Thoughts for March 14, 2017
I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus this afternoon. I was on the verge of saying it’s a book I would recommend to anyone, until a second thought reminded me that the concepts it treats might be displeasing to some. It’s a very readable book but it speculates about future developments that might get some people out of sorts. If a text is not going to do anything but cause a person to become disgruntled, if there’s no chance of his learning anything from it, what’s the use of his taking it up?
As science solves ever more complicated problems we recognize that the process it employs is called an algorithm, which means simply a step by step problem-solving procedure. There is no limit to the number of algorithms that can be linked together, and therefore no limit to the complexity of problems they can address. As we face that truth, we also come to see that human beings are mainly algorithms which involve a great many steps in trying to solve the problems of life. Humans differ from computers not in their use of intelligence but in their possession of a mental construct we call consciousness. That means humans think about themselves in addition to the external problems they try to solve. Consciousness is said to provide the unique value of human life. It’s what makes humans more important than anything else. But who says so? Just humans. It’s unlikely that a non-conscious algorithm would independently arrive at such a conclusion.
It’s this non-caring of most algorithms that fuels Harari’s questions about what’s likely to happen in the remainder of the 21st century. Where are humans going to be after another eighty years have passed? It seems pretty clear we can’t stay where we are now.
Harari warns us that, “Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.”
In other words, we’ve got to get smarter faster than we ever have before in history. But what if in this attempt to get smarter we modify ourselves so radically that we would no longer be recognized as humans by people of the 20th century? This is the sort of question Harari forces us to think about. He doesn’t actually predict anything. He just lays out possibilities. And then he leaves us with three questions which, if one thinks about seriously, are likely to cause nervous tingles up and down the spine.
1. Are organisms just algorithms, and is life just data processing?
2. What is more valuable, intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly
intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
Thoughts for March 13, 2017
The timidity of the so-called mainstream media is a subject which frustrates growing numbers of readers who wish to see the public awakened to the reality of our national political situation. Most people will admit that outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS, CNN, and CBS provide some journalistic service. They make an effort to report accurately and to cover the stories that leading political figures are discussing. But their analysis of the consequences flowing from standard operating procedures is decidedly tepid. The Pentagon and the C.I.A., for example, may be behaving murderously in Syria. But you will not see the New York Times using that adverb. That would be, according to the leading media, non-objective. Yet there is nothing non-objective about the numbers of bodies piling up in the street of Aleppo. Somebody is responsible for them.
I came on a term this morning from Henry Giroux, writing for CounterPunch, which may get at the problem. He speaks of “the disimagination machinery of the mainstream media.” It’s an interesting charge which doubtless does carry some probity. It would be hard to affirm that our largest news outlets employ a tone that insists on activating the imagination. Reading the Times is not going to help you sense the odors rising from the bodies lying in the streets of Aleppo. And until you do have some sense of that reality you’re not going to feel the actuality of the Syrian civil war.
Anybody who assisted in its origin, including leaders of the U.S. government, bears some responsibility for the horrors in the streets of major Middle Eastern cities. But the New York Times is not going to do much to push you towards seeing, or feeling, yourself in the midst of such business. And unless you can do that, can you honestly say you understand what’s going on? Is it the duty of journalism to enable you take in the actuality of the world?
No one who reads the Times honestly can testify that it steadily activates the imagination. And unless the imagination is in play can there be much accurate perception? If you are told the number of violent deaths in Syria last month and respond with a “Ho Hum,” how much reality has pervaded your mind? Do the Times and like media have any responsibility for conveying it? And if they don’t what are they responsible for? That’s what Giroux’s “disimagination machinery of the mainstream media” addresses. I think it’s worth some of our attention.
Thoughts for March 10, 2017
The dominant political struggle in the world now -- though you wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream media in the United States -- is between two sets of oligarchs. The Western set is composed of U.S. and European based global corporations allied with the “Deep State” in America, which means the leaders of the Department of Defense, the State Department, the National Intelligence Agencies, the defense industry, and the energy consortium. The Russian set is headed by Vladimir Putin and an assortment of extremely wealthy Russian criminals who pretty much do Putin’s bidding.
If you want to know which of these associations is morally superior, you are asking a question which can’t be answered. Neither of them is going to much good for the people who live on Liberty Street in Montpelier, or on the thousands of other American avenues that pretty much resemble Liberty Street.
You might say that the Western set will employ rhetoric more agreeable to the folks on Liberty Street. But that rhetoric will matter little to the health and well-being of the Liberty Streeters or of 95% of other Americans.
The rich and powerful people are trying to carve up the world among themselves and to remain indifferent to the needs of everybody else. I suppose you could argue that things are no different now than they have ever been. It’s just that we’re now nearing the end of a period when the headlines bloviated that democratic progress was our most intense political concern. Now that it’s very hard to escape the truth that our political leaders in the United States and Russia -- and probably almost everywhere else -- care almost nothing about democratic process and have stopped believing in its possibility, the realization is especially disheartening.
We ask ourselves who we can trust, and the answer seems to be, nobody.
We have been in the habit of thinking that our government is on our side, protecting us against other, hostile governments. That is doubtless the result of a relentless propaganda campaign to keep us in line. But the idea of our government existing primarily to protect us has become an exceedingly naive concept. If our government cares virtually nothing about protecting us from cancer, what evidence is there for thinking it really is dedicated to protecting us against other mortal dangers? After all, if we look at what really hurts us, the things we spend comparatively little money preventing loom far more threateningly than the dangers we are presumably holding off with our enormous Pentagon expenditures. Think about it. Is there any danger you genuinely fear that could actually be thwarted by a gigantic airplane loaded with nuclear bombs? And yet the taxes you pay to keep such planes armed and flying are gigantic.
The efforts our government makes in the name of defense provide little that staves off dangers that are real. And the curious thing is that almost everybody knows it. But these activities have become a habit that few actually analyze. We cheer when war planes fly over football games, and that’s about it. In fact, the function they provide at football games is probably the most significant thing they do.
So here we are, living with enormous power clots we pay for, which are directly engaged in providing their high-ranking officials with extremely cushy lives. We complain all the time that we are being cheated while we continue to support “our” oligarchs against “their” oligarchs. And this we generally call patriotism, and cheer as it devours our sustenance.
Thoughts for March 9, 2017
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has been gaining quite a bit of attention for his recently published book, Tyranny. Its basic thesis is that post-truth is very likely to be pre-fascist. He warns that conditions can change very fast when a population comes to accept falsehood as ordinary political strategy. In a recent interview with Steven Rosenfeld of Alternet, Snyder said that we are facing a real crisis in the United States, and a very real moment of choice. He also warned that the possibilities are much darker than Americans are used to considering.
This suggests to me that we need to stop taking Donald Trump’s falsehoods as mere political comedy or buffoonery. Rather, we have to get clear in our minds what kind of liars Trump and some of the figures in his inner circle are. It is not just that they are opportunists who are willing to lie whenever they think it will serve their interests. That would be bad enough. But what we are faced with now is a president who cannot stop lying. His entire life has programmed him to lie whenever he opens his mouth. It is as Trump biographer David Cay Johnson says: Trump lies as easily as you and I breathe.
So, unless we are faced with unusual evidence to the contrary we should assume that whatever Trump tells us is not true. We should understand that whenever we lean towards believing what he says we are on the verge of being duped.
People, in their discouragement, often ask, what can we do? This is what we can do. We can try in every way we can think of to make sure that greater and greater portions of the U.S. population greet anything Trump utters with pure skepticism. It should become as hard for us to believe Trump as it is to believe someone who calls us on the phone to tell us we have just inherited a million dollars in Nigeria. The chances of one being true are about the same as the other.
A president who is believed by no more than a quarter of the adult population will find it hard to take us down a primrose path in order to swell his already bloated ego.
What we have to fear from Donald Trump are his basic motives. And his basic motives are addressed solely to himself. They have virtually nothing to do with either the government or the people of the United States. He wants only to pile up money for himself and to be worshipped by cheering crowds. He has shown that repeatedly since he began to talk about entering politics. I doubt you could find one person out of a randomly selected million who could approach Trump in his egomaniacal impulses.
We all need to learn that if we fall to thinking Trump is doing anything for our benefit we are engaged in self-delusion. He can’t imagine doing such a thing. What we ought to remember first about Trump is the fantastically narrow scope of his imagination.
I suppose you could say that in some sense anybody who manages to put himself in the White House is bound to be peculiar. And peculiarity is not necessarily a bad thing. But we have never before had a president as peculiar as Trump. And when you turn your affairs over to someone as eerie as he is, there’s no rational excuse for thinking you’re going to benefit from it.
We are in the habit of talking about good men and bad men. But those are not terms pertinent to Trump. I doubt we have every had anyone in public life with less free will than he possesses. He can’t select a course to follow from the normal possibilities of political life. All he is capable of doing is trying to inflate himself. We shouldn’t wish to punish him. We just have to find ways to protect ourselves against him.
Thoughts for March 5, 2017
We see considerable commentary lately informing us that the dupes of America are also its heart, and soul, and backbone. Why this is -- or should be -- the case is hard to fathom.
Roger Cohen had a column in the Times yesterday which verged in that direction while not actually taking it up. It concentrated on Scott County, Indiana, which Cohen presents as a kind of foreign territory for those who live in the Northeast, or California, or anywhere so non-heartlandish as to have voted for Hillary Clinton in the past election. Cohen advises that what we need is a national service program, so the Trump people and the Clinton people can get to know one another better, and the country can be unified again.
Has the country ever been unified, except perhaps during a major war? Would it be a good thing if it were? Why?
If we snobs of the Northeast were ever really to listen to men like Sheriff Dan McClain of Scott County, or Mayor Bill Graham of Scottsburg, would we come to realize how wrong we have been about some things, or how right Bill Graham is to announce, “I like Donald Trump, he’s a brilliant man”?
Roger Cohen is mistaken in assuming that people from one section are missing the substance of what people from another section are saying. I don’t think we’re missing much at all. I’ve talked to dozens of men like Bill Graham. I’ve listened to them for hours. I’ve sat round dinner tables with them. They seldom make any sense where politics or social policy is concerned. Bill Graham can like anyone he wishes, of course, but Donald Trump is not a brilliant man. Neither can Donald Trump do things Bill Graham says he can do. He can’t, for example, assist in making sure that God is not run out of the country. If God is who Bill Graham thinks he is, he can’t be run out of anywhere he wishes to stay. If you’re voting for somebody who you think can help God do what he can’t do by himself, both your politics and your theology are terribly confused.
Donald Trump is not going to do anything for the people of Scott County. Their lives are not going to get better because he’s the president. In truth, they’re going to get worse. I don’t guess that matters though, so far as voting is concerned. Scott County voted not out of a desire to make things better. They voted to express their resentment. They voted as they did because they dislike people like me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that. Should I go immolate myself?
Our problem in America is not that we don’t understand one another. Our problem is that we don’t understand what’s going on in the world. And we’re not trying very hard to find out. We have lost the conviction that knowledge is a means for making our lives more healthy and meaningful. Most of us don’t work very hard to acquire it. Most of us go for years without reading a serious book. And if we live in Scott County or in one of the hundreds of counties resembling it spread all across the land we are less likely to read one than if we lived in a town or city with at least one bookstore.
Donald Trump lies more incessantly than any other man who has occupied the White House. The people who support him care little for truthful behavior. To see them as the heart and soul of America is not an exercise of unity. It’s an exercise of national degradation. I am not saying that the people of all the Scott counties across the land lack all virtue. They don’t. But they are not good at recognizing social health. So idolizing them is not likely to lead us to a finer nation.
Thoughts for March 4, 2017
I’ve been on a two and half week furlough from my web site, mainly because I’ve been on a long driving tour to the southeastern part of the United States. No matter how much I tell myself that I won’t let traveling disrupt my reading and writing schedule, it turns out that it does. But now I’m home and have a few ideas rattling around in my head.
One has to do with the psychological disruption caused by the growing realization that we -- and by “we” I mean the people of the United States -- are moving ever closer to becoming a kleptocracy. “Kleptocracy” means a government directed by criminals.
It is widely believed that Russia is a kleptocracy headed by one man who controls a state-sponsored ring of oligarchic criminals. These men have their billions because they carry out Vladimir Putin’s orders. If they show signs of rebellion they are not only in danger of losing their wealth; they are also in danger of losing their lives. Consequently, they are fairly ruthless in what they are willing to do.
It becomes ever-more clear that many high-ranking members of the Trump administration, and Trump himself, have complicated connections with these Russian oligarchs, which give them some leverage in influencing the behavior of the U.S. government.
Consider, for example, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the so-called Russian fertilizer king. He recently bought a Florida mansion from Donald Trump for which he paid one hundred million dollars, one of the most expensive real estate transactions ever made in the United States. Just a few years earlier Trump had acquired the house for only forty million dollars. Whenever Trump mentions the sale he suggests it came about because of his extraordinary skill in deal-making. In other words, he was shrewd enough to dupe Rybolovlev. Maybe. But the thought is also occurring to many observers that Rybolovlev got something more than a house for his hundred million. He already owns gigantic houses in many parts of the world. Why did he want one in Palm Beach? We don’t know the answer to that right now. But when one of the world’s astute businessmen shells out twice as much for a house as he would have needed to for something comparable, it’s not overly cynical to suspect that something more than a real estate transaction occurred.
Trump seems to admire Putin and the way he governs Russia. Does he also envy him? Does he lust for the same powers in the United States that Putin has in Russia? And if he does, what sort of deals would he make to get them?
There’s a sense of sleaze about all this that gives many Americans the creeps. I can’t be certain about this but I suspect that as more details about Trump’s Russian dealings become evident, a sense of public nausea will become more intense. We will feel an ever-greater sickness about what we have done to ourselves.
There’s no doubt the Russian story will continue building. There are huge opportunities for journalists to construct careers out of this kind of material. The Trump people will never be free of new revelations that he and his circle will do anything, regardless of its legality, to pile up money and power. They have all been doing this now for quite a while. Why should they change when they can wield governmental power? This is the driving ambition of kleptocracy.
Perhaps the American people have the appetite to swallow this brand of criminality. But I’m fairly sure a lot of us will develop nastily upset stomachs before our Trump adventure has passed into history.
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.
©John R. Turner
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