Thoughts for February 17, 2017
This morning we went to the Roser Church book sale on Anna Maria Island. And we were surprised to see the variety of offerings there. Many were of the sort you would expect to find at a seaside resort -- mysteries and romantic novels -- but there were a goodly number from other genres. How books arrive at charity book sales is one of the great literary mysteries.
We acquired four items, paying a total of seven dollars for books whose retail price would have added up to at least a hundred and thirty. So I guess you can say we got our money’s worth.
We took home, or at least back to our motel, Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard, Charles Capper’s second volume of his biography of Margaret Fuller, Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, a joint biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, and Wendell Berry’s novel, The Memory of Old Jack.
Before noon we had already skimmed through them enough to be confident our purchase was justified. I spent a least a quarter-hour scanning photographs of Copenhagen that were included in the Kierkegaard biography. They reminded me how much our sense of that period is influenced by the drab tones early cameras produced. Did anybody ever laugh then? People must have, but you wouldn’t know it from the pictures of the times. Whenever I view them I find myself feeling sorry for those who had to endure such a dour atmosphere. I continue to wonder how we would react if time-travel could actually transport us there. We might find it brighter and fresher than we would expect. I hope that would be the case.
The feature I noticed first about Mary Gabriel’s book on the Marxes was the epigraph to the prologue, a quotation from Marx himself: “There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.” This from the man I was taught all through my youth and early adulthood was one of the great villains of history. And who taught me that? Mainly the slab-brained members of the U.S. Congress, men whose intellect was so inferior to Marx’s they couldn’t begin to imagine what he was saying. In my later years I have begun to wonder if there has ever been a population more thoroughly propagandized than my generation in the United States. And now we see sitting in the White House the product of that frantic capitalistic propaganda. I suppose you could say we deserve him for letting ourselves be duped so easily.
I haven’t had a chance to probe into Charles Clapper’s study of Margaret Fuller’s later years, but just having a new book on her reminds me of how America has tended to reject its provocative thinkers, who offered alternatives to the mistreatment of minorities and the bumptious resort to militarism whenever any seeming challenge arose. I wish her voice had been more attended to as the nation stumbled towards its greatest tragedy, one from which we have not yet recovered.
Wendell Berry has written so many books I won’t be able to read even a significant percentage of them. I might not read The Memory of Old Jack but my wife probably will. And she will tell me about it. That’s the way I’m learning more of what I can learn at this stage of my life.
So, all these books will do me good. It’s not a bad result from a visit to a church sale in a beach resort, where -- perhaps because of an arrogance I need to guard against -- I normally wouldn’t count on finding any thought-provoking books at all.
Thoughts for February 16, 2017
In the book I’m reading at the moment --Anthony Aronson’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan -- there’s considerable discussion of how we can feel at home in the world again. It’s the “again” that has been perplexing me. Have people ever felt at home in the world?
Aronson implies that the Greek thinkers of the classical period -- the time of Plato and Aristotle -- did. They were able to have a sense of being at home because they accepted the whole perceivable world as both ultimate reality and as having existed eternally. Therefore, it was natural for them to be at home in it. This, clearly, was their philosophical position. But did it translate into a psychological reality for them, or was it just an intellectual theory? I respect the importance of sound intellectual theory but I’m not sure it is always able to function as emotional assurance.
When I was a child I knew there were places where I felt securely at home. But I haven’t been able to experience that brand of totality for quite a few decades. My inability now causes me to wonder whether Plato and Aristotle felt it when they were fully mature men. Was there not that little ball of fear and threat for them that for me always seems to be lurking in the region of the stomach. I wish I had them here so I could ask them. Yet I doubt, to some degree, that they would be able to answer coherently, intelligent as they undoubtedly were.
Aronson thinks we lost the assurance of classicism’s faith in the world as our home when the logical and psychological contradictions of Christianity came to dominate the thought of Western civilization. It’s severe rejection of reason led inevitably to its own demise and to the disenchantment of the world. Now we are faced with the options of living in emptiness or of fashioning refurbished thought which can restore a sense of being grounded without having to sacrifice our confidence in reason. The latter is what he’s trying to achieve with this book.
As of yet I have little sense of how successful he might be, but what’s clear to me is that if he is to achieve anything at all in the way of restoring a sense of being at home he will have to provide for thought which encourages us to view human society as our bulwark rather than as a barrier. The purpose of society, when it’s construed sanely, is to be a friend to us all. Its motto needs to be service rather than restraint.
If there is to be any earthly home for us it has to be among people and institutions we can trust. It certainly can’t be in a war zone where the only security comes from living in a fort. No fort under siege can stand forever. Yet the concept of Fortress America is the only security our current government structure is prepared to offer us. We are being propagandized into the belief that if we wish to live as we want it will have to be through preparedness to defeat everyone around us. And the only people to be included in the term “us” are those who have piled up hordes of money. Certainly, no more than ten percent of the current inhabitants of the United States are wealthy enough to be, in any way, at home in America. And even for them it’s a pathetic solution compared to living genuinely in a true home.
Thoughts for February 6, 2017
The Super Bowl was once a football game. Now it has become something far more than that. Although a football game is still included, the whole event has become an extravaganza of celebration. And what is being celebrated?
It’s not a question easy to answer. I guess if you took it literally, you might answer, loudness. The more noise an event can generate, the grander it is considered to be. Americans are people who express significance by screaming. The louder they can scream, the bigger, the more important, the accompanying occurrence comes to be. And when the screaming generates a state of dementia, something transcendental has been achieved.
America is a nation for whom silence means virtually nothing. During silence, thought occurs, and that’s not a phenomenon given much credence among the people of the United States. Without noise, we are lost.
Another feature of the celebration is militarism. There’s lots of bowing down to people dressed in uniforms. They become demigods. They are regularly described as our very best. There’s no need to explain, in any way, what their superiority consists of. It’s self-evident. They get to march around with flags flying. What could be better than that.
A close relative to militarism is maudlin patriotism. This is a form of collective narcissism. We are great, and always have been, because we are we. What could possibly be more elevating than that? To be we constitutes the ultimate significance of history.
Then, there are the commercials. These are the best commercials of the year. How do we know? Because they cost more than any other commercials. When vast amounts of money change hands in America, then we know we are in the presence of the sacred.
A development which has become more grandiose over the past decade is the entertainment accompanying the spectacle, especially the half-time show. This has become so lengthy that the football game becomes bifurcated. Yesterday, for example, more than an hour passed between the Falcons last play of the first half and their first play of the second half. The star of the show this year was, of course, Lady Gaga. She was loud enough I suppose, and quite frenetic. That probably pleased some people. Yet I doubt her performance will be recalled as historic.
All these things, I think, we could do with less of. I would prefer the Super Bowl to be primarily an athletic contest, matching the two best teams in the National Football League. It seems to me that would be enough. Why not?
The game this year was certainly exciting. It involved the most dramatic comeback in Super Bowl history. The game went into overtime. It ended dramatically.
That’s what I would like us to remember about Super Bowl 51.
Thoughts for February 3, 2017
I am midway through David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present, which, I suppose, is a worthy book. It’s best in its reminding us of how various democratic governments behaved in confrontations with autocracies over the past century. It does, however, have an annoying feature which to some extent undermines its basic thesis.
Runciman treats democracy as though it is an unvarying governmental phenomenon with certain built-in habits which will always be present. He speaks, for example, about the things democracies are good at, such as commerce and comfort, as contrasted with habits that are not very beneficial, like narrow-mindedness and complacency.
Surely, if democracies are in any way rule by the people, they are going to vary depending on which people are doing the ruling. Will English democracy of the early twentieth century show us the same habits as American democracy a century later? One would think not because the two populations in question are bound to have different mindsets and different evaluations about what is healthy for a society.
We see such differences clearly at present. Denmark and the United States are both presumably democracies. Yet one decided decades ago that every person within its borders had to be afforded competent medical care if he got sick, whereas the other remains deadlocked in a bitter dispute about whether personal financial resources should play a major part in the quality of medical care a person can get. Surely this is one of the most fundamental questions a nation can confront. Yet if two democracies can disagree stridently about the answer, that shows us that one democracy can behave significantly different from another.
For the past sixty years, the democracy of Japan has been constitutionally bound by a ban against resorting to warfare. The country that forced that restriction on it, also a democracy, has been more ready, and eager, to use military force than any other nation on earth. Can these two be said to be essentially the same because they are both democracies?
Thomas Jefferson is famous for having pointed out that only an educated people can sustain a workable democracy. If the population of a country is no more than an ignorant rabble, democracy in it is bound to be a hideous mess.
I don’t know how you can discuss the nature of a democracy without also analyzing the character of the people that make it up.
I recognize that many reputable thinkers have tried to leave that factor out of their studies of democracy. Walter Lippmann, John Stuart Mill, George Kennan, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and Friedrich Hayek are all notable thinkers whom Runciman treats extensively without saying much of anything about what they thought about the distinctive character of nations.
That strikes me as a significant absence. I, myself, would rather know what a scholar has concluded about the character of the democracy he is studying, than what the unvarying nature of democracy is likely to cause that nation to do.
Thoughts for February 1, 2017
It is impossible, using valid evidence, to identify such things as the greatest book, the best football coach, the most valuable education program. In a universe of such dimensions as ours that ought to be self-evident. Yet there seems to be something in the human makeup that causes most of us to want to deny that obvious truth.
This impulse affects all sorts of difference of opinion, from trivial disputes about the best restaurant in town to vital arguments over the nature of the true god -- assuming there is one. The bizarre thing about it, and I think the toxic thing, is that people are not content simply to express their preferences, to say I like this particular entity better than all other entities in its category. I guess that seems, in their minds, not to elevate it enough. No, they are driven to proclaim that this thing they have singled out is objectively superior to any other of its kind. It’s as though they are declaring -- without wishing to use this language -- that God has decreed it to be the top of the pile. This thrust is essentially a religious crusade, and has scant rationality involved in it.
I said earlier I consider this to be a toxic desire. It is a mode of proclaiming that I am better than you. If I have the ability to pick out the best thing, then obviously my taste, my evaluation, my discernment rises above yours. Assertion of this sort generates more hostility than almost anything else in the world.
If you say I like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate to a person who prefers chocolate, there is no insinuation of superiority there. But if you say Beethoven is a finer musician than Johnny Cash to a Johnny Cash fan, clearly there is. And what’s the point of it? What does it gain you to tell someone that your taste is better than his?
I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are many occasions in which there is a moral duty involved in liking one thing more than another. Political contests are examples. If you think one candidate is going to do harm whereas his opponent is going to do good, then you have an obligation to say so. But you also need to make clear that it’s your judgment you’re relying on and not you as somehow having become a channel for God.
There’s another feature of the toxicity, though, that I consider even more threatening than the generation of hostility. That’s because it’s more hidden. If one declares that such and such is objectively true, he has put himself into a kind of cage. There’s no harm in this if the cage is no more than a recognition of simple reality, like how much you paid for the car you bought last week. But if it is addressed to a complex process, where a great many factors need to be taken into account, a cage of perfect conviction is not a good place to be. It cripples thought. It cuts off the possibility of discoveries. It becomes a genuine barrier to freedom.
If you “know” the United States is the grandest country on earth, you can no longer think seriously about foreign relations. If you are perfectly convinced that democracy is the only form of government that can deliver justice, then you are in danger of slipping into a brutal form of populism. If you have no doubt that “great” men and women are the makers of history, you become more likely to support a dictator. If you believe in the inevitable nobility of certain professions, then you will lose the ability to see abuse. If you believe you have pure evidence about how the mind should work, then you are less likely to understand the motives and drives of others.
I don’t think there’s any good in sticking ourselves in boxes like these. I think it makes us sadder and less sympathetic than we otherwise would be. Of course, these are just my opinions. I don’t have perfect evidence for any of them. Perhaps I am fated not to find perfect evidence anywhere. If that’s the case then, maybe, fate is always in command. But I’m not sure about that, either.
Thoughts for January 30, 2017
I wonder if it’s possible, anytime, anywhere, for a general population to gain an accurate perception of its government’s motives. Certainly, there are immense barriers to that’s happening.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is the nature of the general population itself. It is composed principally of people whose interests are far more personal than they are social. Am I going to get a raise? Can I buy the new truck I want so desperately? Can I afford a vacation in the south of France? Is my son going to be admitted to Princeton? These are the sort of questions that occupy people’s minds. Relatively few worry about whether the Department of Justice is carrying out its duties responsibly. It’s a rare person who has even a vague conception of what the Department of Justice ought to be doing. Or the Defense Department, or the Department of the Interior, or the State Department, and so on.
If the people don’t care what the government is doing -- unless it pinches directly on them -- why should government officials pay much attention to what happens in the lives of a majority of the people?
There is a field of study called the psychology of work, which if it were given the attention it deserves would tell us a good deal about what to watch for in the various departments of government. It would tell us much about the character of the people who seek to join those departments. One would have to be seriously naive to expect those who aspire to become high ranking military officers to care about the same things as those who wish to rise up in the Park Service.
It’s entirely possible for government officers to be as narrowly focused as those who work in the so-called private sector. And there’s nothing which dictates that either have to be good citizens.
The trouble is that right now in the United States there is little evidence to indicate that any large groups are concentrated intensely on the health of our national society. Most people, whether private or governmental employees, have other fish to fry.
That being the case, who is it that is going to guide us toward strong and intelligent efforts to serve the well-being of all the people? That, of course, is what politics is supposed to do. But the idea that politics is performing that way in the United States at the moment is laughable. We have lost the ability to know what real political effort is. When we think of it at all, we view it as the efforts of not very bright opportunists to squirm their way into public office. That’s certainly how the mainstream media treat it. Almost never does one see on the journalistic page or screen mention of the serious political analysts we have had in this country over the past twenty years. What percentage of Americans have heard the names of Sheldon Wolin, John Lukacs, Thomas Frank, Morris Berman, Jeffrey Sachs, or Noam Chomsky?
The idea of democracy is that the general population knows what the government is doing, and stands ready to express approval or disapproval. It is also that the functionaries of government are interested in what the people know and like. Bringing those two groups together in genuine conversation is what has to happen in legitimate democracy. If we want anything like the latter, millions of people are going to have to change their minds about what their responsibilities are.
Thoughts for January 29, 2017
Among people with the ability to think about such things there is solid agreement that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Now we have a leading psychotherapist who says there is no doubt that Mr. Trump is afflicted with “malignant narcissism,” a severe and incurable form of the disorder.
John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University has announced that “Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president. We’ve seen enough public behavior by Donald Trump now that we can make this diagnosis indisputably.”
That leaves us in a pickle, doesn’t it? What is our resort when the president is mentally ill? The most frightening feature of Dr. Gartner’s diagnosis is that malignant narcissism is incurable. Mr. Trump is not going to get better. Even if there were any chance of it, the White House is scarcely an environment for tamping down narcissism. Given the development of the imperial presidency over the past several decades, you might well say it’s a prime breeding ground for the disorder.
Probably the most dangerous aspect of Mr. Trump’s affliction is the conviction that he doesn’t need to learn anything. He already knows more than anybody else -- in the world presumably. That he has made frequent statements backing up this delusion is probably the strongest evidence that Dr. Gartner knows what he is talking about. Can any sane person conclude that anyone, regardless of his background, is beyond the need of learning and that there is nothing another human can teach him? We have heard of god-complexes before, but this seems to be one that puts any other god in a puny light.
One doesn’t need to be an expert in malignant narcissism to recognize that it forms an impenetrable barrier between a person who has it and a realistic assessment of the world. It’s similar to the wall Trump thinks he is going to build between the United States and Mexico, the difference being that malignant narcissism actually works.
The challenge now for the people of the United States is whether they are going to allow the illness of a single man to cripple the concepts on which he nation is presumably based. You’ll notice that nowhere in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence do we find the phrase, “America first.” It’s hard to imagine the contempt with which Thomas Jefferson or George Washington would have greeted such a concept.
The techniques for reigning in the effects of delusions of grandeur in the mind of the president have yet to be worked out. But the spontaneous acts of resistance that have already greeted Trump’s most bizarre presidential acts are encouraging. The language used to comment on Trump’s falsehoods has stiffened considerably, even in the mainstream media, which I feared had surrendered the ability to speak blunt truth.
So perhaps the people will wake up to where we are and decide this is no place we want to be. Yet, if the hope we can feel now is to be realized, a goodly number of people who have supported Trump and the Trumpites are going to have to recognize they don’t want narcissism as their guiding philosophy.
It’s not only Trump who is afflicted by it. The nation, too, has had it to some degree.
Thoughts for January 27, 2017
If we are to speak truthfully about the new president and his administration, we have to modify the vocabulary which comes to us from our current journalistic culture. And that, in and of itself, might be a good thing.
Journalists, for the most part, like to think of themselves as hard-nosed practical people who have no use for subtleties. Their audience, it is claimed, won’t pay attention to anything that strikes them as fancy. Maybe so, but reality is complex, and if you always try to pretend that it’s not you’ll end up failing to address what’s actually happening. There has been a great deal of that from the media over the past few decades.
The most serious consequence of this shying away from the reality of politics is the pretense that character has nothing to do with political loyalty. The truth, of course, is that character determines the nature of political grouping more than anything else.
One of Aristotle’s most provocative teachings was that not all persons can be argued into virtue. If virtuous arguments are going to be effective, the recipients of them have to have something in them, a certain character, that will allow these arguments to take hold. Otherwise they will simply be dismissed as fluff and impracticality.
It makes sense to assume that people lacking the ability to recognize virtue would form political alignments. They would push the idea that only those who look out for themselves, regardless of the effects on others, are smart and savvy. They would reject the judgment at the heart of our most telling moral philosophy that virtue is precisely the ability to feel for others as well as for ourselves.
If we consider the current political organization in the United States we see exactly that form of political party coming into power. If we were honest we could admit that we always have an anti-virtue party contending for power. But, of course, we are not honest with ourselves. We never have been.
Those who are opposed to the policies and the nature of the new administration need to start using terms relating to virtue more frequently than we’ve been in the habit of doing, and far more frequently than our journalists do.
In particular, we need to start talking about fairness, and to point out as emphatically as we can that if one has no love of justice he has no ability to contribute to a healthy society. He will always be tearing down the very conditions that give him a chance to enter noble associations with others. He will, therefore, be constantly cheap. He will have no kindness towards which others can gravitate. He will be, in essence, alone.
From the dawn of Western civilization our strongest thinkers have told us that the good man, the great, man, is he who gives, not he who is striving always to take away.
We now have a president who brags incessantly about outdoing other people, about entering into negotiations with them in such a way that they will lose and he will win. He appears to have no concern about whether the outcome will be fair. It could be that the concept of fairness doesn’t come into his mind.
It may be that the reason many people fail to think about fairness is that they never hear it mentioned. It’s not an element of their intellectual universe. But I suspect that there is somewhere in their psyches an ability to respond if they were given a chance. And this chance is what a revived and revisionary vocabulary might bring into being. It’s a chance we ought not let slip through our fingers.
Thoughts for January 25, 2017
Many Americans are now facing a challenge they have not had to face heretofore. What does it mean to discover that you are not living in a basically just democratic republic but rather in a power-obsessed empire whose behavior is frequently unjust and vicious? What does it mean that the American nation has little to do with the well-being of the people who inhabit it and mostly to do with the ambitions of the power clots that have taken control of its institutions?
David Brooks yesterday published one of his typically flaccid columns in which he argued that the extensive marches on the day following Trump’s inauguration had little to do with the nation’s basic problems but were concentrated on the relatively insignificant issues of “identity politics” -- such as climate change. Brooks has a genius for misperceiving what’s going on and this was perhaps his most flatulent misperception. The marches on Saturday were directly concerned with the most fundamental question we have ever had to address. How do we get our democratic republic back from the money-crazed imperialists? Brooks doesn’t much care. He seems happy enough with capitalist imperialism. But it’s becoming clear that a majority of Americans do care. They want a more just society than what we have now. But the belatedness of their recognition of how the nation’s power is being used means they haven’t yet formulated a coherent plan for restoring what they innocently thought they had.
The most serious issue in the nation’s existence is whether they can summon the staying power to cast imperialism aside and install a government directed towards the health of the entire society. I wish I could attest to perfect faith in them but the truth is I don’t know whether they can or not. I do know it won’t be easy.
Certain changes will be required, the first, perhaps, escaping the naiveté about the nation’s past that has been pushed on them by jingo propagandists. The United States has never been what we are in the habit of telling ourselves it was. Since the beginning, there have been powerful strains of bigotry and vicious behavior toward minorities. These have woven themselves into the nation’s character. They remain at the foundation of our tolerance for -- and even celebration of -- plutocratic inequality. The notion that there are lots of people who don’t deserve anything, not even simple justice, is a genuine element of the nation’s personality. We have to get rid of it if we actually want to achieve the decency that people assembled to support last Saturday. We can’t have the distribution of wealth we have now and expect also to have a nation dedicated to justice. The two systems can’t live side by side. It’s impossible.
This is not abstract philosophizing. This is the reality we face. A move away from inequality is required for a move towards fairness. That’s a simple enough proposition, but it’s not one most Americans have even begun to think about.
There are many other changes we have to establish in our minds if we seriously mean to shift our country towards justice. Who has the right to medical care? Everybody or just a few? What kind of prison sentences should characterize our criminal justice system? Does it make sense that ours are far more severe than those of other Western countries? How should we spend our public resources? Is it wise to lay out more for killing poor people in Afghanistan than for curing cancer here at home? Which is more to be desired, pure air or extreme profits?
These are not questions you should merely notice in the news every month or so. These are questions that all of us should have in our minds every day. We can’t have a noble nation unless we have citizens with noble habits. And the primary habits of civic virtue are to know what your government is doing and to work to change what you don’t like, installing something finer in its place.
If we can make these changes in our minds, we can have a just democratic republic. If we can’t, we’ll continue down the slope we find ourselves on now.
Thoughts for January 24, 2017
We need an English word for a person who can’t recognize simple fact. It has become increasingly obvious that there are such persons and that many of them gravitate towards politics, an arena in which distorting and denying the truth has become a common tactic in electoral success.
I suppose people have always tended to believe what they want to believe. Yet there was until recently in American political discourse a recognition that one was obliged to acknowledge obvious and discernible fact, such as the number of people in a room, or a field, or what someone said clearly a week ago. Now that fundamental duty of honesty is under assault. If you don’t like the number of people who showed up in a certain space, as determined by counting them, then you simply pick another number you find more agreeable and announce it as the official tally, regardless of clear-cut contravening evidence. And if you can get your alternative number repeated enough, and written down in enough newspapers, it becomes the authorized number to be entered into the tables of history.
The curious thing that occurred in the past decade, or so, is that the people who manufacture the official number gradually lost the ability to distinguish between their construction and the number we used to call fact. And, then, what’s even more curious is that they lost the ability to imagine what might be meant by such a distinction. These are the people I think we need a new word for.
Some of you may have seen the interview Chuck Todd of NBC did with Kellyanne Conway, the Trump advisor and former campaign manager, about why the administration would send Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, out to push an obvious falsehood about the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. This was the occasion when Ms. Conway introduced the now famous new metaphor, “alternative facts.”
I suppose Ms. Conway might have known what was going on, and that she was aware Spicer had been directed to deal in falsehood. But something about the expression on her face made me wonder. It was robotic. It was as though she had so thoroughly internalized what the administration wanted the public to believe about the crowd at the inauguration that any other story based on truth had become impossible for her to conceive. She knew what she wished people to believe and anything else was simply not to be thought about. It had to be “disappeared” as we say now.
Ms. Conway might be seen as a valid candidate for the eponymous source of the word I’m seeking. But to call such truth-deprived people “conways” would be slandering the many more Conways who support the traditional notion of truth and take pride in standing up for it.
If there is such a word in the English vocabulary already, which I’m ignorant of, please let me know it.
Thoughts for January 21, 2017
Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency, I find I’m more disheartened than I thought I was going to be. I had anticipated a sense of bleakness but nothing quite as empty and cold as I felt this morning.
For years now I have observed that the United States, as my political home, was being disassembled. But I kept thinking -- or at least hoping -- that something would happen to turn the process around. There were so many intelligent books delineating the horror of current developments that I thought the word was bound to spread. There were Naomi Klein, Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, Morris Berman, Jane Mayer, Michael Glennon, Thomas Frank, Jason Hirthler, Alan Weisman, Anatol Lieven, Langdon Winner, Mike Lofgren, Godfrey Hodgson, and dozens of others like them -- Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald and on and on and on. They were all perfectly clear; they all backed their theses with ample evidence. How could the American populace remain unaware of what was happening? But they did remain unaware because they don’t read books. They don’t read anything with analytical heft.
I honestly don’t know how they get their sense of what’s occurring in the world. But their sources must be a strange conglomerate in order for them to decide to place Donald Trump in the White House. What is it that they expect him to do that will be good for them?
A friend recommended to me Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land as a means of grasping why the people who support everything I find sickening (and I mean that literally) behave as they do, even when it harms their own interests. Hochschild is a California sociologist who decided spend several years in Louisiana in order to figure out why the people there vote as they do. I haven’t been able to read the book yet, but I have taken in several reviews, and yesterday in my local bookshop I picked up a copy and read a dozen pages or so. Nothing I found in it surprised me. The people she describes are pretty much like the people I grew up amongst. They are, as Hochschild said, “likable as people.” But being likable doesn’t adequately explain toxic political decisions. They live, says Hochschild, on “the other side of the empathy wall.” Yeah. I guess so. But what can we do about that? They can be as likable as they wish, but if they still support Donald Trump in the destruction of the democratic republic I thought was my home, what good does their likability do me? When it comes down to the actuality of policy, what they support will be just as bad as if they were monsters with blood dripping from their fangs. All the sweet hellos and biscuits and gravy in the world won’t change that. In a way, I would rather be done in by foreign storm troopers than I would by neighborly people who may well root for the same football team I do.
The women’s march today in Montpelier drew the largest crowd to the capitol grounds we’ve had for the past forty years. That was comforting. To know you live among people who share your concepts of decency casts a small beam of light into this dark day. But the surrounding gloom persists.
I hope it doesn’t have the power it seems to have at the moment. The future will have to tell us about that. It certainly will show us the price of recovering what we once thought was assured by our history. It seems to be the case that history assures nothing.
©John R. Turner
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