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This site exists to promote the pleasures of discussion and to nudge us all -- myself included -- an inch or two towards decency. You're welcome, and encouraged, to comment on any of the opinions you encounter here by using the e-mail link on the left.

John R. Turner
Thoughts for July 23, 2017

Moods, far more than ideas, are the registers of fascism. The establishment of mood is the most important feature of the fascist program.

The fascist mood is made up primarily of seven components:
  • Resentment.
  • Racial prejudice.
  • Romantic nationalism.
  • Myth of a pure past.
  • Scorn of subtlety.
  • Intellectual simplicity.
  • Rejection of anything different.

This is the finding of Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism.

Look around you. Are these seven not a near-perfect depiction of Trump’s program and the Republican program? If one supports them, then he should at least have the honesty to confess that he is a fascist. And yet honesty is not a part of the fascist plan. Honesty has no standing with fascists. This is why Trump can say one thing one day, an opposing thing the next, and fervently deny that he has contradicted himself.

If the American people, or some considerable portion of the American people, cheer this practice and don’t want to be fascists then they do want to be fools.

Can they be reached? Can they come to understand what they are doing? I have no idea.

Does Trump, himself, understand that he is a fascist? Probably not. But his understanding is irrelevant to what he is. His understanding has nothing to do with his behavior. His understanding, as that term is normally defined, fails to exist. He is, himself, nothing but an assortment of moods.

Thoughts for July 21, 2017

This morning at coffee, after listening to my wife tell me about several bizarre news stories she has read recently, the thought began to rise in my mind that, perhaps, there’s a point at which stupidity becomes indistinguishable from craziness, a point at which it becomes both impossible and irrelevant to try to determine which is causing mental behavior.

If there is no difference in consequences there may be no difference in cause.

After we got home from the coffee shop, the first news item I happened to read came with the headline: “How Deranged Are Trump Supporters?: New Poll Shows That It’s Worse Than You Ever Imagined.” The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), and attempted to ascertain whether there is any line Trump might cross that would cut significantly into the support of those who voted for him. The conclusion was, “Apparently Not.”

One result struck me as particularly significant. Forty-five percent of Trump voters say they would continue to approve of him even if he did what he talked about doing during the campaign, if he actually shot somebody. That percentage adds up to more than 28 million members of the electorate. It’s probably a reasonably accurate indicator of the number of American voters who have descended into lunacy.

One could say, of course, that they don’t really mean it. But it’s what they say. How do we know they don’t mean it? Why would they say it if they don’t mean it? It strikes me as prudent to take people at their word unless you have a good reason to think they’re trying to dissemble.

I’m not aware that our most reputable political analysts have ever seriously considered what it would mean if nearly thirty million voters are political lunatics. How do we take account of their influence? And if we assume that rational thought is superior to lunacy, how do we reduce their effect on the political process?

One thing is sure: if there are that many such people, somebody will try to make use of them to gain prestige or power. And it’s very unlikely that power would ever be used to increase the freedom or the well-being of the American people.

We probably are in a more dangerous situation than most Americans have even begun to suppose. And when those dangers begin, fully, to manifest themselves, the people will surely wail, “Why didn’t somebody tell us about this?”

Thoughts for July 20, 2017

Since I have quite a few surplus copies of Letters to Dalton, my book on the failures of higher education, I have begun to use them as notebooks, into which I paste little sheets with comments about my reading. This practice has produced an effect I hadn’t anticipated. As I paste (or actually tape down) my note sheets, I can’t help but notice passages from the book itself, passages which I had to have written but have long since forgotten. Quite a few of them make a new impression on me.

Here, for example, is a paragraph from the seventh letter: “Truth is, the academic disciplines have almost no interest in education. What they are, at their best, are networks created to produce certain sorts of books. The majority of these books are worthless. But not all. Some of them rise to the level of explaining intelligently how the formulas of the disciplines can complement thought. A complement to thought, however, is not thought itself because it lacks the personalized insight that thought requires. Still, that’s no reason to be down on it so long as it presents itself for what it is: a tool rather than a thing of plenary value.”

Do I still stand by this paragraph? Yes, I think I do. Its most questionable element is the proposition that genuine thought requires a personalized insight. When I wrote the letters I had not yet read Nietzsche as fully as I have since, but in calling for personalized insight I was anticipating his doctrine of perspectivism. All mental activity, if it is to be something other than a bromide, has to come from an individual perspective, has to be backed up by the experiences of a real life. People who are more concerned with a group mind than their own generally fall into the error of reification, that is, treating the name of an abstraction as it were the name of something real. You can often hear non-reflective scholars saying things like, “Sociology holds that ....” Sociology doesn’t hold a damn thing because Sociology can’t think. It’s just an abstraction.

In the nearly twenty years since I wrote the paragraph above I hope I’ve learned a few things, and that I can articulate my contentions a bit more fully. Yet it’s comforting to see that there is some continuity to a mind, that basic character finds ways to maintain itself. That’s the secondary benefit of making what many would consider an eccentric use of an over-ambitious publishing project.

Thoughts for July 19, 2017

I spent the night once, alone, in a hotel at the top of the High Street in Lewes, on the River Ouse, just a few miles up from the village of Rodmell, where Leonard and Virginia Wolff lived, and from which, on the 28th of March, 1941, she walked down to the river, put rocks in her coat pocket, and drowned herself.

It was not common for me to be in England alone. I was usually with someone, or several someones, when I was there. But this night I was alone, and I can’t remember why. It had been a tiring day, and after a late supper in a restaurant just down the street from the hotel -- I think I had spaghetti -- I decided to go to bed earlier than I usually do. I went to sleep easily, comfortably, but then, sometime in the middle of the night, I waked up with a very bad stomach ache. I lay there, in pain, for a while, and then stumbled down the hall to the bathroom, where I got some modest relief.

Back in bed, the pain had moderated enough for me to bear it but was still so bothersome it kept me from sleeping. For a bit, I wondered what it would mean if I just died there, but gradually I came to the conclusion it wouldn’t mean anything. So then I began to think about Virginia Wolff,  what the water felt like in her shoes, when she first stepped into the Ouse, and then, on her legs, and then at her waist.

I wanted desperately for her not to die. I wished I had been there, so I could have waded out into the water, and taken her hand, and told her it would be all right, and led her back to the river’s edge. She might have thought I was a simpleton, but I wouldn’t have cared, and I would have still tried. “Why wasn’t I there?” I asked myself. “Why the hell not?” And I became very angry. It’s not too much to say I was infuriated. I was set to stay infuriated all night, but somehow everything faded away into sleep.

The next morning, my stomach ache gone, I realized I had not died. My anger had transformed itself into a sadness, but not so deep I couldn’t begin to think with pleasure of breakfast. So I got dressed and went in to the dining room.

I can’t recall what I did that day, but that room, the pain, the sadness and the anger, remain as clear in my mind as anything. And that’s all there is to this story.

Thoughts for July 17, 2017

Here is Samuel Johnson on the kind of wife he would not like to have: “Why, Sir, being married to those sleepy-souled women is just like playing at cards for nothing: no passion is excited, and the time filled up. I do not, however, envy a fellow one of those honey suckle wives, for my part, as they are but creepers, at best, and commonly destroy the tree they so tenderly cling about.”

This leads me to recall that when I took parties of ladies on literary trips to England, one of my regulars, Helen Cameron, would often say that she would have liked to be a clinging vine, causing the other ladies to react in horror, and exclaim, “Oh, Helen, you can’t mean that!” But Helen continued to insist that she did mean it, which caused me to reflect that she probably did.

In these disputations I remained resolutely neutral, and as I think back on them, I’m glad I did.

Thoughts for July 16, 2017

Donald Trump should be teaching us a lesson I fear too few Americans are learning, which is that trying to put dollars in place of things that are genuinely good leads to pathetic results. The sad thing is that many people, and perhaps a majority of Americans, are following in his wake rather than being repelled by it. And if that’s the case, it means that the entire country is becoming pathetic. Certainly, that’s the way the rest of the world sees us. Americans like to say they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us but that’s because they are too dim-witted to foresee the consequences.

This Trumpism, of course, was building even before Trump became a household word. We can’t blame him for it; rather we should blame ourselves for him. We are his makers far more than he is ours. We are the people who set garishness over good taste, and who put scandal as entertainment in front of real news.

Now we will have to live with history’s judgment, which will not be a happy process.

Thoughts for June 26, 2017

Stephen Colbert has done us the service of distinguishing between truthiness and Trumpiness. Truthiness depends on some vague semblance to truth, whereas Trumpiness has completely cut loose from any concept of truth. For Trumpy people, what Trump says is to be celebrated, even if it completely contradicts what he said a few hours earlier, which is also to be celebrated. Truth or falsehood are of no consequence. What is of consequence is what Trump says.

This development, which is the key occurrence of our time, makes it almost impossible to forget Hannah Arendt’s description of an essential element of totalitarianism: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between the true and the false no longer exists.”

Increasing numbers of my friends and acquaintances are convinced that the United States is headed towards thorough degradation, and that the question is no longer whether we have become a bad country, but, rather, how bad we will become. I don’t suppose anybody can answer that for sure but what does seem beyond doubt is that we’re in for a thorough dunking in the toilet. How we might climb out and clean ourselves up is a question everyone should be asking.

We used to think that electoral politics always offered us a path towards virtue. But as the nature of the electorate has shifted towards Trumpiness, the ballot box seems less and less an avenue for returning us to health. It’s going to take something more, something probably more radical. To get a majority of the people, at the moment, to give enough attention to our political situation to make intelligent choices appears next to impossible.

I wish it weren’t so, and I still wanly hope it’s not. Yet I think those who can should be considering more vigorous measures, which always insist, as a basic feature of our virtue, on keeping away from violence.

Thoughts for May 30, 2017

From reading Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times this morning, I learned once again that one of the really big problems in America is liberal arrogance. People in the United States can’t talk to one another because of it, and as a consequence the alienation of one group from another is turning violent. It seems that liberals are almost never the perpetrators of violence, but it’s at least partly their fault because they are so arrogant. So liberals have a responsibility to tone this hostility down.

I’m all for toning hostility down, but you’ve got to have some method of doing it before you achieve anything. And the principal method put forward by those who think liberal arrogance is a huge problem seems to be to stop telling the truth. You see, truth makes the Trumpites angry so that gives them a kind of right to lash out at people who are torturing them with it.

If you say, for example, that human agency is polluting the atmosphere in a way that will cause disastrous heating, with accompanying floods, over the coming decades, that makes Republicans mad. It’s arrogant for you to say that -- even though it’s true -- so you need to hush up, in the interests of amity.

If you say that racial prejudice continues in America to cause a great deal of injustice and harsh mistreatment of certain people, the Republicans don’t like that either. So stop it.

If you say that economic inequality is leading to hardship for the lower income people of the country, Republicans are offended, and you can’t always be offending them, That’s arrogant.

If you say the nation is spending far more on war-making instrumentalities than is needed for defense, thus squeezing an already inadequate infrastructure, that’s anti-patriotic and infuriating to Republicans. Consequently you have to stop saying that too.

If you say that the country could have a more efficient medical system by removing it from the hands of profit-makers, you are criticizing a Republican god, generally called the market, and therefore you are engaging in heresy. We have no room for heretics here in America, particularly if they’re arrogant.

It seems to be the case that liberals, if they wish to live in friendliness with their Republican fellow citizens have to stop saying anything they believe. But you know what? I don’t think that would be enough. You can’t avoid the charge of arrogance unless you become a full-fledged Republican yourself and begin to chirp in unison with them.

I am not saying that there are no arrogant persons among liberals. There are arrogant persons in any group. So what? I agree that arrogance is an irritating habit and that we should all try to be on guard against it in ourselves. But I’m having trouble finding any evidence that liberals are more arrogant than anybody else. Are liberals more arrogant than Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh spouting their lies? Are they more arrogant than Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan with their smug economic plans to cause more hardship in America? Why is it mainly liberals who are charged with being arrogant?

I can find only one reason. Liberals tend to be more on the side of factual analysis than conservatives are, and that’s the biggest arrogance of all.

If one has to give up the truth in order to escape being arrogant perhaps he should resign himself to the charge and go on saying what he believes to be fact. Though social goodwill is a pleasant quality, there are other qualities more important than it, and accuracy is one of them.

And if Roger Cohen and other chargers of arrogance don’t think so, then I’m sorry.

Thoughts for May 29, 2017

A few days ago, I wrote a commentary about how “cruel” is a fair, accurate, and temperate descriptor for Republicans. I had it in mind then that a single adjective would do for indicating the nature of GOP members. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to think there are a couple more terms that would sharpen the designation.

“Vicious” needs to be added to point out the particular character of Republican cruelty. There is a kind of cruelty that can be associated with mere thoughtlessness and indifference. But that’s not the sort of cruelty that Republicans normally exhibit. They are aggressive in their cruelty, and that’s what makes “vicious” a useful additive. It is defined in respected dictionaries as extremely violent, extremely unkind and unpleasant. So if we say that Republicans are viciously cruel then we retain our temperance and accuracy, while enhancing the specificity of the definition.

As I’ve thought about the incident in Montana recently, in which the Republican candidate for Congress assaulted a reporter for asking a question -- a perfectly reasonable question, by the way -- I’ve come to sense that we need a third term to complete the description of Republicans, and that is “filthy.” I’m speaking of the definition that indicates not just ordinary dirtiness, but the one that in most dictionaries is listed as underhanded, vile, and obscene. A person who will seize another by the throat and throw him to the ground simply out of an unwillingness to hear a question, is clearly vile and almost as clearly underhanded and obscene.

So, if we say that Republicans are viciously cruel and filthy, we have a fairly accurate definition of their behavior, and one which remains temperate, considering what might, reasonably, be said about them. It has also this advantage: it’s probably one that Republicans in their hearts will acknowledge, seeing, as they do, these three characteristics as the basic ingredients of manliness, which is, of course, the nature they associate most fervently with themselves.

Thoughts for May 26, 2017

I’ve encountered quite a bit of discussion lately about how to describe Republicans. After all, they do exist and they have significant influence on the quality of life in America, so we need words to express who and what they are.

It has been fairly common to call them stupid. But I agree with those who point out that such a description is counter-productive, regardless of its accuracy. It merely causes Republicans to dig deeper into positions reasonable persons would like to see abandoned. So, as far as I’m concerned, “stupid” is out in general conversation.

We shouldn’t, though, back off from terms that describe the actual effects of behavior. When we do that, we get so wishy-washy we lose the ability to say anything meaningful. So, since Republican policies hurt the great majority of people in the country, it strikes me as both fair and useful to say that Republicans are cruel. It’s a word that means something and that in the current climate of opinion is reasonably temperate. Also, it can be defended by a huge supply of fact.

Paul Krugman has an informative column in this morning’s New York Times pointing out what would happen to the people of West Virginia if the proposed Trump budget were to be passed. The key paragraph in his essay is this:

“What would happen to West Virginia if all these Trump policies went into effect? Basically, it would be apocalyptic: Hundreds of thousands would lose health insurance; medical debt and untreated conditions would surge; and there would be an explosion in extreme poverty, including a lot of outright hunger.”

It’s not at all out of order to say that persons who cause these things to occur are cruel. Some will defend them by saying they don’t intend to be cruel. I suppose that could be the case for many Republicans. Yet when we’re talking about political realities it’s more useful to concentrate on the effects of behavior than it is on intentions. Self-delusion is one of the key mental defects among humanity, and it doubtless is more rampant among Republicans than it is among persons of other political persuasions.

Cruel is as cruel does, no matter what rosy hues one may wish to shine on it.

I don’t know what percentage of the American people consciously want to be cruel. I suspect it’s a significant number. But if people wish to be cruel, I don’t see why they should be offended by being designated for what they are and what they want. Logic would say they should wear their cruelty as a badge of honor.

We can hope that whatever percentage of people enjoy being cruel that it’s not a majority. I’m assuming that it’s not. If that’s the case, putting the title of cruel on Republicans can have a positive effect. If it becomes widely acknowledged that Republicans are cruel then there’s a good chance that some people who are Republicans now will decide they don’t want to be Republicans any longer. Such a shift can only be good for those who would like to see the United States become a more generous and merciful nation. And there’s nothing unfair to fervent Republicans in the designation.

So, let’s all start speaking of the GOP as the party of cruelty in America, and see where it leads. 

Thoughts for May 18, 2017

I am visiting my daughter and her family on Long Island for a few days. She lives just outside Port Jefferson on a residential road where the speed limit is thirty miles an hour. I’ve been watching the traffic on the road for quite a bit over the past twenty-four and I can report that not even five percent of the vehicles passing my daughter’s house are moving within the posted speed. Maybe a third of them are going about 40 mph, and the rest well over forty with quite a few in the 50s. The vehicles going the fastest are trucks. A large percentage of them are in the 50-mph range. Keep in mind, this is a strictly residential area.

This occurs on Long Island. So that’s a part of the explanation. I’ve driven all over the United States. I’ve even driven quite a bit in the Boston area. My experience is that nowhere, not even in Boston, are the drivers quite as thuggish as they are on Long Island. There must be some reason for this, but I don’t know what it is. When I encounter Long Islanders in other settings they appear to be fairly reasonable people. But when they get into their cars, a goodly percentage of them turn into monsters.

There is also quite a bit of horn-blowing on Long Island. Yesterday, as I was driving from the ferry landing to my daughter’s house a panel truck fell in behind me. Though I was driving a few miles per hour over the limit, it was clear from the way he continued to run up close to my bumper that he didn’t think I was going fast enough. Finally when I was slowing down to make a right turn, he began to blast his horn at me continuously. Shorty after I turned, I pulled into a parking area to get out of the way. He kept his horn blasting the whole time, and even after he passed me he continued to blow on it.

I assume he was unaware that blowing a car horn at someone is the one of the more vulgar things a person can do. In the fifty years I have lived in Vermont, I have never been subject to anything like this, or observed anyone else being horn blasted in the manner this guy did to me yesterday.

I don’t suppose there’s anything that can be done about Long Island driving. It’s simply nasty, threatening, and dangerous. And it seems so ingrained in the culture that nobody can even imagine doing anything about it, or even wanting to.

I am curious about it though. Why? I ask myself. Why?

If anyone has an explanation for this behavior, I’d be grateful if you would send it to me.  

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