Word and Image of Vermont

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John R. Turner
Thoughts for March 25, 2019

No citizen of a republic which has an imbecile as its head of state can live without humiliation. No matter how much a person repudiates the imbecile, he is still washed in the waves of humiliation the imbecile creates. Even those persons who are most spoken of as having impregnable integrity, will be stained by the access their humanity inevitably provides. Most citizens are not consciously aware of this. The humiliation creeps over them without their being aware of what it is. Yet it still registers in their stomachs, in their bowels. They begin to feel vaguely sick, though they may not have any detectable symptoms. Public happiness declines. The satisfaction one may once have felt by erroneously crediting his republic with virtues it didn’t possess becomes harder and harder to maintain. To some degree, all citizens begin to become aware that they are looked upon with contempt by the other people of the world. And though most tell themselves they don’t care what those other people think, they still feel gagged by their reputation. Humiliation works in myriad ways. Its effects can’t be adequately listed. They are there in legions, working in conjunction with one another, to produce something that is gigantic but which can’t be adequately described. Humiliation is to the body politic what persistent diarrhea is to the body biological. It drains and drains, and leaves one feeling there is no environment possible except some substitute for an outhouse. And the weakness it produces hangs on long after its overt symptoms seem to have disappeared. I don’t know how long it might take for a country like the United States to rid itself completely of the humiliation it is suffering now. But it would surely be years after the imbecile had faded from the headlines and after his leers were no longer dominating the television screens. When a country signs on for humiliation, it signs on for the long term.

Thoughts for March 23, 2019

Here’s something we can be fairly sure of: the news from now on is going to be essentially silly. For example, here’s a headline I just read: “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Suggests God Sent Donald Trump to Earth to Save Israel From Iran.” Anybody who doesn’t find that absurd is a ding-a-ling. I suppose some might consider it a joke. But what kind of joke is it? I can’t see that it was told to be humorous. I suppose there are people who think that somebody, or some thing, called God does stuff like that. But these are not people who will add either substance or pleasure to your morning coffee. All you can do is stare at them blankly and hope to escape as soon as possible.

It’s not surprising that as the general human society descends into chaos the commentary about it will go goofy. What else might it do?

Here’s another headline: “‘A new level of dysfunction’: The Trump administration suffers ‘rampant confusion’ as U.S. foreign policy goes of the rails.” Even if you assume it was meant to say “goes off the rails” it still makes no sense. The Trump administration can’t suffer rampant confusion. It is rampant confusion. It’s a set of, mainly, men whose minds are in permanent disarray. For a mind to be confused it has to have some capacity to, occasionally, think rationally. And this the Trumpites can never do.

I’ll conclude today with just one more headline: “I Just Tried Anal Sex -- and Loved Almost Everything About It. Almost.” The revealing thing about the article which accompanies this headline is that anal sex can be messy. Is that news? Believe it or not, I can remember a time when there wouldn’t have been a news story with that title. People would have found it too disgusting to take in with their daily newspaper. But when the news leapt off of paper and onto screens, then, presumably, disgust simply disappeared. I consider the ability to be disgusted an essential feature of sanity. When it goes away then sanity can’t be far behind.

We would do well to get it in mind that the primary antonym of sanity is not craziness. It’s silliness, which is where we’re headed with little to restrain us.

Thoughts for March 22, 2019

Most mornings I get up and check through a set of news sources I have bookmarked on my computer. I’ve put quite a few bookmarks on my list, but there are some of them I read every day. These are: The New York Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Alternet, Truthdig, Slate Magazine, Counterpunch, Vox, Buzz Feed, and The Intercept. I certainly can’t say that these sources insure that I’m well informed. And in moments of lax assumption I fall into the habit of thinking that my reading in current affairs makes me fairly average. But, then, when I examine common habits more critically, I can’t escape the truth that I give considerably more attention to what is called “news” than most people do. At those moments I’m forced to acknowledge that a considerable majority of U.S. citizens are even more ignorant than I am. That’s when I fall into despair for the future of our nation.

It’s not just that most Americans are too ignorant to function adequately as citizens. It’s that they are too ignorant to achieve sanity. They don’t have any sense of what they don’t know. I’m not yet prepared to say that a majority of Americans are insane. But I have no trouble concluding that they are less than sane, the latter phrase indicating a somewhat milder condition than outright craziness.

In America we have no standards for ordinary adulthood. There’s nothing we think we can expect -- or have the right to expect -- from grownup people. Furthermore, every bit of evidence I can find about this condition indicates that it will continue to get worse. There is nothing that tells us, convincingly, that it will get better.

This means at least two things. We cannot have democracy in America. There is no way it can be brought into being. Second, as we move into a future of increasing challenges, such as the ravages of climate degradation, the average citizen will not only get more ignorant, he or she will become even less sane than is already the case.

No one, of course, can predict the future with certainty. There could be advantages on the way that scarcely anyone has thought of. We can hope that there are. But if we’re going to hope that, we’re going to have to hope it with virtually no evidence that it’s looming out there in the years to come.

We know that in the universe we inhabit most things eventually either come to an end, or are transformed so radically they can scarcely be considered the same things they once were. That’s just as true of humanity as it is of other things. Humanity may just about have run its course. There’s no reason to think its future is guaranteed. There is nothing that possesses that degree of power. Humanity may just go away, with nobody to mourn or remember it, because there will be no memory left either.

That seems sad to me. I wish its possibility were not real. But all evidence and all logic tells me it is. Too bad!

Thoughts for January 13, 2019

Repeatedly Bacevich makes the point that war has become the main activity, for the average citizen, of displaying loyalty to the United States. Backing our military adventures is how one shows his, or her, supposed devotion to country. That’s because there is no more solid symbol of country than American men in soldier suits marching through foreign lands ready to destroy any forces that dare to get in their way. Or as Bacevich puts it:

Principled opposition to war ranks as a disqualifying condition, akin to once having belonged
to the Communist Party or the K.K.K.

Thoughts for January 12, 2019

Basevich, as much as any military historian I have read, is acutely aware of the ironic status of the American armed forces. They are widely accepted as being the most powerful soldiers in the world today, and perhaps more greatly superior to any potential foe than any other army has ever been. And yet, their condition doesn’t seem much to matter so far as diplomatic status exists. Here is how Basevich puts the case:

The acknowledged standing of the country’s military as the world’s best trained, best
equipped, and best led force coexisted uneasily with the fact that it proved unable to win.

Thoughts for January 11, 2019

Bacevich is one of the few analysts critical of the nation state who continues to be concerned with the national debt. For years the Republican Party harped about the spiraling debt, but when they held power the debt increased more rapidly than it did under the Democrats. The GOP seemed to think that debts incurred for military adventures didn’t really count. But Bacevich is aware that a huge debt forces spending in a single direction. It allows Republicans to scream state security and then spend money with no accounting for it. Bacevich reminds us what the numbers actually are:

The countless sums of money wasted -- few in Washington evince interest in tallying up
how much -- have contributed to the exploding size of the US national debt. It stood at
approximately $4 trillion when the Cold War ended, has risen to $20 trillion today, and
is projected to exceed $25 trillion by the end of the decade.

Thoughts for January 10, 2019

Another thinker Bacevich calls to our attention as someone penetrating enough to see through American myths of moral superiority was Reinhold Niebuhr. He is best remembered for his analysis of 1952, titled The Irony of American History, in which he sketched the process by which U.S. self-glorification pushed it towards its most grievous sins. One might say that a nation willing to delude itself as Cold War America was, would eventually be willing to do almost anything as a means of perpetuating its bloated vision of self. Here is how Bacevich describes Niebuhr’s undercutting of America’s prime myths:

Reinhold Niebuhr helps us appreciate the large hazards embedded in those myths and
delusions. Four of those truths merit particular attention at present: the persistent sin of
American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions,
and, finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power.

And then:

All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element of their political
cause by investing it with religious sanctity.

Thoughts for January 9, 2019

Bacevich spends considerable time reminding readers of scholars and thinkers who, at a time when dominant attitudes portrayed the US as the great defender of freedom and morality, painted a much darker picture. One of these was William Appleman Williams, a diplomatic historian who published several notable books from the late 1950s until the early 1980s. Though these volumes were valued mainly by professional scholars, and never secured a wide public readership, they nevertheless laid the foundation for a more critical view of what sort of nation America really was. Among them, probably the best known were The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Contours of American History, and Empire as a Way of Life. Bacevich highlights one of Williams’s judgments that should have been emphasized more than it was, and if it had, might have steered the nation onto a far more healthy path than the one it actually took:

Although to cite any single moment when America forfeited its virtue would be to
oversimplify, Williams might have pointed to the overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister
Mohammed Mosaddeq and the restoration of the Shah to the Peacock Throne, engineered
by the C.I.A. in 1953, as illustrative.

Thoughts for January 8, 2019

For many Americans the election of 2016 was seen as a weird detour from the norm. But Bacevich disagrees. For him it was merely one more step into a pattern that he perceived as having been firmly established in the interest of promoting the warfare state. The horror of Trump was all on the surface. Underneath, he would deliver about the same result as his opponent. Or, as Bacevich says:

The reality is this: The election that so many saw as promising salvation was rigged. Its
outcome was predetermined. Whichever candidate won in November and whichever party
ended up governing, the State was guaranteed to come out on top.

Thoughts for January 7, 2019

A distinction Bacevich makes frequently is one Randolph Bourne is known for emphasizing, the one between the country and the state. The difference is obvious but I suspect it’s one most citizens never think about. I myself have discovered that when you ask people what they think the United States is they’ll stare at you in perplexity as though they can’t imagine what you’re asking about. Is it a stretch of geography, I’ll inquire, or a population, or a power structure, or a government, or a theory of government, or a set of ideas, or a history? And what I usually get is a completely blank expression. Here’s a statement by Bacevich that helps clarify the problem somewhat:

The state, meanwhile, has fattened itself on seven years of plenty (since the beginning of
the 21st Century). Unlike the Biblical cycle, when the abundance gave way to want, this
pattern seems likely to continue. With the long war projected to last for decades, if not
generations, the ascendancy of the state bids fair to become a permanent condition.


©John R. Turner

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