Maguire: Stories, shock therapy, humor allow for hope

Daniel C. Maguire author and professor at Marquette University, lectured on “The Loneliness of the Truth Teller” Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

When he was first invited to speak at Chautauqua during the Week Seven Interfaith Lecture Series, Daniel C. Maguire was offended.

“When the Chautauqua people decided to have a session on cheating, I was the first person they thought of,” Maguire said to his audience in the Hall of Philosophy. “I, as a cheater, don’t feel very lonely here. The more I look around, the more cheaters, I see. I think this is a veritable cheating convention.”

Wednesday, Maguire continued the week’s religion theme of “Creating Cultures of Honor and Integrity,” with a 2 p.m. lecture titled, “The Loneliness of the Truth Teller.” Maguire, a professor of moral theological ethics at Marquette University, focused on the human drive to ignore truth. He also discussed three channels that allow for hope: stories, shock therapy and humor.

The audience was full of cheaters, but not the kind who lie to the government — the kind who lie to themselves, he said.

“What we’re even better at is our perverse insistence on being cheated and lied to,” Maguire said. “We not only tolerate being lied to, we demand it.”

The addiction to pursuing self-deception is dangerous. Compared to other species, humans have not existed very long, and they have almost destroyed the earth, he said.

World religions excel at defining how people tick, Maguire said. The biblical writers described people’s desire to avoid the truth. The Jewish Prophet Hosea said there was no truth in the land. Jeremiah challenged people to go through the streets of Jerusalem and to find one person who sought the truth.

Søren Kierkegaard said, “when you speak the truth, you get scorned and you get isolated,” Maguire said.

“When truth tellers do appear among us, we kill them,” Maguire said. Jeremiah was stoned to death, Jesus was crucified, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were assassinated. “History is splattered with truth tellers’ blood.”

The prophets of Israel knew people would hate the truth, he said, because it exposes mankind’s heartlessness and fatal flaw: indifference.

“When we vote, we don’t ask, ‘Are the poor­ — especially the poor children of the world — better off than they were four years ago?’ ” Maguire said. “We don’t ask that, nor do the politicians expect us to ask that.”

Today, many of the clothes people wear, machines they use and other material items they value are made in slave labor camps in the Third World, he said.

General Electric Co., Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Proctor and Gamble, IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., all ship jobs to Third World countries. Nike Inc. and Reebok rely on Third World subcontractors for 100 percent of their production, Maguire said.

“Where did the jobs go?” he said. “It’s very simple: They’re out there, but they’ve moved to sweatshops.”

In corporations, outsourcing labor to sweatshops is called “labor arbitrage,” a pleasant-sounding euphemism for “modern international slavery,” Maguire said.

Though that news is depressing, he said, there is hope.

“Hope is important. I think there are three steps toward hope, and I’ll take all three,” Maguire said. “No. 1: stories; No. 2: shock therapy; and No. 3: humor. These are the paths, I think, to truth.”

A story is worth a thousand pictures, he said, and he told a few to demonstrate different points of his lecture. His first story focused on how humans are programmed to follow and subject themselves to authority.

“A lot of ink is spilled wondering whether computers can think,” Maguire said. “My question is more profound: Can we think, or are we totally programmed?”

Hope is important. I think there are three steps toward hope, and I’ll take all three. No. 1: stories; No. 2: shock therapy; and No. 3: humor. These are the paths, I think, to truth.

—Daniel C. Maguire

He told the story of his son, Tom. When Tom was 3 years old, Maguire saw him looking out a window, holding his cloth dog, Patches. Maguire began talking to his son and realized Tom did not understand what the coming autumn meant. He told him that soon, the green leaves would change color and fall to the ground. The next day, Maguire heard Tom talking to Patches. Maguire watched from afar as his son explained his lesson on autumn, from the day before, to Patches. That is when Maguire realized the absolute faith in authority ingrained in people.

“I suddenly realized if I had said to Tom, ‘Tom in a few weeks all those trees out there are going to lift up out of the ground, turn upside down and hang there for winter,’ he would have shared that like gospel truth with Patches,” he said.

The story of Tom and Patches exemplifies the concept that parents, absolute figures children depend on, are children’s earliest sources of information. As children mature, critical thought develops, but humans are always susceptible to authority figures, Maguire said.

Maguire’s second story was about his brother, Joe, a United States Marine Corps chaplain who served in the Vietnam War. Joe had become a priest in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, a very authoritarian institution; he then joined the Navy, another authoritarian institution. When he first arrived in Vietnam, Joe believed everything he was told by his superiors, Maguire said.

One day, Joe was stuck waiting to cross a road as a cortege of military vehicles spewed dust into the air. A young Vietnamese girl stood next to him. He noticed that on the girl’s leg was an infected growth that was becoming caked with dust. And Joe thought, “What are all those cars and vehicles doing that is more important than this little girl’s leg?” Maguire said.

“Just like that, we have ‘click’ moments of moral growth,” he said.

Advertising executives say that if they know your ZIP code, they can tell you what you eat, drink and wear.

“Show me your ZIP code, and I’ll get a real peek into your conscience,” Maguire said. Where a person is born often determines their political or religious values. “Culture is the cognitive web of likes and dislikes, attitudes and preference, that wrap us up like a blanket at birth.”

People must be shocked into a healthy moral consciousness.

The prophets of Israel knew how to shock people, Maguire said.

Isaiah, Micah and other prophets were known for living naked. It is written that Isaiah spent three years without clothes on, he said.

“I would say they realized that only outrage speaks to outrage — when you’re dealing with the outrageously insensitive, you have to be outrageous to get through to them,” Maguire said. “If the prophets came to us today, what they would do is look at what we’re doing in a couple of areas, and they would hurl it in our faces, and tell us how dumb it is and how shockingly evil it is.”

The first thing the prophets would criticize is our health care system, he said. In T.R Reid’s book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, the author explores health care systems around the world and discovers so many countries provide health care more effectively and cost-efficiently than the U.S., Maguire said.

The book tells the story of a woman named Nikki White, a bright, young, college-educated woman who was diagnosed with lupus after graduation. White made enough money that she did not qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay for her medicine out-of-pocket. Her health deteriorated.

Toward the end of her life, she suffered a seizure and was admitted to a hospital. During the course of 10 weeks, she had more than 25 operations, all of which were free. Despite the large amount of money eventually spent on her after she arrived in the emergency room, White died three months later. If she had acquired the basic care she needed throughout her life instead of only at the very end, she would still be alive, Maguire said.

“The resistance to Obama’s tiny little step toward a rational health care system is terribly bad news, and the Republican Party has to be corrected on that,” he said.

The prophets would also criticize the U.S. military budget. The country spends $100 million per hour on “kill power,” Maguire said.

“Where are the words of Deuteronomy today?” he asked. “ ‘I have set before you life, I have set before you death, and I have begged you to choose life for the sake of your children.’ ”

Maguire asked the audience to imagine what could be done if Chautauqua asked the military to make do with just $99 million per hour, so Chautauqua could have $24 million per day. The first thing Chautauquans should do on their first day with $24 million would be to eliminate “inferior” schools in the U.S., he said.

“And then we’d put up something that was worthy of our children and worthy of our future, and then we’d triple the salaries of all elementary and high-school teachers,” Maguire said.

With the money, he imagined that Chautauquans would pull all those forced into early retirement back into work or part-time positions.

Photo by Lauren Rock.

“Too much comfortable retirement is not good for your health,” Maguire said.

He would then invest in solar panels on all roofs in the U.S., thus creating new jobs and using alternative sources of energy. And he would develop a high-speed train system that goes more than 300 mph.

The last issue Maguire would tackle with his military money would be overpopulation, he said.

“If a species over-reproduces, nature will limit its numbers — and nature is already doing that in cruel ways, with starvation around the world,” he said.

One of the most effective methods for contraception is education. When women are educated, they take more control in their families, Maguire said.

The final source of hope is humor, he said.

There is humor in the Bible. For example, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode through Jerusalem on a donkey, he was mocking Caesar and the ostentatious ceremony Caesar required during his visits. Comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are some of the most important civil servants, Maguire said.

“Wherever power operates, we need jesters to laugh some good sense into the power holders,” he said.

Humor is intelligent and ethically sound, jars people and has the element of shock that enlivens the mind and conscience, Maguire said. He gave a few examples of the power of humor.

In one editorial cartoon,  Maguire said, two college girls hold signs promoting abstinence, but one girl turns to the other and says, “With regard to abstinence, I think there will be enough time for that when I’m married.”

Often, there is a connection between comedy and tragedy; the best comedians are also tragic, he said.

Dick Gregory once visited and spoke at a school where Maguire taught, and he mentioned that he named his first published book Nigger.

“He said, ‘You know, the most terrible thing that can happen to a parent is when their black child first hears the word “nigger” and realizes it is so loaded with venom and hatred of their mommy, and daddy and them. It’s a terrible moment for parents,’ ” Maguire said. “So he said, ‘I wanted to take care of that, so when my kids first hear the word “nigger,” they’re going to say, “Oh, cool, somebody’s talking about daddy’s book.” ’ ”

Maguire also told the story of his mother, who believed that everything, no matter how serious, should have an element of fun. Once, when he returned from a theological conference, enthralled by what he had learned, his mother asked him, “Was there fun at that conference?”

“If there was no fun, it was bullshit,” Maguire said.

G. K. Chesterton, a Catholic theologian, says humor is a mind cleanser.

Chesterton said: “If you want to be serious, be serious about your necktie. But in really important matters like sex, death and religion, there will be mirth or there will be madness,” Maguire said.

He closed with the poem “The Fiddler of Dooney,” by William Butler Yeats.