Thoughts for December 16, 2017
There is a great deal of speculation lately about how the United States lost its soul -- that is, assuming it ever had one.
In arguments with my friends I have pressed the thesis that it has been a much longer process than most people conceive. It certainly didn’t come about because we just decided one day, more or less accidentally, to put an idiot in the White House.
The people of the United States have been deluded for a long time by the notion that they are the nation. Nothing could be less true. The nation is a power structure with its own goals and ends. So far as the nation is concerned, the population is just one more resource to be expended in pursuing the nation’s aspirations. And since the nation is a power structure it follows, linguistically, that the prime aspiration is ever greater power. The mind of the nation can conceive of nothing else.
Democracy, as defined by the finest humanists, such persons as John Dewey, Thomas Mann, Henry Giroux, is not simply rule by majority. It is rather devotion to the ideal that all people, regardless of their social standing, are deserving of fairness and the concern of their fellow citizens. There is little in the structure of the U.S. nation right now which follows that ideal. You might say there are a few government agencies that do, such as the U.S. Park Service for example. But they are certainly not the driving forces, and they are under attack by the current administration.
A recently published book by Alfred W. McCoy titled In the Shadow of the American Century advances the thesis that the U.S. nation for quite a long time, and certainly over the past six decades, has been has been primarily an imperial enterprise. Nothing has rivaled the goal of dominating the world for the U.S. government. Everything else, including the well-being of the American people, ranks far below that pre-eminent aspiration. But now the United States, as has been the case with all imperial systems, has overreached, and the cost of expanding its power ever farther has become more than it can bear. It is beginning to crumble back on itself. Once that development starts, it accelerates. The reason that pattern was inevitable is thus expressed by McCoy: “It was that unbending ambition for a global Pax Americana that has allowed war to shape this country’s character.”
As war became the characteristic function, the principles of the Declaration of Independence -- itself not the charter of liberty and health it has been extolled as being -- were more or less annulled. That was a pretty good version of loss of soul.
We can see this transformation being bluntly expressed in government documents along the way. Here, for example is an excerpt from a C.I.A. report in 1954 laying out policy towards Central and South America: “Long standing concepts of American fair play must be reconsidered if the United States is to halt the region’s move towards irresponsible and extreme nationalism and immunity from the exercise of U.S. power.” In other words, our southern neighbors were not to be free to decide their own courses. They could not be immune from American power. That was from the U.S. government’s perspective intolerable.
To keep them in our power, we had to install puppet tyrants who would -- at least for a time -- do the U.S.’s bidding. After a briefing on such matters by Secretary of the Treasury George M. Humphrey, President Eisenhower remarked succinctly, “They’re OK, if they’re our s.o.b.s.” And Mr. Humphrey agreed.
Maintaining our s.o.b.s proved to be more costly than anybody imagined it would be in the 1950s. Saddam Hussein turned out to be a telling example.
Now we are in decline and no one knows how it will end. But bringing it a close less nastily than it might go ought to be the goal of all sane U.S. citizens. But how many of them we have is another of our gigantic mysteries.
Thoughts for December 15, 2017
Sean Illing of Vox has been holding a series of interviews with leading psychologists about the state of American culture. The most recent was with Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.
It’s a pretty good article which attempts to balance the effects of hard work and luck. People who get rich want to attribute their financial success to their own merits alone, which clearly is an erroneous manner of thinking. Lots of other factors contribute to vast wealth beside the consequences of working hard to acquire wealth. It’s good to be reminded of that.
The interview’s weakness, however, is its failure to point out that there are other measures of success besides financial dominance. There is work which society needs badly but is often unwilling to pay much for. Genuine scholarly digging, for example, is one of these forms of labor. But few people ever think about that. An effect of beguilement is that it causes many to lose all sense of reality about what is actually needed for societal and cultural health. A principal goal of capitalism is to keep that loss of reality in place. Capitalism wants you to think that you best form both your personality and your basic being by what you decide to purchase -- which pickup truck, for example, you buy to tell you who you are.
Is there any captain of capitalism who has contributed as much to intelligent thinking as Jane Austen did? She never got rich. The same can be said for Samuel Johnson, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and, actually, a list of names so long my printer would run out of ink before I got to the bottom of it.
If there is any reform our society needs to put in first place, it is a redefinition of “success” so it will signify what matters most for social health over the long run.
Thoughts for December 13, 2017
I see that Jerry Moore, Roy’s brother, has issued a prophecy. Here it is as reported by NPR: “It might not happen on this earth right now but Doug Jones will pay for what he’s saying. And them Democrat people out there and those Republicans in Washington. They’re going to have to answer to God.”
Can this actually be true? Can any human being have said this? This is the 21st century, isn’t it?
If -- though we may be wallowing in credulity -- we accept Jerry’s prophesy as authentic, it appears he conceives of God as a monstrous revenge machine, who inflicts hideous torture on anyone Jerry doesn’t like, though perhaps not on this earth, right now.
The latest news I’ve heard reports that Roy doesn’t acknowledge Doug Jones’s success in the election, and that we’ll have to wait to see what God says about it. I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait but I assume that election officials will certify the results in a normal time frame and that Jones will accordingly take his seat in in the Senate. Roy, of course, can proclaim that Jones is there illegitimately because God doesn’t want him there, but unless God intervenes in an unusual way the result will turn out as most sane people expect. And thus Roy will fade into the mists of history, being transformed from a horror into a joke. I don’t know what will happen to his horse, Sassy, but I hope that he -- or she -- will have a happy horse’s life, outside the glare of fame. If Roy wants to keep on riding her, I suppose that’s all right with me. I doubt she knows she’s being ridden by a political idiot, or would care if she did know.
The media will quickly turn their attention to new absurdities and the Republic will roll along as we have now begun to assume is normal. Whether Roy will make it into the history books of the future is uncertain.
Thoughts for December 11, 2017
I see that the “Good Country Index,” a listing compiled from data collected by organizations like the United Nations, The World Bank, and the World Health Organization, has been issued for this year. The top ten nations for helping others are The Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Austria and Norway.
The United States used to rank pretty high in such rankings but that, of course, is a thing of the past. The current standing for the U.S. is 25th among the nations of the world. That’s not surprising. The people of the United States care relatively little for being known as a kind or helpful nation. They like to be seen as being Number 1 in their own eyes, which I guess means being regarded as most powerful, particularly with respect to military might. We enjoy mightily bragging that we can completely destroy any other nation on earth. We have selected a president who boasts about it incessantly.
I wonder, sometimes, what good it does an average person in, say, Missouri or Ohio, to believe his country can kill every single person in any other country on the face of the earth. Does he lie in bed at night and chortle over his certainty of our overweening killing power? It’s a strange form of happiness it seems to me.
Over most of my life it never occurred to me that I would come to view my nation as a crass and declining empire. Yet, here I am, unable to avoid the thought. The only consolation I have is in knowing that great numbers of knowledgeable and thoughtful people share that opinion.
Some say we might be able to turn around, but more people, lately, are arguing that we can’t. We are set on a path whose direction is ordained -- in the sense of having a special purpose that can’t be changed. I’m not fond of thinking that any course is ordained, but some courses may well be very likely, and I’m afraid that’s the case with the United States right now.
Thoughts for December 10, 2017
I just read a substantial article by Sophia A. McClennen on the problems of the Democratic National Committee. You can find it here if you’re interested.
It fits well with my worries about how we might rescue the nation from the G.O.P. The Republican Party is almost totally filthy. Even so, you can’t beat something with nothing. And right now the people who want to cleanse the land of Republicanism don’t have anything that’s adequate.
Staying with the Democratic Party, as represented by the DNC is folly. The policies of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the Clintonites are sterile and can’t be energized in any way. That’s because they are self-contradictory. You can’t work to create a healthy climate for the majority of Americans so long as you insist on cozying up to big banks and big money. The latter don’t want to have anything to do with a healthy climate.
An alternative might be to dump the Democrats and try to start a third party which would eventually replace them. But we all know that would be a long, hard trek, and it might never work.
So, if there is an answer, what is it? Up till now we have hoped there was a possibility of capturing the Democratic Party, in effect, taking it away from the Schumer/Pelosi leadership. That’s what the Sanders primary campaign was about last year. But though it made a good run, it started too far behind.
Is it possible to resuscitate it now? I don’t know. If it is, it certainly won’t be easy. Yet I continue to think it’s the best thing to try. The big problem is an additional cast of characters. Bernie Sanders can’t do it by himself. Bernie and Elizabeth Warren can’t do it. Where are younger politicians of their ability and zest?
Between now and next November, we’ve got to start looking for them. If I knew the political landscape better I could say where to look. All I can advise, at the moment, is to listen to the older leaders, especially Sanders, and to watch for new leaders with energy and spark. And as they emerge, get behind them with energy and financial support.
Otherwise it’s going to be Republicanism all the way down into the pit, which will canker the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Thoughts for December 9, 2017
We have entered a great splurge of apologies and the criticism of apologies. It seems to me that those who decide to apologize for something have the right to frame their own statements and that others have little authority to announce that such statements are invalid. All they are saying is that the apologizers failed to speak as the critics wished. But the critics are not the ones making the apologies.
We are getting so tangled in how people speak of past misdeeds that the whole business is becoming an undecipherable mess.
We have far more vital questions to confront than whether a particular apology is perfect. The very nature of apology is inconsistent with perfection (as is almost everything else). So I think we would do well to use our energies on efforts other than trying to wring the apologies we want out of people we don’t much like.
Apology, after all, is not one of the grander forms of disquisition.
Thoughts for December 8, 2017
David Brooks has made the amazing discovery that the Republican Party is completely rotten. It didn’t take him long, did it? He’s only about four decades late.
The final words of his column this morning are: "More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: 'I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.’ “
Does this mean that Brooks, himself is out of the G.O.P.? If he is, why doesn’t he say so?
Thoughts for December 5, 2017
Simple-minded Darwinians and neo-liberals take it for granted that the only genuine measure of success is piling up money. Therefore the richest are the fittest. It apparently never occurs to them that choice of how to live plays any part in the measure of satisfaction in life. Let’s say that one person is obsessed with compiling dollars and manages through that obsession to accumulate a fortune of ten million. If we compare him with someone who is strongly interested in learning what he, or she, can about a major cultural figure and writes telling essays about that process, the neo-liberal doesn’t stop to think before announcing that the millionaire is more “successful” than the scholar/writer. But by what standard? Can the millionaire-worshipper offer a cogent rationalization that the person he labels successful has lived more richly than the person who has enjoyed learning?
If he can, neither he nor other persons who think as he does has supplied that justification so far.
Can anyone present us with a conclusive statement that Lloyd Blankfein has lived a more meaningful existence than Jane Austen did? Setting those two names in the same sentence pretty well destroys the neo-liberal argument. As Samuel Johnson asked (and as I tend to quote too much), “What is so easy to a narrow mind as hoarding halfpence?”
The fatuity of the Darwinian/ neo-liberal argument has been convincingly limned by Kelly Wilkins in today’s CounterPunch. If you get a chance, take a look at it:
Thoughts for November 29, 2017
We live in a time of deep pessimism. Anyone who fails to recognize that we do has become pathetic. Knowing where we are calls up a specific set of duties. They aren’t pleasant. Nothing can make them pleasant. But they are real.
The best label for these duties overall I can think of is “testimony.” Another might be “witness.” Both words mean saying what you know is the case, and refusing to let people forget about it. People generally love to forget. They think it makes life easier. One who testifies is often not liked because he is seen as making life harder.
It would be agreeable to live in a time when testimony is not much needed. But I wonder, has there ever been such a time? If there has, it is certainly not now.
How long will we have to testify to escape the pessimism of the present? I don’t know. Nobody knows. There is no way to know.
We have been told to “judge not.” It’s a directive with a pleasant ring. But then there are men with the names Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions, Lloyd Blankfein, Roy Moore, Mike Pence, John Kelly, Charles Koch, Mike Flynn, Tony Hovater, Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump -- to name just a dozen of thousands who might be named -- who are dead set on hurting millions. If we don’t want to judge them but we know what they’re doing, then how do we think about them? I don’t want to hurt them in any basic way. I wish no stomach aches for them or ingrown toenails. But neither do I want them to hurt me, nor any of the principles or the people I cherish. And I can conclude only that they do want to hurt me and that they always will. So how is it that I should think about them?
I actually do wish someone would answer that question for me.
Some might say I should oppose them politely. But consider this. When I hear their names, certain words come into my mind. Among them are “mean, low, base, abject, sordid, ignoble, petty, foul, repulsive, greedy, pathetic, vile, vulgar, predatory, narcissistic.” When a man’s name calls such adjectives into one’s mind, how is one to be polite to him? Is it possible simply to forget the adjectives, to banish them at certain points? Perhaps for some but not for me.
I know I am supposed to remember that they are human. I think I can do that. Yet I also remember Ezra Kline’s recent statement that “it is childish this late in human history to be surprised that evil people are also people.” Yes, certain people can like puppies and muffins and still wish to slaughter entire populations. Sharing with them a fondness for muffins can scarcely be a basis for respectful relations.
The problems of living over a long period with pessimism are multitudinous. But those are the problems we now have to face, and try to solve.
Thoughts for November 17, 2017
A friend sent me a letter speaking of men of honor. I had little sense of what he meant.
A man of honor? What does a man of honor do?
Does he try always to be truthful and honest?
Is he devoted to kindness and mercy?
Does he have a strong sense of empathy, especially for those who have been seriously mistreated?
Does he hate suffering and do all he can to alleviate it?
Does he attempt to protect and support a natural environment that will make human life not only possible but supportive of meaningful existence?
Does he work to know as much as he can, realizing all the while that what he knows is, at best, a tiny portion of what he needs to know?
Does he regularly ask himself how his own behavior affects the feelings of those he loves?
Does he try to grasp the meaning of the words he uses?
Does he struggle to comprehend the importance of small things around him, for example, an ant crawling across a floorboard on his deck?
Does his heart leap up when he watches a small child trying to do something for the first time?
Does he love certain spots on the earth and think of them repeatedly?
Does he like to see a small dog cock his head?
Or might it be that he does none of these things, but rather is a man of honor in some sense that has nothing to do with them? And if so, what might that sense be?
I wish I knew the answers to all these questions. But I don’t. I do have certain intimations about them, and I hope as strongly as I can that they are correct.
©John R. Turner
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