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John R. Turner
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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.


Thoughts for May 15, 2017

I’ve grown weary of repeated, so-called scientific, studies which point out that people don’t enjoy hearing opinions different from their own. The studies are probably accurate in that basic finding, but so what?

The latest example of this I’ve seen is a piece by Brian Resnick in Vox, titled “Motivated Ignorance Is Ruining Our Political Discourse.” It goes to great lengths to show that most people don’t enjoy hearing arguments they find odious, but there’s nothing in the essay to indicate that if they did listen to such arguments it would make our political discourse more healthy. That appears simply to be taken for granted and not in need of any evidence at all.

The gigantic problem with Resnick’s thesis is that it’s based on the assumption that people mainly differ over what’s accurate. My experience tells me that’s seldom the principal topic of an argument. People oppose one another most often on the basis of different wants. Let’s say you were a citizen of Germany in 1937 and you were confronting the argument between those who said all the Jews should be killed and those who said they shouldn’t. It was accurate that one side wanted one thing and the other side wanted something dramatically different. But accuracy offered no means of resolving the argument. What might the people who didn’t want to kill all the Jews have derived from listening carefully to those who did?

Suppose two groups were arguing about the worthiness of a social proposal. And suppose also that one of the groups lied virtually all the time whereas the other tried reasonably to tell the truth. If the truth-tellers listened, and listened, and listened to the lies of the other side, how would digesting those lies help the truth-tellers engage in useful political discourse with the liars?

There seems to be fixed in the minds of quite a few politically naive social scientists -- mainly psychologists -- the notion that if people would just listen patiently to the arguments of their opponents they would reach some sort of agreement. I know of no evidence to support such a proposition. That’s because people are not usually arguing over what’s right (even though they claim that’s what they’re doing); they’re arguing over who they are. Political discourse may occasionally cause a person to change his mind. But that’s because he decides he wishes to be somebody different from who he has been. And that kind of decision is rare.

It would be pleasant, of course, if political differences could be resolved by more attentive listening. But the sad truth is that if each side fully understood what their opponents were saying, their enmity would be intensified rather than lessened. That’s certainly true about the people in the United States right now who consider themselves Republicans and those who identify as Democrats.

If political issues could be settled by greater courtesy -- the Charlie Rose approach as some of my friends call it -- the country would not be divided as bitterly as it is now. Our conflicts in the United States at the moment are about basic concepts of what it means to be fully human. And, consequently, they’re not going to disappear any time soon.


Thoughts for May 14, 2017

The flow of columns and essays depicting Donald Trump as a mean-spirited, egotistical ignoramus has reached an epic volume. There are so many such commentaries that their effect can never be erased. Trump will be known as he’s known now as long as history exists.

This is fair and accurate enough but it carries with it the danger that Trump might become the scapegoat for all of our problems. And that would not be fair. No single person can be solely responsible for the illness affecting American society at the moment. When a nation as large as the United States becomes as sick as we are it takes millions to cause it. In our case, at least 150 million adults have brought this malady upon us. And how did they do it? They did it primarily through mental laziness. The American people have become one of the most slack-minded populations of history.

There will be innumerable analyses over the coming half-century about why this happened. Some will be simplistic; some will be extremely complex. They will be more, or less, accurate. But I doubt that any of them can exclude the effect of self-praise. Self-praise is in almost any situation a vulgar trait, but when an entire nation becomes caught up in it to the degree we have, it becomes hideously toxic.

Take the concept of American exceptionalism as it has been wildly promoted by both pundits and politicians over the past four or five decades. It has been seen, more or less, as a force of nature. It just happened that Americans are better, more noble, more devoted to the prime virtues than anybody else. Nobody needed to defend this proposition with evidence. It just was, and could not be denied any more than the truth of religious faith can be denied. In fact, it became the same thing as religious faith.

What happens when a group of people comes to believe they are the best just by the nature of things? Striving to be the best becomes senseless. Why expend energy on acquiring something that is yours by decree? Why not just spend your life trying to get a more powerful, more fancy car -- or something comparable. We all have been told that the American Dream is to get stuff. That’s what we’re all about.

To know what’s happening in the world requires mental effort. Most Americans don’t feel they have any duty to do that. Nor do they feel any duty to ask themselves what would be the most just society and how we might move toward it. In fact, doing that has become a cause for derision. People who try to learn things are just snooty elitists. Or at least that’s how they’re seen by persons who don’t think they have to learn anything in order to justify themselves or make a contribution to society.

It remains true that millions of Americans are thoughtful, concerned citizens who charge themselves with the duty to learn, and to apply their learning in helpful, even merciful, ways. Our problem, though, is that they’re outnumbered by those who don’t think they have to do anything -- outside of acquiring enough money to be comfortable -- in order to be great. They just tell themselves they’re great, and that’s all they think they need.

A bad condition which has been brought about by tens of millions of people is not going to be cured overnight. It will take many years before we Americans can raise ourselves even to normal political responsibility. But we had better start that process right away if any of us expect, ever, to see it happen.


Thoughts for May 12, 2017

The big question now is how crazy does Donald Trump have to get before he completely freaks out the whole country.

Certain of his personal features are firmly established in the public mind. He is an ignoramus. He is a narcissistic sociopath. He lies incessantly. He doesn’t remember what he says from one day to the next. He has the attention span of a three-year-old. One of my favorite assessments came from New York Times reader “wp” who said that Trump is “a morally arrested cultural clod and dimwit.”

All this is pretty scathing, but it’s not yet enough to loosen his hold on the presidency. We need to ask ourselves what might.

The thing Trump seems to fear most is ironclad evidence that he and his campaign conspired with the Russian government and Russian oligarchic organizations to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Several U.S. security agencies have told us there’s no doubt that the Russians interfered seriously in the presidential election. But why did they do it? What were they trying to accomplish? Nobody has yet been willing to say they had a deal with the Trump campaign, though many have said that’s the only logical inference to draw from the existing evidence.

Will conclusive evidence appear? It seems that no persons know right now, or, if they do, they have reason to keep it secret.

Meanwhile the spirit of the American people is withering. They get up every day to headlines that make them feel sicker and sicker. The most discouraging thing is that nothing can resolve this spiritual malaise quickly. If there is to be a cure, it will take years, and perhaps decades. Do we have enough people in this country to labor on for year after year to rescue the nation from the filth and corruption it has sunk into? That’s really the question nobody can answer.

This is not just one of the ordinary dips in national history. This is a crisis that might relegate the country to pure nastiness for at least the lifetime of anyone now alive. I certainly hope that’s not the case. I hope we can find something unexpected to restore a sense of decency. The best possibility I can think of at the moment is a state-led campaign to thwart the intentions of a Republican-dominated national government. That’s not to say we should give up trying to rescue the national government from Republican domination. That has to go forward. But it could be given vital support if, say, New York and California, could take the lead in establishing strong government support systems that would refute the Republican nonsense that our only hope lies in a completely unregulated market and consequent rule by billionaires. If for example those two states -- each of which is larger than many nations -- could set up single-payer health systems that showed the people what is possible, it would be a compelling message the rest of the nation would have a hard time ignoring.

It would be a grand irony if states’ rights, which has been used to argue for the most regressive, punitive policies, would emerge as a trigger for a more humane nation. But then, many have said irony is the rule of history, and perhaps it may work to help us forget that we once had to get up every morning to confront Donald Trump’s snarling face.


Thoughts for May 10, 2017

Yesterday, in an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced that James Comey was certainly not fired because he had been mean to Hillary Clinton. It was a judgment that has been almost universally affirmed over the past twenty-four hours. And since that was the reason given by Donald Trump and his lackeys, it solidifies beyond dissolution Mr. Trump’s reputation as a monumental liar. This is an opinion that’s not going away. It’s far beyond being set in stone. It is established in the public mind beyond any possibility of public forgetting.

Of course, you could say it had already been established. And perhaps it had. But Trump’s nonsensical falsehood about his reason for getting rid of Comey is now a non-erasable fact of history. He has transformed Comey from a somewhat dippy public official into a figure who will always inhabit the historical annals. Comey, today, ought to be sending Trump streams of gratitude, though he’s probably too short-sighted to understand why.

The interesting question now is how long Trump’s indelible reputation as a monumental liar, indeed as a man who is far more likely to utter a falsehood than to tell the truth, will take to wear his presidency down to pure farce, without any ability to promote serious policy. Some will say he’ll keep right on lying as he has in the past. And he probably will. But from now on he will be lying as the most prominently established liar of history. And that will make a difference in how people respond to everything he says. He has been a joke for a considerable while. But now he’s in the running to be solidified as the biggest joke of all time. There is no way he can step outside the portrait of a ridiculous clown. People will know that whenever he’s mentioned, or whenever a photograph of him appears, they have to be ready to laugh.

I guess, in a way, it’s a considerable achievement, but it’s one only a seriously demented person would embrace. Trump, though, won’t embrace it. He’s not quite that crazy. He will keep on trying to refute it, and that will make him even more comic than he is already.


Thoughts for May 9, 2017

Believe it or not, I watched the entire hearing the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism conducted yesterday with James Clapper and Sally Yates. I can’t say it was enjoyable, or even conducive to sanity. But I guess I did learn a few things from it.

One was a reinforcement of a conclusion I reached several years ago that to have any sort of personal relationship with an average national politician would be thoroughly unpleasant. I can’t recommend spending social time with these guys. The reason is there is no way to know if they are speaking sincerely or honestly. Their experience has trained them to be so damned shifty you can never feel comfortable listening to what they have to say. You might go so far as to conclude that being a major national politician violates the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Nobody ought to have to undergo the process of being turned into who these guys have become. Nobody. Nor do I think that the process supports effective government in any way. It’s something so cankered that it can only be accurately described as diseased.

The hearing was supposed to bring forth what James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, and Sally Yates, former acting Attorney General of the United States, knew about Russian interference in the most recent U.S. presidential election. We learned that they did think the Russians interfered, and interfered seriously. Mr. Clapper went so far as to say that Russian actions had threatened the foundation of American democracy. But nobody could say how, or why. In fact, there was virtually no questioning about that. The Senators didn’t seem to care, or, if they did, they were terrified of explaining why.

Think of it: here we have a hearing which was widely covered by the media, in which it was asserted that a foreign government had interfered with U. S. government processes in such a way as to threaten American democracy, and yet nobody seemed to have the slightest interest in what the foreign government was trying to accomplish. Does that make any sense?

It was easy enough to infer that the Russians were trying to get one candidate elected rather than the other. Why else would they interfere?

On the few occasions when there was a hint of asking Mr.Clapper or Ms. Yates what either thought the Russians were up to, they squirmed away from the question by explaining that an answer might reveal classified information. It was seemingly taken for granted that revealing any classified information would be worse than undermining the foundations of American democracy. This indicates a kind of worship that exceeds the worst features of religious fanaticism. I don’t know what else to call it but weird.

The media have now determined that Ms. Yates was the great hero of the hearing. I have no quarrel with that judgment if what we’re doing is comparing her with everybody else who took part in the process, and particularly if we’re comparing her with Republican buffoons like John Kennedy of Louisiana and Ted Cruz of Texas. She was straightforward and clear in her answers, was pretty obviously being honest, and perhaps, most importantly, had developed the ability to speak in coherent sentences. Yet, regardless of her good qualities, the hearing as a process of effective government was farcical. There was no thrust to find out what the Russian motives were, which candidate they were supporting, or why they preferred one over the other.

Wouldn’t you think we would want to know that in order to think sensibly about our immediate future? But if you do, you can’t rely on your Senators to give you much help in the effort.


Thoughts for May 6, 2017

In the New York Times this morning we have two very different views of France, one from long-time contributor Paul Krugman, and the other from the newest columnist, Bret Stephens, recently arrived from the Wall Street Journal.

In Stephens’ perspective France is falling apart, primarily because it distributes its wealth too equally. This is the basic capitalist outlook. A country is doing well economically only when its money exists in gigantic piles controlled by a small number of individuals. There need be no evidence behind this opinion because it exists as a form of religious faith. What might be evidence for non-capitalists, such as that a considerable percentage of the people of a country are suffering from a miserable standard of living doesn’t figure with capitalists. They don’t care what’s happening to most of the people. They care only for people who sit atop piles of money. In fact, for them, those are the only people who figure as being genuinely human.

A capitalist, for example, will always be for no minimum income, and if he can’t get that, he will be for the lesser of two proposed figures, regardless of what the lesser will do to the people who receive it.

We need, always, to remember John Maynard Keynes’ assessment: “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.” Keynes was no dummy.

The Times has defended adding Stephens to their editorial staff because he will supply readers with the views of a certain “side.” But the Times defenders say almost nothing about what that side is. If they were to note that Stephens’ side thinks that 2% of the people should own 75% of the wealth, he would be presented to the readers in a different light than what he has been.

The people in France who have low salaries get too much of the national wealth, in Stephens’ view, because they receive “benefits” supplied by the government. This is bad and makes France a mess. It seems to be the case that you can take the boy out of the Wall Street Journal but you can’t take the Journal’s belief structures out of the boy.

Paul Krugman says that France has some economic difficulties that need to be addressed, but he tells us that “in short, France is hardly a utopia, but by most standards it is offering its citizens a fairly decent life.” And furthermore, it is offering its citizens a better life than the United States is offering most Americans. In France, the fundamental needs of life are pretty well assured, including medical care when its needed. In the U.S., getting the fundamental needs is pretty much of a crap shoot.

All of us can decide whether we think it’s more important for rich people to be monumentally rich, or for all people to receive the basic needs of life. Where you stand on that question tells us pretty much who you are. But, regardless of where you stand, we all have to face the truth that this question, and the answer we give to it, will determine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will be presented with over the next half-century. 



 
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