Word and Image of Vermont

This site exists to promote the pleasures of discussion and to nudge us all -- myself included -- an inch or two towards decency. You're welcome, and encouraged, to comment on any of the opinions you encounter here by using the e-mail link on the left.

John R. Turner
Thoughts for April 20, 2019

The TV series Bosch, starring Titus Welliver, has begun a new season. I’ve generally liked the show well enough, but this time around I had a sinking feeling when I realized that we started with what most of the series would be working towards. I feel myself groaning when I see a caption with something like “two months earlier.” It is now seen as sophisticated to monkey around with time, but why I can’t figure. I prefer time in my melodramas to be like time in real life, with the earlier incidents coming first, and then moving towards the conclusions which come later.

In this story, Bosch is on the trail of a particularly vicious drug gang, which uses addicts to buy opioids with their prescriptions, and then allows them the smallest of maintenance doses while confiscating most of the prescriptions for their own profits. But what’s even worse about the gangsters is that they’ll kill almost anyone for practically no reason. If they want a car, for example, they don’t just steal one; they kidnap the owner, throw him in the trunk, and then shoot him, almost absent-mindedly, as though they can’t think of anything else to do. Are there really people like that?

Like most TV series, this season of Bosch also has a secondary plot. And like many secondary plots this one often seems to be on the verge of jumping to the fore. A murder conviction, which Bosch secured twenty years ago, is now being reinvestigated. New DNA evidence has emerged which may show that someone other than the convicted man was at the murder scene. Bosch will have none of that. He knows the guy he caught is the murderer, and he doesn’t want anyone to be messing around with that truth.

All in all, Bosch is a fairly gloomy guy. Although things seem to be going well in his private life, that appears to have little influence on his moods. He doesn’t seem, ever, to have a good time. This too is a current theory of modern television. If a character is gloomy, that means he’s deep. And being deep gives him importance.

I think these current conventions get in the way of story-telling. Sophistication supposedly insists that the story be low on the list of significance. It’s the soul-anguish of the characters that really counts. But from my point of view, too much soul-anguish is tiresome.

I hope the story in this season can overcome these trivia. But right now I’m not sure it can.

Thoughts for April 16, 2019

President Trump was so gracious as to tell the French how to put out the fire that was burning up Notre Dame. And they were so arrogant as not only to fail to take his advice, but went further and said it was a bad idea (he wanted to dump tons of water on the church from airplanes). What is wrong with them? Do they actually not understand that he is the world’s single universal genius, and knows better how to do anything than anybody else? They had better watch out. He may seal off the borders over which the thousands -- perhaps millions -- of Frenchmen are trying to sneak into the United States, where churches never burn, unless they are set on fire by patriots who are teaching lessons to the quality of persons who don’t understand how to make America great again.

At least during the time the world was in horror over the seeming destruction of one of the world’s finest architectural gems, Trump was in command, issuing orders to everybody about how to set things right. He provided a ray of comfort and security to all people, everywhere, who may have erroneously got it in their heads that the human world was in danger of falling apart.

Too many people of this earth seem determined to remain in the dark about the great gifts we render them.

Thoughts for April 14, 2019

I’ve noticed that several politicians have been asserting that Pete Buttigieg is not a Christian. This prompts me to go on record with the statement that I don’t care whether Buttigieg is a Christian, or not. There are several reasons for my not caring but I suppose the main one is that I don’t care whether anybody is a Christian. You might think I would have to care, for example, whether the Pope is a Christian. But I don’t. I think a guy could be just as good a Pope if he were not a Christian as if he were. What’s being a Christian got to do with it? Of course he would have to say he’s a Christian, and if he weren’t that would involve a bit of dishonesty. But I doubt it would hamper his Popism in any significant way. I would rather see a non-Christian be a good Pope, than have a Christian be a bad Pope.

My point here, of course, is that being, or not being, a Christian is a completely insignificant issue. In the first place, there’s no definition of a Christian that’s functional. There’s no authority who can confer Christianity on anyone. So there’s no way to discern genuine Christianity, even if there were such a thing, which I doubt there is. Religious people would say I’m completely confused about this. But religious people are wrong about so many things this is just a tiny blip in their error-ridden existence.

We waste vast amounts of time, energy, and passion fussing about contentions that have no meaning. People actually get angry at one another over these sorts of things. Anger that can resolve nothing can never be useful and is bound to harm someone, even if it’s only the angry person. I think we should give it up. But I doubt we will.

I’ll end by assuring Pete Buttigieg that I’m not angry at him for claiming to be a Christian. Even people who are good-hearted and want to run for president are bound to be confused about a great many things. And even Buttigieg, who seems to be a nice enough guy, can’t avoid that truth.

Thoughts for April 12, 2019

The thought came to me that I should make a list of the ten most contemptible Americans. Why ten? I don’t know; it’s a common number, for lists. I was probably thinking that a listing of the top ten would be enough to offer a sense of American lowness, a distinctive feature of the nation’s character as a whole.

When, however, I got down to it, I found it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Given the numbers that have come oozing from underneath rocks over the past several years, it’s hard to get to the actual deserving ten. It once, for example, would been easy for me to cite Jeff Sessions as a top-ten member. He’s such a vile, sleazy little racist. But maybe he’s too common a racist to be included in the top spots.

It’s clear, of course, that Donald Trump has earned a place on the list. He’s so much the essence of nothingness that no one can be more that way than he can. Not only is he nothing, he’s proud of being nothing. He wants nothingness to be the only thing that counts in America.

I’m pretty sure, too, about Jamie Diamond, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank. His chief qualifying feature is nauseating smugness. He cares about nothing but money. To care about anything else would, in his own mind, violate his purity.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security, might make the list. When one is known primarily for throwing children into cages, and keeping some of them there so long they died, you might think that’s the ultimate vileness. But, of course, she can always claim that she was just doing her job, keeping America safe from those caged children. Is that enough to hold her out of the top ten?

Mike Pence could squeeze in by being the ultimate exemplar of nauseating features all around. He’s surely in the running for being the purest hypocrite in the country. But, then, we have to remember that there could be even purer hypocrites lurking in unknown low-lying offices. If I had to vote, I’d still be uncertain about him.

William Barr may be inching towards the top lately. His lies about the Mueller report were about as complete an instance of toadyism as one can imagine. When you suck up to that degree, you at least have to be considered as a rising candidate.

Tucker Carlson could be a winning entry from the TV world. His habit of making disgusting comments and then trying to back off from them, repeated over and over, shows a slippery shadiness that will try to get away with anything.

Mitch McConnell? Just look at his face. Appearing as he does makes him a strong candidate for a top spot.

Stephen Miller, the White House fascist philosopher, is a strong example of caring nothing about the needs and joys of ordinary human life.

Then, I suppose we ought to think about really petty creeps, like Holden Matthews, the young man, and supposed Nordic worshipper, who recently burned down three black churches in Louisiana. Is he just too insignificant to be considered for anything?

Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, and perhaps the worst example of education the nation can put forward, might come to mind. But is she just too empty-headed to be given credit for anything she says?

Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, of Fox and Friends, are nauseating. But then, I suspect they are too empty in every way to count for anything.

Steven King, Congressman from Iowa, is probably right now the nation’s best known racist. Is he too stupid even to understand the concept of racial bigotry? And does that excuse him if he is?

James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the denier of global warming. Dumb, dumb, and dumber. It used to be thought that empty-mindedness wasn’t evil, even it did result in terrible suffering. I’d like to see that notion challenged.

Jim Jordan, the number one toady for Trump in Congress. Is there anybody who thinks his perpetual white shirt actually speaks for something clean?

We could go on and on: Newt Gingrich, Paul Le Page, Rudy Giuliani, all sleazy enough, one would think, to get on any contemptible list. But maybe not America’s top ten.

I have to give up right now. And having given up I may never get back. But, at least, you may understand what the problem is.

Thoughts for April 6, 2019

The next meeting of the Samuel Johnson Society, which comes on Tuesday, April 9th, has as its topic, translation. I hope we can keep on point because it’s a fascinating subject with many contradictory opinions about it. I have been reading lately about translations of Homer, partly because I was given a copy of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, and have found it to be an interesting book, not only for the translation, but because it has a substantial introduction of eighty pages with an additional note of twelve pages dealing with the purposes of translation itself.

Last night I stayed up late to begin reading on Matthew Arnold’s long essay, On Translating Homer, which was originally a series of lectures he gave at Oxford in the early 1860s. Probably the best know quotation from that series is his statement about the four principal qualities that one who wishes to translate Homer must keep always in mind. Here is Arnold’s warning:

“The translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author; -- that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought  and in the expression of it, , both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is in his matter and ideas; and finally he is eminently noble.”

Arnold goes on to discuss how well he thinks several recent translators have achieved these qualities, beginning with Alexander Pope’s translation from the early 18th century. He praises some of them for their presentation of the first three required features of Homer. But with respect to the fourth, nobility, he thinks they all have failed. For the most part this is because they, themselves have been captured by the style of the ballad which has been the most favored literary style since the 17th century. And, says Arnold, the ballad manner “cannot worthily render Homer.” And that’s because the ballad manner cannot be sustainedly noble.

Arnold seems to assume that a learned 19th century audience will know what a noble manner is -- or at least think they know. I’m not sure how true that was of the mid-19th century, but I know that Arnold was an intelligent critic and so, to some degree, I’ll take his word for it. But this brings me to the point I want to make here.

The time in which one lives matters. One of the main things it does is shape what one can take seriously. A quality which at one time can be real, and important, can a couple of hundred years later shrink to relevant insignificance. It’s not that we can’t project ourselves, somewhat, into the thinking of other times, but understanding them is not the same thing as being them. For example, two centuries ago, people were convinced that the quality of nobility was real. That’s not the case now. We have seen too many instances of it’s being used for corruption, and so now we mainly think of it as being either opportunistic or silly. What public figure can now universally be considered noble? I don’t think there is one.

We have no choice but to be the people of our time. We may not like our time. I certainly don’t think I like the early 21st century. But that doesn’t mean I’m not being shaped by it. Even if its force is mainly to disgust, that’s still an influential factor. When on TV I observe supposedly uplifting ceremonies, as for example, at sporting events the military being cheered by the crowd, I’m more nauseated than I am enthralled.

All the surrounding hubbub is bound to influence how we think of words, and how, for instance, we treat words from the past. This is the reason there can be no perfect translation, and, consequently, we should give up deluding ourselves by telling ourselves that there can be.

Thoughts for April 4, 2019

Donald Trump has been going over the country telling hordes of cheering fans that if they rely on electricity produced by wind, and the wind stops blowing some night, they won’t be able to watch their favorite TV shows. In fact, they won’t be able to watch any TV shows. Now, you’re probably saying to yourselves that nobody is stupid enough to believe that. Yet we can’t avoid the question of how you know.

I would bet you haven’t done any adequate research on how stupid people can get. And it would take a powerful imagination to substitute it for research. I can’t be sure of this, but I suspect that there are actually millions of American citizens who take Trump at his word. They don’t want their television going off when the best hitter on their favorite team is up with three men on base. They want to see if he can pull his team -- which is also their team -- out of a three run hole. Hence they will do all they can to stop the development of wind power. If you tried to explain to them that power produced by wind, can be stored in batteries, they would just look at you with blank expressions on their faces. It wouldn’t matter to them.

When we ask whether Trump believes the TVs would go off on a windless evening, then we get into something more complex. In the first place he doesn’t care. But the reason he doesn’t care is that he can’t grasp the difference between the truth and a lie. The only phenomenon of that sort he can grasp is whether it’s more, or less, likely to get him what he wants. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t understand what an egomaniac is. Consider the two parts of the term. They come together to designate a person who is crazy about anything that affects his ego, so crazy that the difference, for him, between truth and falsehood fades into nothing.

The American people are not close to conceiving how mentally defective Donald Trump is. Unless they face the truth about his mind, they won’t be able to conceive, either, the monumental damage he might do to the people of this country.

Thoughts for March 30, 2019

In his column in the New York Times this morning, Roger Cohen says, “When an Israeli minister sprays herself in Fascism to make her rightest party more popular, you know that words have achieved weightlessness. Truth has no meaning any longer.” He is speaking of Ayelet Shaked, Israeli Justice Minister.

Cohen is writing about words addressed directly to a thoughtless population, without those words being vetted by institutional figures, who stand for a tradition capable of reminding people of their genuine history. That for him is Fascism, and it functions as a perfume. It tells people they can have what they want, when they don’t really know what it is. And, of course, it leads them into the hands of would-be dictators. That’s what we have going on, Cohen says, in both Israel and the United States.

I think he’s right. Down the ages we have had thoughtful figures telling us that direct democracy cannot produce healthy social conditions. Decision-making, in order to remain sane, has to be shaped by people who have been required to learn about the history of institutions. Or, in other words, it requires judges as well as popular passion. It’s true that the judges sometimes become overly stodgy. But they are still necessary.

When people begin running towards the scent of fascist perfume, there’s almost nowhere they won’t go. We see that in the mobs that swoon over Donald Trump. And, yes, they are mobs, and little else.

How do we escape their delusions? We have to listen carefully and read a bit now and then. Without those habits, a so-called democracy becomes a farce, and what’s worse, a horror.

Thoughts for March 27, 2019

There has been considerable discussion in the opinion columns lately about whether Donald Trump is the cause or the consequence of our cankered social and political conditions. My sense is that Trump is not the cause of anything. He doesn’t make us who we are; he shows us who we are.

Trump is a man of no mind. He can’t be said to think. He certainly can’t plan. He simply erupts frequently because the whole world is not bowing down before him. He wants people to bow down to him. In fact, that’s just about the only thing he can imagine wanting. And when he doesn’t get it, he screams like a frustrated infant.

So the only serious question about Trump is why he now occupies the presidency. And the answer is pretty clear. He’s in the White House because of the American people and who they are.

For most of my life American journalism proclaimed the American people to be wise. In the end, it was asserted over and over again, they will always make the right decision. Why American journalists did this is something of a mystery. They clearly didn’t do it because of evidence. They seemed to have figured that if they flattered the people, the people, in turn, would wish to reward them. I don’t think there’s any evidence for that either.

It may be the case that the American people, as a whole, have more of a mind than Donald Trump does. It seems obvious that some percentage of them do. But what is that percentage? We have no way of knowing. And that’s partly because, in the United States, there’s no generally acknowledged standard for having a functional mind. That becomes clear when one pays attention to the U.S. Congress. Many of its members proclaim their own idiocy on a regular basis. What percentage, for example, of the U.S. Congress is capable of reading a serious book? We can’t answer; we can only guess. I can’t say, for sure, that my guess is better than anyone else’s, but I do sense, pretty strongly, that far less than half of our members of Congress could actually read a book. I can imagine people responding to me with an exclamation: “Oh, you’re exaggerating!” But am I?

In any case, the American people, using the twisted system we have for electing heads of state, made Donald Trump the president. That doesn’t speak well for their minds. It seems to be true that the majority of the people can’t conceive that a president needs a mind. And that’s probably because they can’t conceive that they need minds themselves.

So, to whom do we turn now to escape the mess we are in? There are no obvious candidates, and I can’t see any emerging any time soon.

Thoughts for March 26, 2019

Throughout my life I thought, in a vague way, that I (the essence of me) was something other than a pure biological entity. I associated myself with concepts like character, or purpose, which had a being separate from meat, muscles, and bone. What this other thing was, where it really resided, I wasn’t able to say. But I did think it existed. As I got older, and as I read more about the brain, the notion of character’s being real was challenged. Science seemed to establish clearly that the brain was essentially a biological organ, and that whatever thought and beliefs were they had no being outside the gurgles of the brain.

For quite a while now these two contradictory notions have continued to exist in my thoughts. I know that one of them is bound, logically, to negate the other, but somehow that has not convinced me to give up either. In fact, I don’t see how I could give up either. What would I be if I managed to erase one or the other completely from my mind?

Logic is generally a good thing. I think we should try to be as logical as we can. But on the other hand, I don’t think humans have the capacity to be perfectly logical creatures. They wouldn’t be humans if they could. They would be something closer to computers. And from a human point of view that would turn them into monsters.

I don’t know what this non-logical component of humans is. Might it be nothing more than desire? And if it is only a collection of desires, how do we set limits for them? How do we govern them? How do we keep them from running amok?

How do we, in other words, decide what is an acceptable yet non-logical concept? Is God, for example, such a concept. I don’t think it is, but I also know that legions of seemingly intelligent people think differently from me on that point.

It seems that human thought is not only a muddle, but that it has to be a muddle. It can’t be perfectly explicated. I know that if we could explore all the lucubrations of philosophy we would find supposed answers for many of the questions I’ve raised here. Some philosophers might conclude that I’m simple-minded even to be raising them. And, yet, among the philosophers, even the deepest and most respected philosophers, we can’t find agreement. In truth, they argue about these issues more than the rest of us do.

All I know is that somewhere in me there are convictions which, in an important way, define who I am. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t even know where they reside. But I have to live with them, and even though I continue to examine them, I have to hold onto them. Otherwise there would be no me. Surely there is some sort of reality to forces that have that degree of control over a being.

Thoughts for March 25, 2019

No citizen of a republic which has an imbecile as its head of state can live without humiliation. No matter how much a person repudiates the imbecile, he is still washed in the waves of humiliation the imbecile creates. Even those persons who are most spoken of as having impregnable integrity, will be stained by the access their humanity inevitably provides. Most citizens are not consciously aware of this. The humiliation creeps over them without their being aware of what it is. Yet it still registers in their stomachs, in their bowels. They begin to feel vaguely sick, though they may not have any detectable symptoms. Public happiness declines. The satisfaction one may once have felt by erroneously crediting his republic with virtues it didn’t possess becomes harder and harder to maintain. To some degree, all citizens begin to become aware that they are looked upon with contempt by the other people of the world. And though most tell themselves they don’t care what those other people think, they still feel gagged by their reputation. Humiliation works in myriad ways. Its effects can’t be adequately listed. They are there in legions, working in conjunction with one another, to produce something that is gigantic but which can’t be adequately described. Humiliation is to the body politic what persistent diarrhea is to the body biological. It drains and drains, and leaves one feeling there is no environment possible except some substitute for an outhouse. And the weakness it produces hangs on long after its overt symptoms seem to have disappeared. I don’t know how long it might take for a country like the United States to rid itself completely of the humiliation it is suffering now. But it would surely be years after the imbecile had faded from the headlines and after his leers were no longer dominating the television screens. When a country signs on for humiliation, it signs on for the long term.

©John R. Turner

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