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John R. Turner
Thoughts for October 11, 2017

Ernest Becker, who died more than forty years ago, remains famous for his book, The Denial of Death, which was published just about a year before his death. The basic thesis of his seminal work was that trying to find some way to avoid facing the truth that we humans are mortal has been the primary human endeavor through the ages.

People simply don’t like the thought of dying, or, at least, most people don’t.

Becker argued that the natural urge to deny mortality, along with the effort to achieve a heroic self-image, were the two root causes of human evil. I guess that makes sense because ambitions that override any restraint, will lead people to do anything, no matter how horrendous it might be.

The denial of death has been the progenitor of virtually all religions, and religions are pretty good candidates for the worst impulses humans have exhibited.

Whether we can find a way to battle death without actually increasing its occurrence is the central question about humanity’s future. I don’t know the answer to it. But, at least I think we should try. The desire to hold death off -- for ourselves -- is not going away, so we really do need to do our best to transform it from a source of evil into something decent and honorable.

Even so, I know it’s not going to be easy.

Thoughts for October 10, 2017

If we agree that suffering is bad, then it’s only sane to say that it’s bad for everybody.

Anyone who wishes other people to suffer, strikes me as monstrous. And that’s true regardless of who those other people are or what they may have done. The latter is irrelevant so far as suffering goes.

If you think that’s crazy you should read Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life.

He’s smarter than you are.

Thoughts for October 9, 2017

I see that polls are reporting that really stupid people are less pleased with Mr. Trump than they used to be.

Should that make me happy?

The political questions we have to ask ourselves currently are more weird than I ever thought I would have to confront. And what’s worse is that I fear they will get even weirder than they are now.

Thoughts for October 7, 2017

I have returned from my travels.

A thing I noticed immediately once I got back was that I was being bounced and jounced on America’s amply pothole-supplied roads. I drove more than 750 miles in England and not once did I encounter such a roadway. But then I realized that’s because we’re rich and they’re poor, and so I was thereby made proud to be an American.

During my travels in England I saw exactly two pickup trucks. How, I asked myself, can the English get by without that basic necessity of American life? So far, I’ve reached no answer.

In any case, I had a good time. Yet travel by its very nature is tiring so I’m looking forward to relaxing for a while.

From time to time I’ll regale you with some of my journal entries from the trip.

Thoughts for September 13, 2017

On Thursday night, the 14th, Shirley and I are flying to London.

We’ll spend three nights in London at the Tavistock Hotel. Then on the morning of the 18th, we’ll go out to Heathrow, get a rental car, drive up to Market Bosworth just to the east of Lichfield, and explore Samuel Johnson country for three days. Much as I have tracked Johnson over the past years, I’ve never been to his home town. So now I’m going to rectify that mistake.

On the 21st, we’ll curve back around to the southeast, to Deal, on the coast of Kent, and for three days visit places nearby -- Canterbury, Rye, Sandwich, et cetera.

On the 24th, we’ll head west, and spend two nights on the south coast of Devon at Abbotsbury. I don’t know exactly what we’ll do there. It’s beautiful country, so it will be pleasant just to sit around. There’s a gigantic swannery nearby, but I doubt I’ll go there again. I’ve been twice before and each time had experiences with unfriendly swans. But if you have ever wished to see more swans than you ever imagined, closeup, it’s a good place to go.

Our final two nights we’ll stay at St. Just, a village on the southern coast of Cornwall, just up from Lands End. We’ve been to St. Just many times, but we’ve never spent the night there. This time we’ll have a cottage right down on the water, where we can watch the waves smashing the cliffs.

Then, on the 28th, we’ll drive back to Heathrow and come home.

I’m not taking a computer with me, so there will be no posting while I’m away. I am taking my Kindle, and I set up an e-mail account on it so that anyone who wishes can write to us. The address is jrt190724@gmail.com.

I hope nothing more horrible than usual happens in the United States while we’re away.

Thoughts for September 1, 2017

Hester Thrale (recently become Mrs. Piozzi) visiting Lyons in the fall of 1784, was strongly impressed by the good taste of the city, and emphasized how genuine taste is a matter of distinctive imagination: “It is observable that the further people advance in elegance, the less they value splendor; distinction being at last the positive thing which mortals elevated above competency naturally pant after.”

She’s right about that (though I don’t much like the metaphor “pant after”). She adds to this judgment her contempt for “the paltry distinction which riches alone can bestow.”

In the United State now we need a contemporary Hester Thrale to point out more carefully than it has been done heretofore that the current president is degrading American taste even below what it was before he became a major political player. One might say that’s far from the worst thing he’s doing, but I would argue that deplorable taste is a significant feature of all his political stances.

The driving motive of Mr. Trump’s presidency is to destroy the sense that his predecessor is a more elegant man than he is. And the more Trump tries, the more pathetically he fails. His unawareness is stupendous.

I wonder if Hester Thrale could imagine a prominent figure like Trump. Was there in the 18th century any political leader as vulgar as he? Maybe; but I can’t think of one.

Thoughts for August 26, 2017

It seems now that lots of people are not so much racists as people caught up in racial resentment. The actual distinction is not altogether clear, but quite a few commentators are making quite a point of it.  See, for example Timothy Egan in today’s New York Times: (Clink to read article)

He says, “It turns out that racial resentment was the strongest predictor of whether a voter would flip from supporting a thoughtful, intelligent Democrat to a boorish, mentally unstable Republican.”

Egan is probably onto something, but I’m not sure that making use of it is as easy as he suggests. That’s what Hillary Clinton was trying to do, and it didn’t turn out well for her.

If “racists” can be rejected outright, but “racial resentment” can’t, then it’s going to take some new style rhetoric to cozy up to the latter. I suppose I ought to want to cozy up to it, but I confess that doing it is not greatly in my heart.

Thoughts for August 23, 2017

Two thoughts which fit together more tightly than you might at first suppose:

People think the basic conflict in society now is between liberals and conservatives.
It’s not. Rather it’s between the sane and the insane. It’s just that “conservative” has
transmogrified into a word designed to make lunatics feel respectable.

In capitalism, “intelligence” is defined as the ability to cheat people and get away
with it. As long as that’s the goal, cheating will be the norm.

Thoughts for August 22, 2017

I see that David Brooks has gone radically un-American in his column this morning. Just consider what he said:

Humility is the fundamental virtue. Humility is a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself — a form of radical honesty. The more the moderate grapples with reality the more she understands how much is beyond our understanding.

How does that fit with the pontification that America is the greatest country there has ever been, and Americans are the greatest people there have ever been? Isn’t that the message we demand from our politicians? If we don’t get it, we kick them out of political life.

If we’re not the greatest, then what are we? How do you suppose the average American would answer that question? We have told ourselves that we’re great for so long, we probably can’t imagine being anything else.

The thought of merely being decent is such a pitiful goal, isn’t it?

Who cares about kindness and mercy, when greatness is in the offing?

Thoughts for August 21, 2017

The events of the past ten days compelled me to jot the following thought into my notebook (and when I say “compelled” I mean that literally).

At any point in history the surrounding atmosphere of thought, belief, and conviction about good and evil will exert gigantic influence on people’s behavior. Most people will be controlled entirely by their intellectual environment. We can rightly celebrate those who manage to rise above the prejudices of their times. But should we condemn utterly those who don’t? We need to recall that such condemnation will apply to about 99% of the human race.

Who are we to issue such a judgment? The only way you can get away with it is to dismiss the tragic features of history and view it instead as pure melodrama. History is not, primarily, a tale of good struggling against evil. It is far more a story of stupid and limited people contending with other stupid and limited people.

Thoughts for August 11, 2017

Of all the curiosities the world presents to us the most perplexing, perhaps, is what matters to people. If you started making a list you could go on virtually forever. Think of it: what kind of car one drives, what kind of shoes one owns, the particular gourmet food one relishes, how many Twitter responses one gets, how well known one is, the prestige of the organizations one is a member of, who one has been photographed with -- as I say, the list could scarcely ever be brought to an end.

I suppose it’s a fairly common experience, as one ages, to have the number of things he or she genuinely cares about to decline dramatically. That has certainly been the case with me. In fact, it seems I’m down to only four, which can be covered by the simple headings: loving, learning, the fairness and justice of the social system, and health. Nothing else counts for me much anymore, and certainly not fame, riches, power, or what the masses consider success.

Part of this comes from the increasing recognition that time -- at least time as we conceive of it now -- obliterates all things. It may well be that time will do away with not only humanity but all record of humanity. There will be nothing in the universe to testify that humanity once was. What will a politician’s fame be worth then?

Somebody could come back at me and ask, “What will your learning and loving be worth then?” My only answer would have to be, “I don’t give a damn. That ‘then’ will be outside my human radius; it won’t contain anything I can touch, or feel, or care about.”

Am I curious about it? Sure. I agree with Samuel Johnson that “curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” But curiosity is an element of learning. I want to learn as much as I can, but I’m more than ready to admit that there is much that I cannot learn. And it doesn’t bother me, seriously, that I’m limited in that way. It’s just a feature of my being.

It’s one’s being that is defined by what matters, and I suspect that we would all enhance our beings by concentrating on the things that really matter to us, and not worrying much about the things the world tells us are super important. 

©John R. Turner

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