Thoughts for February 20, 2018
I know of no reputable thinker who continues to assert the reality of American democracy. The inevitability of its decay was first laid out for me more than a decade ago by Chalmers Johnson and Morris Berman, each of whom produced a trilogy of books pointing to American decline. Berman’s final effort in 2014, was titled conclusively, Why America Failed -- no doubt left in that naming.
Though they and other writers, most notably, perhaps, Sheldon Wolin in Democracy Incorporated, have traced a series of causes, I don’t of any who have concentrated on a psychological condition I think played a larger role than anything else in bringing American democracy to its knees. I’m referring to a doctrine most commonly called “American exceptionalism.” which held that America was “great” (never adequately defined) just because it was, and not because of any particular talents that the American people either possessed or practiced. In other words, Americans didn’t have to do anything to be great. They just were great, a quality bequeathed to them by Providence. That was that, and there was nothing more to be said.
It was as if a football team declared itself to be of championship quality though it never practiced or never touched a football.
People lost all connection with what they thought their government ought to be doing, or perhaps more important, with what their government ought not to be doing. They held no principles of government in their minds. To the degree they thought at all about why they voted it was solely concerning whether they expected their vote to add a few dollars to their paychecks. What a petty reason for constructing a democratic republic!
The actual behavior of their government never entered their minds. Ask a random citizen how many countries his nation has military forces stationed in and the most likely response you’ll get is a blank stare (I know this is true because I’ve done it many times). Ask him why they’re there and the stare will get even blanker.
Has there ever been a more vacant-minded citizenry than the U.S. possesses at the moment? I doubt it. And I know there has never been one more obsessed with its own grandeur.
This is a condition that cannot be recovered from by a handful of elections. People don’t move from pure emptiness to an intelligent perspective in a few decades. If such a transformation is even possible, it would require generations.
We are now lost in the wilderness and we will remain here for many years. The vaunted American democratic republic didn’t just die. It was murdered by its own people and their egomaniacal theory. Those people now have no idea how to restore it. Or any real desire.
Thoughts for February 19, 2018
I see that the Oscars Awards Ceremony is coming up on Sunday, March 4th, just two weeks from yesterday.
I have seen only five of the nominated films, and among those I have seen, it seems clear to me that Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri and The Shape of Water are the best. I would be very surprised if a film other than one of those two were the winner.
For best actor, I’d say Daniel Day-Lewis has a lock on the award, more so than any other of the actors. However, Frances McDormand is also pretty dominant among the lead actresses. They both gave memorable performances.
For best supporting actor, Woody Harrelson was very appealing, but basically himself, whereas Richard Jenkins in The Shape of Water exceeded anything else I’ve ever seen him in and deserves to win.
My favorite supporting actress is Octavia Spencer; everything she did in The Shape of Water was perfect, and whenever she was on screen the film took on even greater life.
Best director is also pretty much a lockdown. Guillermo del Toro is almost sure to take the prize.
So, there’s not great suspense this year about who’s going to win. The surprise, rather, is the kinds of movies in the lead. Who could have anticipated that the story of a woman so enraged about the inability of law enforcement to find the killer of her daughter that she goes completely insane, would win viewers to her insanity, would have people cheering her on as she does utterly nutty stuff, and laughing at her too? And then who would have expected non-human and human sexual romance to generate the tenderest love story in years?
We are in a different mode of thought. I only hope the times they are a changing for the better. And perhaps movies are the best signs they are.
Thoughts for February 18, 2018
One reason I stopped posting for about three weeks is that I came to realize that the U.S. has lost all prowess for democratic government. Our system is now best described as a bizarre plutocracy. We have hordes of vastly wealthy people, who employ vague rules for how they generally behave towards one another, rules they fight about incessantly. Their basic rule is they will take minor advantage of one another, but they will always protect their class. Rule Number One is the plutocracy will always prevail.
It may be that most of the people have not awakened to this condition. They don’t know what to think or say about it. They have literally been struck dumb. So when we have school shootings, the plutocracy has nothing to say about them. Consequently, they pray. If we can believe Paul Ryan, he is praying virtually all the time. This is pure emptiness. This is where we are now -- in pure emptiness.
A country that is praying always is doing nothing else. Therefore nothing is getting done. We enter a state of paralysis. And breaking out of paralysis is the hardest thing to know how to do.
Breaking out. That’s the job now
But how do we even get started?
I see no sign that anybody with much influence (are there such people?) even knows how to start.
The only thinkers are the ones who go out and kill.
With guns, in this gun besotted society, we have killed more of each other in the past fifty years, 1,516,863, than have been killed in all of America’s wars since the beginning of the nation, 1,396,733.
How do we think about that?
Thoughts for February 17, 2018
I normally find little to cheer in the writings of the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. He is a Wall Street champion whose basic social goal is to increase the wealth of the rich and decrease the percentage of wealth held by the poorer 75% of the population. He wants a population in which a majority is always enduring financial suffering.
Still, I have to acknowledge basic sanity. In Stephens’ column this morning calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment he at least demonstrates a streak of that fundamental intellectual virtue. He recognizes there is nothing in the amendment as it is currently interpreted by the courts which pertains to the intentions of the 18th Century citizens who added it to the bill of rights. It no longer contains any of its original meaning. It has become a cause for intellectual freaks. And it is clearly an aid to murder.
I particularly applaud Stephens’ assessment that supposed conservatives who speak about the rash of shootings in schools are offering nothing but “false bromides and empty prayers.” All they can utter to parents whose children have been killed in the places where they should be safest is nonsense worth less than a pinch of fecal matter. If there was ever intellectual disgrace, this is it.
Fools like Paul Ryan who continue this practice should at least have enough empathy to shut up and not make the horror worse. What people mean by praying for people they don’t know I can’t imagine; I doubt they mean anything at all.
We have become a people whose political speech is not only meaningless; it is obscene. It spits in the faces of those whom it claims to console. What can be more foul?
So, I’ll praise an opponent who can summon that degree of honesty. We have so little of it now.
Thoughts for January 25, 2018
In the same notebook I found the scribblings about the Men An Tol I discovered another set jotted down a little over three decades ago which I titled “Humiliations.” After all these years I find that I still stand by their truth, and, in fact, am more convinced by it than I was than when I first wrote them down.
The desire of humans to humiliate one another can seem at times ineradicable. Where it comes from I don’t know but it does seem to be fairly steady. Probably it was the source of Immanuel Kant’s best known statement: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
I wonder if that will remain true forever. In any case, here are my thirty year old thoughts:
Humiliation is all over; That’s what I didn’t know growing up. I thought that doing right was enough, Doing right in a commonsense way. No one tells boys what they need to know, Which is that the world is strangely hard; Not hard in the way John Wayne conveyed, But hard in a peculiar vein Spreading humiliation all round And making believe it doesn’t reign.
Thoughts for January 24, 2018
When you live in a house for almost thirty years it tends to get packed with more stuff than it can hold comfortably. Our house at 45 Liberty Street is certainly in that condition. So we’ve decided to try to straighten it up a bit, which is a bigger task than you might imagine. In straightening we find many things that we had forgotten we had, including little bits of writing, which, if you wanted to be generous to them you could call poems, but which I don’t want to call anything other than what they are -- a few words on a page.
I thought I might stick a few of them here over the next few months. I’ll start with a piece I called “Contrast, Or Emily and Elizabeth At The Men An Tol.” For those of you who don’t know, the Men An Tol is an ancient stone monument in Cornwall which consists of three stones, two ordinary elongated stones on either end, and between them a flat stone with a hole cut in the middle. They have been there for about 3,500 years, and legend has it that if you crawl through the hole, nothing bad will happen to you for the coming year.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote after I took my daughters there, maybe thirty years ago, near the same time we moved into this house.
For three thousand years these hoary stones have sat Here in this sheep-graced bramble patch. And now on this misty June afternoon Come two girl-faces from across a sea foggy spray. And teach them meanings undreamed of When grunting figures dragged them Across these scraggly moors. And set them portentously erect For purposes known solely now To the all-remembering soul of the world.
Thoughts for January 17, 2018
As we know, Donald Trump is the least racist person we have ever seen. He has repeated the statement so often it’s as though he’s trying to set a record. The frequency of it may have dulled us to its peculiarity. What can it possibly mean to be the least racist person anyone has ever seen?
I actually saw Martin Luther King once. Does that mean that he was more racist than Donald Trump?
Trump makes his pronouncement with great flair. He obviously likes to hear himself say it. Perhaps it’s the case that the sound of it pleases him so much the meaning of it has become entirely irrelevant. It could be that Trump will go down in history as the person who established a new type: one who has totally banished meaning from his mind. Everything he says comes out simply because he likes the sound of it. It doesn’t have to have a meaning because, for him, meaning is meaningless. It is well established that Trump is a wild narcissist. So if one were able to carry narcissism beyond any limit heretofore known, he could pioneer a novel personality: the meaning-devoid brain, one who spews incessantly when there is never any meaning in the spray.
Trump is obviously a highly racist person. He pumps out racist comments every week. He piles them on top of one another incessantly. But in his thought-process -- if you can say he has one -- making racist remarks has nothing to do with being a racist, because, you see, he is the least racist there is.
The droid-like figures who trail around after him, hoping to lap up some dribbles of favor from him -- even though they too would be meaningless -- are in an void even more pathetic than Trump’s own vacancy. They know what he says has no meaning but they have to make up stuff that appears to give it meaning. So in some ways what they say is even stupider than what he says. They construct nothing out of nothing and proclaim it to be full of substance.
Trump and all of his cronies are the prime dopes of history. And nothing that history can ever do will ever come close the changing that. It is not written in stone. It is written in something so obdurate it cannot be discovered in the solar system. There is something truly cosmic about it.
Thoughts for January 12, 2018
This morning both David Leonhardt of the New York Times and John Cassidy of the New Yorker declared unequivocally that Donald Trump is a racist. This should surprise no one. The evidence supporting their conclusion has been piling up mountainously over the past two years. Now it has become so voluminous it can’t be denied even by the most careful and circumspect of journalists.
Donald Trump’s racism has been established and it can never be disavowed by honest people. One thing this means is that if someone does disavow it, he or she is dishonest and is not worth anyone’s attention. In other words, anyone who makes such a defense is a political hack, a toady, a louse, a rat, a goon, a twerp, an imbecile, a servile idiot.
Why the mainstream media should ever interview such a person is incomprehensible and yet we see such types showing up on the news shows day after day after day. Why is that? Here too the evidence is conclusive: what the so-called news outlets want is not truth but sensation. They deal in the pornography of public discussion. They know that a great portion of the public revels in lies and they are determined to give that slice of the public what they want. Salivation is the news media’s primary goal.
If democracy is ever to be restored in America -- an increasingly dubious prospect -- a lot of people who are not doing it now have got to start struggling against being used as dupes. What we do about the people who don’t mind being used as dupes and, in fact, rather enjoy it, I can’t say. I wish I could but I’m not up to answering every question. All I can say is that it’s a question that needs to be continuously raised.
Perhaps a first step in having it addressed would be conveying to the whole public that by casting a vote one testifies to who one is. If you vote for a racist, you are a racist. You may think you’re not. You may assume that you have other motives besides racial bigotry to vote as you do. But all that’s claptrap. You vote for a racist, you are a racist. There’s the end of it.
Since Donald Trump is definitely a racist, every single person who votes for him is a racist also. There’s no doubt about it.
Thoughts for January 11, 2018
In his column today, Charles Blow of the New York Times says: “Trumpism is a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.”
He’s right about that. But the implication of his statement runs beyond the denunciation of Trumpism. If we dig into its meaning we discern that Trumpism is merely one of innumerable religions, virtually all of which are cruel and degrading. It seems there is almost nothing that somebody won’t worship.
What do we mean by worship? As a noun it means adoration; as a verb it means to show reverence and adoration for.
What is the purpose of worship? That’s the significant question.
The purpose of worship, primarily, is to escape thought, to be free, completely, from the rigors of thought. When you worship, you don’t have to submit yourself to any perplexing queries. You know everything essential already. Worship is the essence of intellectual disgrace. And it reminds us of W. H. Auden’s famous quatrain: Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye.
In other words, pity and mercy are incompatible with the degradation of intellectual disgrace.
I’m strongly aware that many fine minds have perceived themselves as religious and, therefore, worshipful, figures. John Henry Newman comes immediately to mind. They have been mistaken about their basic intellectual nature. But their mistakes are understandable, and excusable, because they were swimming in a sea of corrugating belief that was in their time virtually irresistible. They lived in a near unendurable tension that twisted their lives and caused many of them misery and intellectual torture. Everywhere about them the message of worship’s necessity pounded on their ears. I’m not surprised they succumbed to it.
Yet, sometime in the early 20th century, that necessity relaxed its hold. It became possible to consider living without certainty and to fashion a self based on one’s own commitments to his or her fellow creatures. It was a freedom that permitted kindness. And as that process went forward the multitude of religions became more petty, mean, and stupid. Now, as Blow says, we have reached the stage where something like Trumpism can constitute a religion. When Trumpism can be a religion, anything sordid can. And most of the small, pathetic belief refuges turn nasty. It’s past time we were done with them.
Thoughts for January 5, 2018
One of the most trenchant articles about American political culture I’ve read is in the New Yorker for January 8th. It’s by Louis Menand and titled “Been There.” Ostensibly about the election of 1968, its main message is how that event, now almost fifty years in the past, explains the political situation we now inhabit.
As you know, I’ve been arguing for quite a while that Donald Trump and all he stands for has been a long time coming. Menand makes clear just how long it has been, and how the years since 1960 have laid the stepping stones many Americans -- and perhaps most -- have trod obediently along. He offers us a series of comments which limn the nature of that path. One of them is Mayor Richard Daly’s shouted denunciation when Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut was speaking at the Democratic Convention in 1968: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home.”
That’s the flavor of the sentiment that has been growing ever stronger in the United States since Lyndon Johnson was president, and now has become politically, if not demographically, dominant.
Menand ends his essay with a discussion of Deeply Divided, a book by Doug McAdam and Karina Kate, published in 2014. They argue that for the past half-century our politics has been rent between two movements, the civil rights movement and what they call a “countermovement” which can be generally characterized as anti-integrationist. They are clearly right about that. And until we recognize how right they are, we’re unlikely to find ways to escape the Trumpian view of things.
Read Menand’s piece if you get a chance. It’s deeply educative.
©John R. Turner
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