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.
Thoughts for May 5, 2017
The House passage of the vicious so-called Trumpcare health bill will convince anyone with a mind still functioning that the Republican Party has become the sociopathic party in America. I see no reason for trying to hide that truth from ourselves any longer. All the gloppy talk about learning to listen to the other side, with the assumption you will find something in what the other side says that will win you over, at least a little bit, becomes asinine when you face the truth that the other side is made up almost entirely of sociopaths.
Just to be clear, let’s remind ourselves of the definition of “sociopath.” Here’s the entry from the American Heritage Dictionary: “one who is affected with a personality disorder marked by antisocial behavior.” That’s an accurate description of most modern Republicans. We have been held back from seeing this by the assumption that those with personality disorders, particularly of a virulent sort, constitute only a small percentage of the population. That may well be the usual situation, but there is no guarantee that all times will be normal. It’s clear that if what exists in the United States right now is normal, the nation is headed for sick and filthy conditions. If what Republicans do comes to be seen as the ordinary way of things, then we are poised to enter the annals of history as something monstrous.
Noam Chomsky, who is the most highly respected American outside the United States, has said in his recent book, Requiem for the American Dream, that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in the history of the world. When you look honestly at his reasons for saying so, his charge becomes irrefutable.
Yet people continue to say this can’t be so because Republicans make up a considerable portion of the U.S. population and it’s not reasonable to argue that a major portion of a country’s population can be suffering from a destructive personality disorder. But why not? I know of no valid study which has concluded that there are limits to the percentage of a national population that can become mentally ill. Can we say that most of the people of Germany in 1935 remained mentally healthy? We have generally told ourselves that they did not.
Social mental illness is highly contagious, and we have ample reason to believe that over the past thirty-five years growing numbers of Americans have signed on to craziness as their political philosophy. I can’t say for sure how many have done so by now, but that we have elected an obvious sociopathic narcissist as the president of the United States tells us that huge numbers of American citizens have succumbed to a terrible mental condition. Until they are confronted with the reality of who they have become we are going to have to get by in an increasingly vicious social order
I don’t want to hurt Republicans, but I do want them to get well, so that our children and grandchildren can have something better than a garbage dump to live in.
There’s one thing we all need to remember. Sick people seldom return to health unless they can be brought to face their own illness.
Thoughts for April 27, 2017
Yesterday there appeared on my front porch a small package which turned out to be a birthday present from one of my daughters. In it was a trio of wooden bookmarks, each engraved with a saying from one of my three favorite figures from the past. If you’ve visited this site before, you may recall that they are Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Friederich Nietzsche.
I admire each of them primarily for a signal virtue: Johnson for kindheartedness, Austen for clean intelligence, and Nietzsche for intellectual courage. I’ve been thinking of them even more than usual lately because these are precisely the virtues most sharply lacking in the current United States. It’s not that no Americans possess these qualities; it’s just that the country as a whole doesn’t have them. They are largely absent in the national legislature, not much evident in the population generally, and completely nonexistent in the mind of the primary American of the moment.
I have never had them to the degree I wished. I hope every day to acquire more of them, and when I lie down at night I toss and turn asking myself how I can best reach out for them. Sometimes I think I’m making a little progress, other times not so much.
The fundamental national problem is that one isn’t likely to acquire what he doesn’t prize. There’s a passage in the Bible somewhere which states that very firmly, something about where your treasure is, there too will your heart be (for those of you who are sticklers about such things, it’s Matthew, 6:21).
A large percentage of Americans, and perhaps a majority, don’t want to be intelligent, don’t wish to have intellectual courage, and don’t even care much about kindheartedness. These are qualities they associate with weakness. They’re not the kind of thing a guy thinks about when he’s driving his Ford F-250 twenty-five miles an hour over the speed limit and looking for somebody to run over. The latter is pretty much the national symbol. How we get away from it, I do not know. Obviously, it would be a process of maturation, and America doesn’t want to grow up.
Still, that my daughter could send me the present she did shows there’s hope. I need to remember that if hope were completely gone, I couldn’t have the daughters I have. They grew up, somehow, to be the persons they are. And they function not only as blessings in my life. They’ll find ways to spread what they are beyond their personal circle. I’m glad they will. I’ll remember that every time I look at the bookmarks I got yesterday, which, I assure you, will be often. They’re exactly the kinds of things I like to fiddle with.
My daughter knew that.
Thoughts for April 26, 2017
In the past presidential election, we faced two dangers, both of them serious. One was called Trump; the other Clinton. The one called Trump had the potential to produce the disasters it incorporated almost immediately. The one called Clinton would have dribbled its disasters on us incrementally over decades. They may have been worse than the Trumpisms, but we probably wouldn’t have felt them as sharply. That’s why most sensible people voted for Clinton. They could salve themselves with the thought that we would have time to work things out. There was little indication that we had the will to work things out but, still, when there’s time, there may be a way.
What the sensible people mostly forgot about was the evil power of unregulated money. The reason they forgot about it was that, though they were more sensible than their opponents, they were still not perceptive enough to recognize that huge amounts of money in private hands are bound to be instruments of evil. You may as well let the guy down the street have four or five nuclear bombs in his basement as to let individuals be completely in control of billions of dollars.
Ordinary people have been deluded by the lure of charity. If a guy is really, really rich, he might use his money to do something really, really good. Yes, he might. But that doesn’t change the truth that what the totality of the really, really rich guys are going to do will be hideous for the rest of us.
So here we are, with the billionaires still out of control, and an imbecile in the White House. What are we going to do now? My best guess is nothing. The United States is on a downward trend towards a bloated banana republic, and the chances are it will continue down that path for at least a half century.
Yet if we do want to do something about it, there are two necessities. The people of the country have got to learn what money is and how it should and should not be used. And they’ve got to learn that they can’t keep on being completely ignorant of what the political classes are doing. To do that, they have to start listening to the people who are telling them the truth, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
I admit it’s a long shot. But that’s the chance. If we don’t take it we’ll be looking at more and more guys who resemble Mitch McConnell and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Just think of the aesthetic effect. Might there be a natural limit to the ugliness people can stand?
Thoughts for April 25, 2017
Popular historian David McCullough has recently published a book titled The American Spirit, which is a collection of his speeches over the past years, many of them commencement addresses. I have nothing against such publications; they give a more permanent form to essays that would otherwise disappear from public view and some of them may well make interesting points. What I don’t like, though, are grandiose attempts to make such collections into celebrations of glory. They can’t be that, and when they’re presented in that mode they inevitably take on a tincture of cheapness.
The dust jacket for this book proclaims it is about “core American values to which we all subscribe.” How can anyone write such guff without becoming nauseous? There are no values to which we all subscribe. The state of the nation right now makes that obvious. And if there were, the leading candidates wouldn’t be anything we ought to be celebrating. The value which would come closest to qualifying at the moment (but still, thank goodness, not universal) would be devotion to the glorification of greed. That’s what America stands for in the eyes of the world more than anything else.
It would be impossible, in fact, for any value to be distinctively American and one which it would be a fine thing for us all to support. The values which we all ought to cherish, such as kindness, generosity, mercy, and honesty, are not particularly American. They are spread across the world and operate as forcefully in many countries as they do in the United States.
The promotional material for a book like this collection is yet one more tired and foolish attempt to insinuate that Americans are naturally better than other people. There’s no evidence for this assertion, and the attempt to promote it leads to the writing of a lot of bad history. I’m not charging Mr. McCullough with writing bad history. I have no right to because I haven’t read any of his books, and probably won’t.
How ignorant does one have to be to fail to recognize that there are no adequate measures which can accurately set one national group above or below others? What factors would have to be taken into account? What weight would each of them be given? The whole enterprise, if seriously pursued, would rapidly become farcical. And yet here in the United States we are constantly assaulted by bombasts of self-congratulation. And now we have, as our most prominent American, a man whose self-congratulation has reached levels of absurdity we heretofore could scarcely have imagined. Are we feeling good about that?
I guess some of us are, but that’s a reason to weep for our country rather than cheering it.
©John R. Turner
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