstanding ways that demonstrate strong family values earn honor and trust.

Conservatives worry about the people who have not earned trust in this way. So conservatives feel we need external controls on the behavior of the untrustworthy and when that fails we need guns to protect ourselves from them.

When President Obama says something like “people who work hard and play by the rules should have access to health care,” he is appealing to a conservative point of view.

Conservatives are actually quite optimistic about human nature, they believe in the American Dream and think that anyone with ambition and drive can make it. They tend to downplay or even to be unaware of systemic obstacles that might make it more difficult for some people than others to succeed. Anyone can do it!  So conservatives are not inconsistent in wanting control in the bedroom but not the boardroom. Those who misbehave by breaking moral codes have not earned trust and those who succeed have shown they are respectable and have earned trust and can be given more leeway.

Liberals are not hypocritical in wanting to put restrictions on Wall Street, and to have greater control on guns and also to keep government out of religion and our family structures. Hida asked in his article “Can’t rich corporate types be moral, too?” The difference here is not that liberals think that rich people cannot be moral individuals. (Conservatives also think that the poor can be moral individuals.)

Liberals are more aware of systemic obstacles and the danger of people in power rigging systems to their advantage and to the disadvantage of “the least of these.”  Just as a social system might incline an otherwise good poor person to join a gang or get involved in criminal activity, a social system can give incentives to otherwise good rich and powerful people to behave in ways that are detrimental to society– especially if a corporate structure makes a person far removed from the negative consequences of his actions.

Liberals are aware of how moral policing can be a tool of those in power to keep certain people marginalized and to justify other people’s privilege. So being against social control of vice issues and being in favor of policing of the powerful is logically consistent.

The other point here is that only the most extreme ideologues on either side take the view that government/regulation is always the solution or government is never the solution to societal problems. Most people are in the middle with sympathies that align somewhat with their idea of one side or the other.

On the Other Hand: Nonsense Questions We Keep Debating

In the West we were raised with a certain way of approaching disagreements. We internally call up the ancient Greek model of logic. “If A is true then not A is false.” This is a great way of thinking about certain questions. (In the East they are more comfortable with the idea that A and not A can both be true.   For more on this read The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett.)

This logical formula starts to break down, however, when applied to imprecisely defined abstract notions.

As an example, let’s say I wanted to argue that Americans are good people. I could make a list of all of our good traits and conclude that we are great folks. The knee-jerk counter argument would be that Americans are bad people. You might list all of Americans rather annoying and destructive habits and conclude that Americans are jerks. Of course Americans are both good folks and jerks. In fact, depending on the type of day she has had, a single American might qualify as both a good person and a jerk.

There are a lot of these types of overly broad arguments when it comes to religion.

  1. Is religion (or belief in God) good or bad for the world?

I have written a couple of articles on this subject before, (see Is Religion Good for You? and my review of Upton Sinclair) but the question of whether “religion” is good or bad is overly vague. What do you mean by “religion”? No one practices “religion” they practice particular religions. The way that people argue this question is generally by making a list of either good or bad outcomes of religious observance. Those on the good side focus on those things and write off terrorism, closed mindedness and other negative aspects of religion as being “fanaticism” or “not real religion” or “a perversion of real religion.”

Whereas those who argue that religion is bad will dismiss the positive role that religion plays for many people or the positive things organized religious people can do. Religions are made up of human beings and as such are, like people, both good and bad. It may make sense to argue whether a particular belief or practice is generally positive or negative and in what specific way, but arguing over religion as a whole seems far too vague to be useful. Those who argue in favor of religion do not need to deny that the Crusades and modern terrorism have religious motivations. On the other hand, if religion did not exist human nature would not change. Fanatics would still be produced.  They would just be motivated by some other grand calling. Likewise, the sense of the divine and the deep meaning that practicing worship in community has for people should not be written off by the non-religious. On the other hand, the religious should not assume that those who are not religious have no access to meaningful experience or any framework for ethics. Morality is not only a property of religion.

2. Is human nature essentially sinful or essentially good?

Human beings are essentially human. One of our biggest challenges as human beings is figuring out how to get along with all those other people. It can be hard. Not only are those other people completely unreasonable so much of the time, but we’re not really a picnic either. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine a life without other people. A life of complete solitude would be meaningless. Other people, in all their complexity, give meaning to our lives. They give us love, they are sometimes compassionate and graceful and can inspire us and support us. We all have our sinful moments. The word “sin” means to fall short. We all fall short of our highest aspirations from time to time. On the other hand, we often live up to them, even surpass them. To focus on the fact that we fall short and to define human nature as falling short is only half of the picture. And while we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we have to admit that human beings are not only good and have the capacity for bad as well.

  1. Which is more important tradition or progress?

This is one that I find a great deal in the gay marriage debate. Those who are opposed often argue that the law should not be changed because it goes against tradition. The underlying assumption is that tradition is, by definition, good. As with religion, there is no one thing called “tradition.” Rather, there are many traditions. It was traditional for barbers to treat illness with bloodletting. It was traditional to perform animal sacrifices. It was traditional to consider wives to be property. It was traditional to wear powdered wigs and corsets. These are all traditions we’ve decided we no longer need. The question should not be “is it traditional” but “is it a tradition worth keeping?” I think we can safely put animal sacrifice into the “not worth keeping” category without getting rid of traditions that are worth keeping like devotional art, the mass or Passover Seder. The other side of this is that not every change is progress. The Germans have a word “schlimbesserung.” It means “a so called improvement that actually makes things worse.” Arguing that something is the “modern world view” is not the same as saying it is better than the previous world view.  The question is not is this traditional or is this modern.  It is rather is this a valuable practice or not?  Why or why not?  (See my other articles on tradition here and here.)

Is Religion Good for You? The Question is Wrong.

In the Huffington Post today Victor Stenger takes to task studies that link health benefits with religious observance and asks whether or not religion provides a health benefit.  He concludes:

Religion blinds, deafens, and numbs us to the reality around us and though this may temporarily soothe our anxieties, like drugs or alcohol, there is a painful price to be paid down the road for such cowardly denial and self-defeating ignorance. Not only can we be both well and good without God, we can be better.

My problem with this kind of analysis is that it considers “religion” to be a single entity.  Some religions may numb, deafen and blind people to reality and soothe anxieties.  On the other hand, I correspond with people whose faith has led them to social work with prisoners, the homeless, those who are in pain and dying.  This is not a form of religion based on comfort or the avoidance of unpleasantness.

In arguing against the dangers of “religion” Stenger writes: “The idea that you will live forever gives you a false sense of a glorious self that leads to extreme self-centeredness in this life. Furthermore, you may live in constant fear that any sin you might have committed will condemn you to an eternity of suffering in hell.”

This belief he criticizes, of Heaven and Hell, eternal punishment or reward, is not a description of all religious belief.  The Hindu ideal, for example, is not to earn an eternal life but to escape the endless cycle of birth and death.  Buddism does not have Heaven and Hell.  Heaven and Hell are not even the main focus of all Christian belief.

Stenger notes that if you are religious you “may not exercise your own best judgment in matters and allow yourself to be controlled others who claim sacred authority.”

This is true.  People are at risk of not thinking for themselves and giving others authority over them.  This is not only true of religious cultures but of secular cultures.  There are many ways in which our American consumer culture causes us to give others authority over our manner of thought.

When you argue against giving others authority over individual thought, does this extend to any system of belief or practice that comes from a community, for example your ethnic or national culture, your social class, your education, constant bombardment of marketing messages?

Again, there are some forms of religion that ask people to follow the authority of religious leaders without question.  But this is not true of all “religion.”  The Jewish faith asks its followers to submit to right practice, but it also has a long tradition of argumentation, debate and questioning of the meaning of its sacred texts.  Unitarian Universalists have built their whole religion on questioning.  They don’t require any fixed belief- up to and including belief in God— they only “affirm and promote” various ideals such as “the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.”

No one is generically “religious.”  No one believes in “religion.”  Rather individuals believe in a religion or they practice a particular form of faith or worship.  (Not all religions are based on correct belief, many are based on correct practice.)

I agree that it is probably right to debunk studies that ask if “religion” is healthy.  It is far too broad a question to be meaningful. By religious do you mean attending church (in which case the community involvement may provide the benefit), meditating, prayer, dietary restrictions, sexual prohibitions?  Does “religious” mean reading theology and studying great works of devotional art, poetry and music?  Does it mean belonging to a group with a sacred text or does it mean expressing appreciation for nature through ritual dance and sacred feasts?  Does religious mean Christian or Muslim or pagan or Buddhist?

In find that I generally agree with atheists in the type of religion they do not believe in.  The God they do not believe in, the one that denies scientific fact and asks people to turn over their lives to an authority, to stop thinking and feel secure knowing that they will be rewarded, is one I cannot believe in either.  It is also one that many religious people do not believe in.