What's the Source?
January 29, 2010
Paul Krugman noted today in the New York Times that our political culture rewards hypocrisy and irresponsibility. That's fairly obvious but it doesn't tell us much about why our political culture is as it is.
Whenever there are events like the State of the Union address, the character of the American people is praised fulsomely. Although the habit raises appropriate disgust in some, they remain a minority. Most people view praise of the American character as not only correct but necessary. For the people not be praised would somehow threaten the foundations.
Almost never is there a question about whether there is such a thing as the American character, or whether it is reliably persistent. If you listen to politicians you learn that it has been as it is now since the dawn of the republic. Why it doesn't change while almost everything else does is a heretical question.
One could say , of course, that there's a certain amount of boilerplate required for public discourse and that one should see it for what it is and never worry about it. But I've become fanatical enough to believe that words have consequences and so I do worry.
How do the two widely accepted notions that our political culture is dysfunctional whereas our character is unfailingly noble fit together?
There are, of course, explanations for this seeming discrepancy. The most common is that there's something inherently creepy about politicians. They are all selfish freaks and crooks while most other Americans are hardworking, honest, and admirable. The idiocy of this proposition seems never to dint its popularity. Then there's a slightly more sophisticated corollary. When people first enter politics they have ideals. But eventually the temptations offered by the system corrupt almost every one of them. To believe this while holding onto the notion of general American goodness you have to believe that temptations operate mainly in politics and are fairly weak elsewhere.
Outrageous as it may seem, I think politicians reflect the nature of the population fairly accurately. If the political system is screwed up then we are all of us -- or at least most of us -- screwed up politically.
Fourteen years ago, Gary Null, whose main work lies in persuading people to eat well -- published a book titled Who Are You, Really? It's not a great book but I mention it here because it offers a simple commentary on a notion that I increasingly see promoted -- that people are just wired in a certain way. In other words, we are destined by our genetic makeup to think in certain ways, behave in certain ways, feel in certain ways, and so on.
Mr. Null's take on this is that people are not completely determined but that they are predisposed to behave socially in certain ways, and that the two main personality types are the aggressive and the adaptive-supportive. Those in the latter category outnumber the former by a considerable factor.
Adaptive-supportives don't normally think critically about the systems they find themselves in. They simply conform to an existing system and get along as best they can within it. This can explain why a population would continue to support a system that failed to serve their interests, or to put it more bluntly, keep on, year after year, electing politicians who regularly take them to the cleaners. I guess there's something comforting in a political system that's steadily cheating you. At least you know where you stand with respect to it.
If a system is inhabited by a variety of personality types, then, obviously, the percentages among them can change. A democratic system would lose its vitality if too many of people became adaptive-supportives. And that appears to be what has happened in the United States now. Not enough of the people want to activate their minds sufficiently to perceive what's actually happening in the system. Consequently, it works corruptly.
What can be done? Maybe nothing. But if a system is to change then the composition of the personality types have to be altered. And in order for them to be altered, they have to be recognized. We are not going to find our way to political paradise simply by electing the right guy. For the most part, we can't elect the right guy because we don't know how.
I have thought for some time now that the satisfying notion of the American people's possessing a consistent, lasting and noble character has to be demolished. If we could turn our attention on ourselves as much as we do on our political celebrities we might have a chance to shift our character in a way to comport more healthily with needs of a 21st century democracy.
There are signs that the nature of Americans is being scrutinized a bit more and worshipped a bit less. But that shift needs to get a lot stronger than it is now.
Stupid, But Where?
January 27, 2010
André Bauer, the lieutenant governor of South Carolina, exemplifies an interesting phenomenon in American politics, and in American culture. It's one that has always been present to some extent, but I doubt it has ever been quite as blatant as it is now.
Mr. Bauer has been in the news lately for saying that if you provide food for poor people they'll breed, just like stray animals do. The funny thing about Bauer is that when he's given a chance to explain away his crude remark, he says something even more offensive than he did before. How can he be so stupid? people ask.
Jon Stewart, on the Daily Show, had an amusing commentary about how South Carolina is the great benefactor of comedians. He used Bauer as the center point of a spiel listing the material that the state has provided lately, including Mark Warner and the man who had sex with a horse -- twice. Mr. Bauer's grandmother, the reputed source of the wisdom about the breeding habits of poor people and stray animals, was limned by Stewart as a woman who brushed her teeth with a rock and taught her grandson all he knows.
It was funny and, one might think, devastating to Bauer. But anyone who thought that would be mistaken. South Carolina politicians don't care much how they are portrayed in the national press. And if they care at all, they probably covet the title of buffoon. They know that being described as a crude hick on the Daily Show or in the New York Times translates automatically into votes at home.
Those who think the Red State/Blue State division in America is breaking down are blind. Sure, there are voters in South Carolina who are embarrassed by the antics of their politicians. But until their numbers rise to about 45%, they don't count. And in South Carolina along with many other states that level remains no more than a fantasy.
A majority of voters in South Carolina agree almost perfectly with what Bauer said, just as they agree with the blather of Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham. They sit around their dining room tables and chortle about how Bauer showed up those effete liberals in the North by telling it like it is. I have sat at tables like that and I know that the people who eat there regularly are immensely pleased with themselves. They may strike people in Vermont as incredible. I know they do because I hear Vermonters say so. But that doesn't change the palpability of the fans of Bauer. They exist and they're going to keep on existing for a long time.
We read reports about how attitudes are different among the young. They don't harbor nasty feelings about homosexuals, or poor people, or those damned Mexicans who are eating up all the public services. That's probably true, nationally, and it could point towards a diminution of prejudice overall in the future. But does it apply to South Carolina, and Oklahoma, and Alabama, and Utah, and so on? I doubt it.
Whatever you want to call the panoply of attitudes and values championed by André Bauer -- and "conservatism" is a hideously euphemized term for it -- it is widespread across America and in some places it is concentrated densely. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that it won't grow. The idea that we have got beyond something that strongly marked our past is usually premature. Attitudinal clusters are astoundingly persistent. They may change their names and put on different public masks but their substance keeps chugging along. You might even say it's a part of human nature, if you believe in such a thing as human nature.
I wish André Bauer were no more than a clown. But as long as there are clowns like him who will put him in public office, he remains a political force. And ambition guarantees that any force, no matter how sleazy or ignorant it might be, will be seized on by some as a conveyance to localized success. In South Carolina, the castigation of the New York Times need not bother anyone.
A Cold, Dank Drizzle
January 26, 2010
Now is our season of political discontent caused, so a majority of pundits tell us, by economic discontent. The most frequent sentiment I've encountered lately is that Obama made a huge mistake by promoting health care reform when he should have been focusing like a laser beam on job growth -- as the cliché goes.
Seldom is anything said about the kind of job growth, other than occasionally a tepid pitch towards green technology. That's because the political class has not yet faced the hard truth that the seeming prosperity of the past several decades was based on nonproductive economic activity. What do I mean by that term? I mean activity that didn't feed any children, cure any sick people, provide any pleasant public space, put many families in houses they could afford. Sure, some of those things were done but they were not the principal drivers of the economy. Americans got it into their heads that the best way to make money was to move figures around on paper, or, increasingly, on electronic screens. The people who made the most money, and therefore became the models for the rest of the population, produced nothing and provided no service. They were masters of a universe that was little more than a video game.
A second difficulty with our economy was that, for many, wasteful activity was seen as superior to efficiency. Republicans were transformed into the sort of people who would rather spend $150 to repair a car damaged by hitting a pothole than to lay out $50 to eliminate the pothole. Why? Because repairing banged up cars is glorious free enterprise whereas good roads are examples of the dead hand of government.
An activity I've engaged in more frequently recently when I travel is to scan the trucks clogging the throughway, and ask myself how many are carrying things I would ever want or need. At no time has one of those scans produced a figure as high as 50%. I understand that my personal tastes can't be the measure of economic worth. Still, if you could make an accurate survey of the stuff we make, import, buy, sell and haul all around the country you would have to conclude that a large portion of it is junk or useless gadgetry.
A good economy should be perceived as people spending their money on useful, efficient products and having enough money to provide themselves with healthy, comfortable living conditions. We haven't defined a good economy that way for at least a half-century.
The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who died five years ago, defined the "polity" as the set of attitude and values which provide the environment for political activity. "Politics," by contrast, is the scramble for power and prestige within the polity. Politics is pretty much always the same but the polity can vary tremendously. Our problem in the United States is that for some time now our polity has been screwed up. We have lost the ability to concentrate our minds on what's important. Unless we regain that ability we will not regain a stable, efficient economy. In short, we are trying to buy the wrong things and we are trying to get rich through the wrong activities.
The effort to pass health care reform legislation over the past year is a good example of our flawed thinking. A vibrant polity would have said to itself: we cannot abide a system in which some people fall seriously ill and even die because they cannot get access to the medical care they need. We have to take action to eliminate that situation. That would have been the bottom line, the starting point. Then the task would have been to devise the best procedures to bring that condition to reality.
Instead, we started with trying to balance this special interest against that special interest, and acceding to the vested interests that we thought too politically powerful to be faced, and trimming some inefficient practices while maintaining others, and so on. Naturally, we ended up with a mess.
The American political debate is not focused on what kind of country we wish to inhabit. Rather, it is focused on who gets what. We can't either clarify or modify the polity as long as we continue to do what we're doing now.
If the polity is ignoble then we will be pushed toward nasty, brutish, and meaningless lives. The polity is our mental atmosphere. We can't expect to inhale venal ideas and make anything satisfying out of them.
I had hoped that Obama saw this and that he would help to start a revision of thinking, and valuing. I still hope but now I am less hopeful.
January 24, 2010
David Petraeus says he's disturbed to find that Biblical citations have been imprinted on rifle scopes supplied to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ah! Here's political sagacity.
The company that makes the scopes, Trijicon Inc., of Wixon, Michigan, has "voluntarily" decided to stop putting the references on the scopes, now that they have become an object of public controversy. Trijicon's president, Stephen Binder, says that removing them is "both prudent and appropriate."
Stephen, though, as far as I can tell, hasn't said why they were there in the first place. Is he a blithering idiot, or what? Is it not obvious, to even the lamest brain, that to put Christian inscriptions onto instruments which will be used to kill Muslims, will inflame conditions in Muslim countries and make resolution of the conflict more difficult? I hate to be suspicious but I can't help wondering if inflammation were not the motive behind the inscriptions from the beginning. There's far too much of this nonsense in the war-making procedures of the United States.
Although there have been numerous journalistic accounts of the infiltration of the military by religious fanatics, it's a story that hasn't received the degree of publicity it deserves. Mikey Weinstein who brought this issue to light formed his organization, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, because his son was harassed at the Air Force Academy for not being a Christian. Although the leadership of the Academy has promised to take steps to eradicate religious persecution in its ranks, I'd be willing to bet that it still persists.
The notion that when you fight you fight for God is appealing to young men who haven't activated their brains sufficiently to wonder if God really does take sides in war. When you fight for God, after all, it relieves a lot of the guilt for blasting another human being into small hunks of meat.
Of all the confusions in American public life the greatest is probably the inability to think carefully about the meaning of separating the church from the state. Such a separation, of course, is not perfect and never can be. Jesus is famed for having said that one should render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's. Too many of us have taken that as a clear-cut directive instead of recognizing it as an oracular utterance designed, in its obscurity, to bring people to thought.
The notion that it's okay to kill Muslims because they are not followers of the true God is a much stronger force in America than we want to admit. If we did admit it then we would have to face it and decide honestly whether that's actually what we believe. It's easier, of course, not to face it and rather to do sneaky things like inscribing religious passages on weapons. It is no justification for this sort of intellectual cowardice to say that Muslim fanatics are willing to kill for their religion. Yes, they are, and that's supposedly what we're fighting against. That is unless we really believe that their God is false and ours is valid and that gives us the right to kill them.
Those who claim to know what can't be known and to have the right to do violence to others on the basis of that knowledge are fanatics. And of all fanatics, religious fanatics are the most lethal. I'd prefer not to have my tax dollars used to give them support and I hope a majority of my fellow citizens feel the same way.
January 22, 2010
The headline at Talking Points Memo this morning asks, "Nobody Home?" Underneath is a photograph of the Oval Office. It refers, of course, to the seeming decision by the White House to get out of the health care debate and leave it to Congress.
I wish I could have heard the discussions that led to that decision.
We hear, from time to time, ruminations about what a cocoon the White House is. But it's hard to understand how entering those sacred precincts erases every element of common sense. If a person proclaims for months on end that something is essential to the well-being of the nation, that without it all other improvements will be undermined, he can't just walk away from it when the going gets tough. That's not just weakness; it's something well beyond.
There has to be some strategy behind this seeming swoon but I can't figure out what it is. Nor can I see how anything of that sort could work.
If something is so important nothing else can be achieved without it, then the person promoting it has to say what it is. Evidently, the Obama people were so spooked by the failure of the Clinton health care initiative, they decided they would stay out of the specifics of the reform. They would just proclaim that some kind of health care bill was essential and let it go at that. I know. The president laid out some required features but they were always divorced from specific legislation. They were never anything the Congress could vote on.
It makes no sense to think you can get anything passed that way. Presumably, behind the scenes, the president's men were helping to shape both the Senate and the House bills. But "helping to shape" is not the same thing as saying, precisely, what the president thinks is necessary for the American people. Besides, the whole process was supposed to be open. That includes the president saying openly what he wants the bill to be.
Now the only option appears to be for the House to pass the bill the Senate has already passed so the president can sign it. And Obama won't even say that's what he wants. There comes a time when indecisiveness, in the name of strategy and deliberation, becomes a disease. I fear that the president is infected, and I don't know what pill or shot he can take to get well.
He has to know that he is being seen, increasingly, by the nation as a guy who runs away. His advisors have to know that also. What do they say to one another when they talk about that problem?
The problem with the Clinton proposal was not that the administration wrote it, but that they wrote it badly. Obama should have set a small task force to writing a bill. He should have told them he wanted it simple enough to be laid out in a half-dozen points. He should have worked with them to insure that it did have the requisite simplicity. And then he should have fought for it with all his force in both houses of Congress. Isn't that obvious? If it isn't obvious, I wish somebody could tell me why not.
What would Obama say to me if I somehow, magically, got the chance to ask him why he didn't do it that way?
It's agonizing to see great opportunities squandered. It's even more agonizing to see them squandered out of some goofy notion that it's not sophisticated enough for a person to be clear about what he supports. Yet the latter seems to be the sort of arcane foolishness we're caught up in.
Season of Analysis
January 21, 2010
In the wake of the Massachusetts senate vote we now have two dominant themes: Obama won't fight; Democrats are cowards.
Ideas like this are oversimplified yet they contain just enough truth to be a source of big trouble. In November 2008, a majority of the American people believed they had elected a president and a congress who would stand up for the majority of people and clamber out of the pockets of monied vested interest. Discovering that this hope was false was bound to be a major disappointment. Disappointment of that magnitude leads to bitterness and resentment.
The American people are asking themselves right now whether it's better to live with outright, mean-spirited Republicanism or continue to support putative Democrats who behave like Republicans. It's a mistaken question because bad and weak as the Democrats are, they are not as rapacious as Republicans. They will not kill as many people as Republicans will. But nuance of that sort is hard to credit when gall is rising in the throat.
The spirit that coursed through the crowd in Hyde Park on the evening of the election when Obama's victory was announced has now become his biggest challenge. You might even say it has become his enemy. It was so full, so glad, so relieving that it set an indelible mark for the upcoming presidency. To settle for something far below that mark cannot now be seen as an adjustment to reality. It will be viewed as pure cravenness. Mr. Obama no longer has the option of mediocrity. Either he must make a genuine, brave attempt to regain what he had or he will set himself in history as a failure.
His remaining supporters are trying to remind people how much better than George Bush he is. They're trying to point to the undoubted changes in government he has introduced, changes that collectively amount to a major shift in direction. They forget that Bush, himself, was already making some of those changes, trying to free himself from the dementia of Cheneyism. If Obama does no more than simply continue with what Bush started -- a halfhearted bow to democratic justice -- then he will end up as little more than a Bush footnote.
The American people are on the way from viewing Obama as a champion to seeing him as a guy who will always respond to a kick in the gut with fancy rhetorical abstractions. You have to wonder what's going on in his head.
I recall feeling just a twinge of dread during Obama's inaugural address. It was not as much a call to move towards a finer country as it was a caution about the need to take everything into account, even the filthiest motives running through America. Then came the actions of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. Why are they at the head of our economic plans, I asked myself. Then incessant dithering about a health care measure that ought to have been simple and clear, turning it into a monster of bureaucratic corruption. The direct, clean promise to get rid of the prison at Guantanamo succumbed to a supposed recognition of difficulties. States secrets kept on being used to cover up crimes. It was all said to be wonderfully pragmatic. It was forgotten that pragmatism pushed to a certain level becomes a refuge for poltroons.
We now have to face the truth that it has been pretty much downhill over the past year. It's sad but that's where we are.
I know that presidents face pressures most of us can barely imagine. I know that some give and take is necessary. I know that it's not usually wise to run roughshod over other people's beliefs. But I know also that significant improvements in public policy require a spirit and a determination we have not yet seen from the Obama White House.
I'm not yet to the point of giving up. But I have become skeptical.
January 20, 2010
There are two stories in the news today which supposedly have nothing to do with one another but which, actually, are linked intimately.
The first is the victory of a fairly extreme Republican candidate in the Senate race in Massachusetts. His win is being attributed to the inept and lackadaisical campaign of the Democratic candidate who supposedly was so sure of prevailing she didn't try very hard to make her case to the voters. Martha Coakley's bumbling tactics doubtless did have something to do with her loss, but other factors were more significant. If the electorate in Massachusetts still thought Democrats would make the difference they believed in a year ago, they would have been happy to accept a drab candidate. But that faith has dissipated. The loss of belief leads to the second story.
Harper's Magazine has just published an article by Scott Horton reporting on the deaths of three prisoners at Guantanamo during the Bush administration. It has become ever more clear that the account the military authorities gave of these deaths were false. One would have to be extremely credulous to believe that the three men were able to kill themselves in the way Guantanamo officials said they did. The idea put forward by authorities that the supposed suicides were acts of asymmetrical warfare against the United States is absurd.
What does that have to do with an election in Massachusetts one might ask? The Obama Justice Department has refused to investigate these deaths, or any of the other suspicious deaths of prisoners in U.S. hands during the middle years of the Bush administration. The President himself has said he wants to look forward, not backwards, which turns out to mean that he's willing to overlook crimes so horrendous they will disgrace our nation forever. There is no doubt whatsoever that the illegal acts committed during the Bush administration will be regarded by history as a brutal and reckless disregard of laws the nation pledged itself to uphold. They cannot be forgotten. Yet, that's what Obama is trying to do.
The mainstream media tell us that the American people don't care about torture and the breaking of treaties. Since the people don't care, the acts themselves don't matter politically. It may be true that a majority of the people don't care. But the people who do care, care intensely. They are precisely the people who were most fervent in working to put Obama in the White House. They feel betrayed by his record on the investigation of torture, by the use of billions to enrich big Wall Street bankers, by the continued militarization of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, by pathetic delays in enacting a reasonable health care bill. So far, the president has not been the president they thought they were getting. Most of these advocates would vote again for Obama against a Republican candidate. But they will not work for him as they once did. The enthusiasm has gone out of the movement Obama once headed. Martha Coakley needed that enthusiasm desperately. She didn't get it.
I don't know how many Americans are disgusted by their government's having tortured dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of people to death, in violation of numerous laws. I suspect the number is greater than the average media figure thinks it is. But regardless of how many there are, their sense of the government's disregard of justice drains energy from the Democratic Party's effort to reform basic structures of American life. It drains so much energy, in fact, that reform can't happen unless the enthusiasm that propelled Obama into the White House is restored. And bringing it back won't be easy.
If the president sees the loss in Massachusetts for what it was he might disenthrall himself. He might grasp that he cannot charm Republicans. He might face the truth that they hate him and, as Franklin Roosevelt did so wonderfully seventy years ago, welcome that hatred. He might regain the support of the people who believed in him and reinvigorate them. If he doesn't learn the lesson of Massachusetts, if he doesn't start to recognize the connections the media continue to ignore, he is headed for pure mediocrity.
January 19, 2010
Stanley Fish has provocative essay in today's New York Times celebrating the publication of a new book by Barbara Herrnstein Smith titled, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion.
Ms. Smith's thesis might seem to be commonsensical. We should let systems of thought serve us as they can, and stop worrying about how they fit into an overall scheme of truth. Let science do what it can do, let religion do what it can do, and so forth. It seems to be the case that most people respond that way on a daily basis. If they believe that God causes everything, they nevertheless consult a physician when their stomachs hurt. If they think the universe is a materialistic machine, they're not above sending out a hopeful secret prayer now and then. The supposed internal contradictions in these acts don't actually matter very much.
Nevertheless, despite our normal, practical selves, we do manage to get into huge ideological scrapes in which much is wagered and much lost. People actually do die because they are Muslims or not Muslims, Jews or not Jews, Christians or not Christians, and so forth. Is this idiotic, or what? Fish thinks it is.
He's right; it is idiotic. But he doesn't explain as well as he might why we hold onto it so firmly. We are enamored by the notion that something we most often call God is the purveyor of truth, and that he is so closely identified with it that they -- that is truth and God -- are just about the same thing. Since they, collectively, are the ruling power in the universe we had better show our devotion to them or else we'll get smacked.
This wild idea comes from the source of all wild ideas -- human egotism. We are obsessed by the conviction that if there is something deserving the name of Truth -- and exactly what that might mean, nobody can say -- we must be capable of possessing it. We have to own whatever is valuable, and once we own it, we have to be willing to kill in order to keep on owning it. So if somebody comes along who tries to dispossess us of our truth by setting up a truth of his own, we've got to whack him. This has been the human faith for a long time. It seems to provide people a good deal of pleasure, but whether it gives them enough to justify what they do for it is another question. Keep on in this way and we discover we are stumbling into the jungles of metaphysics.
I don't mind going there at times, but that's not my purpose today. Here I simply want to argue that undermining the idea of a complete, whole, eternal truth will be the primary liberating activity of the coming generations. It won't be easy because Truth is a big enemy. It is associated in ways we can't fully understand with all the little truths we require in order to get by, such as that Shaws grocery store in Montpelier is on Main Street and not on State Street. These little truths actually are essential to life and, therefore, if we care about life, they deserve our loyalty. But whether they are strands in a complete fabric of truth is a question no one can answer right now, although there are many who say they can.
In the battle of Truth versus truth, I'm clear where I stand. I'll do my best to find others to stand beside me, so that we can find our way to the grocery store, without killing each other over things none of us fully comprehend. That may seem like a petty task, but I confess it's enough for me right now.
Objects of Balmy Attention
January 17, 2010
Tom Friedman in the New York Times this morning says that our nation is in danger because Americans are concentrating on silly issues instead of facing the truths of the future. He uses the war on terror as a prime example of this foolish propensity.
He's right as far as he goes but he doesn't go nearly far enough. Why is it that Americans are fascinated with silliness? What is it in us that gives importance to voices like Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Monica Crowley, Michael Medved and so on?
It's a question with a complicated answer, if there can be any answer at all. But in order for any reasonable answer to come forth, one has to recognize, first, that there is a question. This we have not done. That raises a deeper question: why are we averse to asking?
Suppose the general media were to start, all of a sudden, asking two basic questions about ourselves. What is the quality of mind of the people who get most attention in this country? What is the effect of giving them the attention they receive?
To ask is to answer: there would be an explosion of charges of anti-Americanism. The people who asked would be deemed elitist, and everyone knows that to be an elitist is the worst thing an American could be, even if he is of the elite. In America, there is no need to be elite because just being an American is enough. In fact, it's the best thing imaginable and pretty close to perfection. Americans are like God in that they don't have to answer why they are as they are. You can't go around asking objects of adoration why they have chosen to exist as they do. Their behavior sets the standards, no matter what it is.
Self-worship is gratifying, of course, but over the long run it causes problems. Self-worship means you don't want to change. And not wanting to change means you don't want to learn anything. The little secret that's not permitted utterance in America is that learning produces change. If you learn something you are bound to be a different sort of person. If you were perfect before, then learning means going downhill.
Self-worship is buried deep in American history. How it got started and how it developed are questions requiring complicated answers. But if complicated answers are exactly what we wish to avoid, then we're not going to find out why we worship ourselves, or why obviously silly people are so fascinating to us. The whole business is circular.
I know that some say this is simply a feature of human egotism which is an inevitable element of human nature. There's nothing particularly American about it. But that's not true. If you travel to other countries, you'll find lots of egotists wherever you go. But you don't find them worshipping themselves because they are citizens of the countries they happen to inhabit. In England, for example, people can love their country, and be proud of it, without thinking they are virtually perfect just because they're Englishmen. Consequently the English are permitted to be more curious than we are. They can enjoy working out complicated answers. They don't see questions as an affront to their patriotism.
This morning on the Chris Matthews Show, Andrea Mitchell said that early on members of the McCain campaign discovered that Sarah Palin's "knowledge base" was deficient. That's the term Ms. Mitchell used. It was kind of like finding out that the water pump on Palin's car wasn't working. One of her possessions -- in this case, her knowledge base -- was a bit out of kilter. It wasn't that she is an ignoramus because if you're an American, and especially an American other Americans are interested in, you can't be an ignoramus. To say that would be a heresy. It would violate public worship of the self as American.
Tom Friedman can lecture us all he wants. He can say, over and again, that we should stop being so obsessed with silliness and turn our attention to serious questions. But until he, and others with a public voice, began asking why we care more about silliness that we do about serious matters, not much is going to change.
January 15, 2010
I notice that quite a few people are angry at Pat Robertson for saying that the Haitians made a pact with the devil and that they are continuing to reap the consequences of that agreement. What's there to be angry about?
Pat Robertson is crazy. You wouldn't get mad at a guy standing on the corner screaming that the world is going to end at 5:37 this afternoon, would you?
The reason people allow themselves to get angry at Robertson is that he represents, or pretends to represent, Christianity. And people continue to believe that Christianity is something both respectable and definable. Actually, it's neither.
Christianity, rather, is a name that has been applied to a multiplicity of attitudes. Anyone who argues that all these attitudes together constitute an internally coherent system is either blind or dishonest.
Christianity is a cosmetic term, like capitalism, or patriotism, heroism. It can mean anything anyone wants it to mean. I wish that weren't so, but it is.
There was a time when I thought there was a body of belief and values that legitimately could claim the title of Christianity and that anything opposed to that set of concepts was not Christianity, no matter how much it relied on the term. Gradually, and reluctantly, I have been forced to give up that notion.
A word, after all, is supposed to refer to something, and when people begin to use a word to refer to just about anything, the word loses its meaning and becomes merely an instrumental tool. That's what has happened to Christianity. Or, perhaps, I should write, "Christianity."
There are quite a few people in America, like Robertson, who enjoy denigrating something they don't like by saying it is in the grip of the devil, and that this is known to them because Christianity has told them so. When people say things like that, they have no meaning in mind for either "Christianity" or the "devil." They're just calling names. But here's the curious thing about them; they're too dimwitted to know they're calling names.
I'll admit that stupidity of this dimension can be frustrating. But I don't think it's a reasonable cause for anger. Sympathy would be a more valid response.
Pat Robertson can't help himself. He has basted his mind with so many layers of nonsense, for so many years, that, probably, there's no brain tissue remaining. There's nothing left where a brain used to be other than the gooey concoction he has poured into himself. His motive in starting the process may deserve some blame, but it has been going on for so long I doubt we can approach the original cause.
I'm not sure why we give him any attention at all. Some people say he remains influential but anyone who could find him persuasive would be perfectly crazy without him. I think we should just let him rest, inconspicuously, in his blather.
What Is It?
January 13, 2010
The arguments over the big banks and the compensation of those who manage them is heating up. People are angry over the bonuses some of the managers will receive. The magnitude of these bonuses is often spoken of as obscene.
The ostensible reason for the anger is the public money these banks had to have recently in order to avoid going bankrupt. Had they not been able to raid the Treasury, so to speak, they would not have been able to continue in business or to rake in the profits that are now coming their way. Many voices proclaim that it's not fair for rich people to use money collected -- through a process of duress -- from the small taxpayer to get even richer than they used to be.
They're right. It's not fair. But fairness is not the primary issue, and as long as it's seen as being the issue we will be unable to get at the fundamental problem.
The prime issue is power: how much power should a single person or a small group of private persons be allowed to have?
When it comes to certain forms of power, we understand the issue fairly well. If you found out that a guy down the street had three hydrogen bombs in his cellar, practically everyone would agree with you that he shouldn't have them and steps would be taken by legal authorities to divest him of his property. Why? Because that much power is dangerous and could lead to extensive damage to other people.
On the other hand, if you found out that the guy down the street had thirty trillion dollars in his bank account -- and if you were an average person -- you would probably be impressed and consider your neighbor to be a leading citizen. The chances are it wouldn't occur to you that thirty trillion dollars is too much economic power for any private person to have because it allows him to do dangerous things if he wishes.
In the United States money is not seen to be power even though that's precisely what it is. That blindness is getting us into a lot of trouble.
Money of a certain magnitude can buy governments. It is frequently charged that the big banks of America own the government because they can make it do anything they want. But we don't take the next step and say that power enough to own the government is dangerous and shouldn't be permitted. Instead, we tell ourselves that such power should be regulated so that it won't be used in harmful ways. We don't tell the guy with the hydrogen bomb that he will be regulated so he can't wipe out Chicago. That's because we know the harm that he can do by ignoring the regulations completely overwhelms any supposed right he has to own the bomb. We would take the bomb away from him.
We refuse to face the truth that vast economic power can do just as much harm as vast physical power, that the two forms of power are in truth just about the same thing. This refusal to face facts we call freedom. It's just about the only form of freedom we recognize.
It's hard to say exactly when personal power reaches such a dimension it should not be permitted. But it's clear that with respect to economic power that limit has long since been passed. I've got nothing against a person who manages to accumulate two million dollars in his hands; I don't even have a complaint against people with ten or twenty million. The latter can do some harm with their money, but they couldn't do such catastrophic harm as to injure seriously major portions of the population. But the money in the hands of the largest financial institutions in America clearly has done harm to the population and continues to do it. And it contributes nothing of social value.
It is permitted because most of us have been brainwashed to view vast accumulations of money as something other than what they are. Until we learn to see them as the power to do major harm, we won't be able to conduct a sensible economic debate. It's hard to imagine that learning taking place any time soon. It may well requite economic cataclysms far worse than the one we have just been through.
January 12, 2010
I see that the first National Tea Party Convention will be held in Nashville next month. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann will speak. I suppose it's appropriate that the first stars of this new movement are renowned mainly for not knowing anything, since the organization itself is based on a complete misrepresentation of what the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was all about.
The riot in Boston on December 16th of that year, which resulted in the destruction of 90,000 pounds of tea, had nothing to do with an imposition of taxes. Rather it was about a tax cut which allowed merchants buying from the East India Company to lower the price Bostonians would have to pay for tea. People would be able to purchase legally imported tea for less than they had formerly paid for tea supplied by smugglers.
The outcry had to do with the profits of the smugglers. They saw it as a terrible oppression that they couldn't continue to make money by breaking the law. So they vowed that they would allow no tea belonging to the East India Company to be unloaded onto Boston's docks.
I suppose one might view this as an act of incipient American patriotism but it certainly cannot be called a rebellion against taxes.
What the modern Tea Party is all about it's hard to say. Its leaders, such as they are, don't seem to know themselves. The general sense is that the Tea Party is against the government. But which government policies they would like to see repealed is not clear. If you look at the signs brandished at the meetings so far, you get the impression that the new group is composed of gun nuts, racists, and people who don't understand why there should be any taxes at all. Now and then, you'll see a mildly sympathetic analysis which views the Tea Party as a protest against all that's wrong with America and, therefore, as a manifestation of growing frustration.
It's hard to fault people who are opposed to all that's bad, but if they can't say what's bad, or why it's bad, you might begin to wonder about their practical reason. Screams of frustration may be understandable but they are not plans of action. In fact, there's no assurance that any plan will ever emerge from them.
The reason I'm not very sympathetic to the Tea Party movement is that its adherents strike me as extremely nasty people. They function as a mob rather than as a political force. It's true that mob action has sometimes led to political organization, but my understanding of history tells me that mob-generated behavior seldom brings forth anything healthy. More often than not it produces lynching and genocide.
There has always been an element in America who believe that getting rid of "those" people -- whoever those people happen to be -- is the path to political bliss. The method we are to use in ridding ourselves of these degenerate types is usually not specified. But there's always a suggestion of bloodiness in it. I think we already have more than enough bloodiness in America, so my enthusiasm for the Tea Party is not on the rise.
A New Mind Coming
January 12, 2010
Stanley Fish's column in the New York Times this morning about the difference between the true answer and the right answer has a wider reach than even he implies. His point is that the systems with which we have to deal are structured with respect to certain expected and demanded responses. They don't care what the truth is; all they care about is whether they get the answer they want or, you might say, the answer that has been built into them.
Fish is writing about systems like banks, credit card companies, and legal codes but fails to mention that every network of communication has become a system now with its required mode of response. Think about poor Harry Reid. He recently said something that was obviously true. But in saying it, he used words the political system -- through some mysterious process that no one actually understands -- has decided to ban. Consequently, he became the main topic of interest on TV talk shows. He felt forced to apologize. A lot of people are demanding that he resign his position of Senate leadership. And all this because he spoke the simple truth.
It has become obvious that we are in the process of forbidding greater and greater regions of truth. That's what makes comedy shows which treat the truth as jokes so popular. Just think what genius it took for Jon Stewart to recognize that all he had to do was go on TV and speak the truth and he would be considered hilarious.
Fish goes a little metaphysical on us and suggests that maybe the demise of truth is not so bad because nobody knows what it is anyway. You can't find an authority for the truth whereas every system has its authority built right into its innards. Systems, at least, know what the right answers are. You may have some difficulty figuring out their codes, but once you've mastered them you can sail right through. And isn't sailing through all that matters?
It may be that the truth is done for and that people will gradually forget what it was once thought to be, that is, if there really is no such thing as truth. But what if there is? What if truth lurks in the background even though nobody pays it any mind? What's going to happen then? There might be some difficulties but, so what?
At the very least, a world with truth driven from public recognition will be a world of perpetual systemic conflict that's incapable of being resolved. We see this evolving in our political systems. There are right answers for Republicans and right answers for Democrats (though some Democrats have been a little backward in surrendering the notion of true answers). If Sarah Palin, for example, says something that's wildly inaccurate and fantastic, it's still the right thing for a certain system, and TV pundits will fall in line and praise her mightily for her skill in working the system. She can make money that way, which is proof positive that her remarks are right.
If there are problems with the new manner of mind, systems can handle them. If surgeons, for example, adopt it they'll kill a lot of people. But we've got too many people already and the systems the surgeons will weave around themselves will proclaim they didn't kill anybody. And they'll be right. They'll be false but they'll be right anyway.
We see the possibilities emerging. In the banking system, people who steal billions from the public coffers are, systemically speaking, great public benefactors. The system wouldn't work if they didn't steal, and where would we be without the system? You could see this as a new religion (or perhaps a new version of the old religion), the faith of Timothy Geithner. It might be that banking could work perfectly well without massive theft, but who would dare be bold enough to find out?
I suppose there will be some regret for the passing of truth, but that's just nostalgia. Brave new worlds demand to be explored. Their opportunities have to be exploited. We can't let sentimental nonsense hold us back.
The Big Reversal
January 9, 2010
Events of the past few days have prompted me to consider the most significant turning point of my lifetime. I'm not sure if it's possible to say exactly when it happened; it was certainly sometime in the latter decades of the 20th Century. If I had to date it precisely, I would say it was November 4, 1980, when the American people decided to make Ronald Reagan the president of the United States.
I am referring, of course, to the decision by a majority of Americans to make stupidity a virtue.
Prior to the latter part of the 20th Century, Americans may not have been the most brilliant people in the world. There are plenty of instances in U.S. history to show that stupidity was in command. But during all the years up till 1980, the professed desire of the people was to get away from stupidity and to work toward intelligence. But all of a sudden it was as if that effort became too hard and people decided to embrace a reality they didn't think they could do anything to avoid. From that point it was full steam ahead towards Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, John Boehner, James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, and so on.
I can remember a time when if someone said something pathetically dumb in public, it was embarrassing and that person would disappear, at least for a while, from public discourse. Maybe some recall that when Gerald Ford announced during the debates of 1976 that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union, it was considered a terrible gaffe and was widely thought to have cost him the election.
Nowadays, of course, such an erroneous statement would simply result in greater celebrity and influence. Ignorance is now the new cute.
Rudy Giuliani, for example, doesn't seem to know the sequence of the months. He thinks that December comes before September. At least that's the conclusion we have to draw from his declaration last Sunday on ABC that the attempt to blow up an airplane by Richard Reid on December 22, 2001 came before the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11th. Keep in mind that this is a man regularly introduced by the media as being one of the foremost experts on terrorist attacks in the world. There's no evidence that Mr. Giuliani's chronological confusion will lead to the media's shying away from him. The truth is, he's likely to get even more attention, because, you know, being mixed up like that is sort of sweet.
Ed Koch recently went on Fox News and said that although most Muslims are not terrorists, hundreds of millions of them are. He seemed unable to grasp the significance of the number. If there are hundreds of millions of people dedicated to launching violent attacks against the United States then our situation is virtually hopeless. It doesn't matter what kind of security devices are implemented. Hundreds of millions of fanatics will not be denied.
Helen Thomas, a journalist evidently protected by her age against the new fashion, asked John Brennan, the president's national security advisor, about the motives of people who wish to attack the United States. He could reply only that they're evil and like to kill people. When she persisted and argued that those are not really motives, Brennan had nothing to say and simply brushed her aside. He was operating in the same mode as George Bush who used to say regularly that the only motive of people opposed to the United States policies was that they hated freedom. There has to be a reason why such nonsense is accepted and even applauded in America.
The only answer I can come up with is because it's stupid and Americans like stupidity. They think there's something solid about it. It has the characteristic of being common and consequently it must be good.
The Middle Eastern scholar Juan Cole made this statement yesterday:
Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. . . . But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.
One can agree, or disagree, with Mr. Coles's analysis but, at least, it's the kind of explanation that one can examine and discuss. Yet it gets virtually no attention from the media. They would rather report, endlessly, that people attack the United States simply because they're evil and let it go at that.
I hope that Coles's prediction won't prove to be accurate, but if we hold onto our fondness for stupidity it's difficult to see how it can be avoided.
January 7, 2010
Almost every time I turn on the TV lately I see a breathless revelation that persons once locked up at Guantanamo have returned to their home countries and begun to cooperate with al Qaeda. It's unbelievable how ungrateful some people can be. You would think that their release would make them undying boosters of the United States. Instead they are perfect examples of how perverse the enemies of the United States are.
Their attitude has inspired me to formulate a new thesis, one so incredible and unique that I warn you in advance you may have a hard time catching your breath once you take it in. So get ready; here it is: some people -- and let's face it, most of them are Muslims -- when they are arrested, imprisoned for years, and tortured repeatedly by the United States government develop a dislike for the United States. And here's the second part of it, which is even more bizarre than the first: the more people -- especially if they are Muslims -- who have formerly done nothing to the United States, the U.S. government arrests, imprisons and tortures, the more enemies the United States will have.
Now, I know you are asking, how could such an hypothesis occurred to me. I have to admit that even though the response of former Guantanamo prisoners gave me a slight hint, the whole thing seemed so preposterous that I had to struggle to allow it to be assimilated by my brain. That's why I certainly can hold no grudge against U.S. intelligence forces for not coming up with it. An idea like this pops only into a single brain maybe once a century. Why my poor brain was selected I have no clue. The workings of the universe are unfathomable.
Still, now that it's out, I wonder if, in the fullness of time, it might not begin to have some practical applications. In war -- and we all know we are in war right now, --the fewer your enemies are, the greater your chance of victory. If there are only three or four hundred people around the globe trying to do you in, you may have a chance to keep them under control and, perhaps, even defeat them. But, let that number grow to a billion, and the odds become much greater. I have never heard a military official of the United States make this point. It may be classified. Still, rare as it is, the logic behind it seems irrefutable.
So it could be the case that with my thesis now out in the open, on the internet for anyone to see, some members of U.S. Intelligence might pick it up and begin to develop policies to take it into account. We can't underestimate the difficulty of such a transformation. It would radicalize American military intelligence. It would involve thinking in ways never before imagined by intelligence officers. Yet if the notion that capturing, imprisoning and torturing people was creating enemies for our nation, the process of doing those things might be modified. They could never be done away with altogether because, after all, an organization has to reflect its nature in some respect. But a small modification might have consequences.
In my most wildly unrealistic and ambitious thoughts I even nudge myself towards the concept that the killing of people -- especially little children, even if they are Muslims -- might also have the effect of making enemies for ourselves. But I don't want to get carried away by myself.
The Windy City
January 5, 2010
Chicago continues cold and perplexing. When I'm here, I stay on the south side in a neighborhood most people of my complexion avoid. The theory is that it's dangerous in this part of town. And perhaps it is. Yet I've confronted no hostility. Most of the people I've encountered in stores and restaurants have been friendly, polite.
Even so, there are depressing features to this part of the city. Many people I see on the streets look beat-down. The general sense one absorbs here is that life is hard and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Why is that?
The University of Chicago, surrounded by drab neighborhoods, is reputed to be one of the stellar intellectual centers of the earth. I have no doubt the reputation is deserved. The university's history sparkles with the brilliant careers that have been launched from its halls. Though there are residential fingers extending from the university which are more than comfortable -- some of them obviously affluent -- they don't have a transformative effect on the general atmosphere.
You could say that the south side of Chicago is gritty, and pay a begrudging compliment with the term. You wouldn't be wrong with either the description or the compliment.
I fantasize when I'm here about getting a pleasant condo on 57th Street and becoming, strictly, a 57th Street guy. It wouldn't be a terrible condition. On 57th Street there's the Florian Restaurant, the little coffee shop under the railroad trestle, Powell's Book Store, the Medici Bakery, Edwardo's pizza place -- all of them establishments I would enjoy patronizing frequently. It might be a little gritty getting to them, but once arrived, I could luxuriate, in a gritty sort of way.
In the spring and summer, I could stroll through the university and observe self-absorbed, ardent ambition at heights as elevated as it exists in the world. Oxford has nothing over Chicago in that respect. Watching the facial expressions of its fanaticism provides fun, of sorts.
This is the locality Barack Obama once frequented. In the restaurants I see signs announcing, "Obama ate here." He has said that one of the most acute prices of the presidency is that he can no longer walk around here as he used to, and as I do on most days I'm here. I understand his regret.
This is where Saul Bellow hung out, and Allan Bloom, and even Leo Strauss. I don't know what Hannah Arendt did while she was here, whether she ever strolled back and forth across 57th Street.
If you told me I could never walk down 57th Street again, I would feel a pang, but it would be moderate. Fascinating as it is, Chicago is not exactly my cup of tea. Tomorrow, I will get in my little Saab and drive east, through Indiana, Ohio, right through the center of Cleveland, and on into New York, heading for Vermont. And I will be glad to think about returning to the simplicity of the Green Mountain State. Strange as it is to consider, Vermont has become my cup of tea, and I suppose I should be grateful for that.
Chicago will be behind me -- big, busy, ambitious, gritty, stretching out endlessly, and mysterious as ever. I have no ability to figure it out. If you're seeking its meaning, you have to look for it yourself, and face the possibility that you may search forever and never find.
Motives and Other Motives
January 3, 2010
I saw Thomas McInerney on Fox News yesterday advising, in the most stentorian tones, that all young Muslim men be strip-searched before they are allowed on board commercial aircraft. He is a retired lieutenant general from the U.S. Air Force.
Lieutenant General is an elevated rank, so most people tend to assume that persons who achieve that level must have some sort of competence. Yet quite a few of them, after they have left office, begin to talk like utter loons. Then we ask ourselves: what can this mean?
There was a time in my life when I had concluded that most high-ranking military officers were merely nuts. For a number of years, I had no assessment of them other than their craziness. This was based on considerable personal interaction with persons of that rank.
Gradually, though, I have come to a more complicated judgment. It's a commonplace of psychology that most humans don't know themselves well enough to be fully aware of their motives. It's reasonable to assume that self-deception of that sort will rise to its utmost elevation among people for whom self-scrutiny is seen as a despicable practice. And nowhere is self-examination more disdained than in military organizations. So when generals talk they probably grasp their own motives even less firmly than ordinary persons do.
When Thomas McInerney pushes for strip-searching all young Muslim male aircraft passengers he probably thinks he is taking that stance out of concern for the safety of aircraft passengers. But when we examine the actual effects of the policy it becomes instantly clear that such an intrusive and insulting practice would heighten indignation and anger among Muslim youth and make them even more likely than they are already to dedicate themselves to striking a blow at their tormentors. Following McInerney's advice would increase the danger of Muslims killing Westerners rather than decrease it.
As I say, that's clear. But McInerney can't see it. Why not?
The obvious answer is that saving lives is not really what's driving McInerney's insistence. If you consider his recommendation on its merits alone it becomes obvious that the principal effect would be to elevate hostility between Western governments and Muslim youth. And that would insure that the conflict between them will proceed more vigorously and last longer than it would otherwise. That consequence is likely to be McInerney's underlying motive.
Generals are often heard proclaiming that they hate war more than anybody else. But think about it. Does that make any sense?
They have devoted themselves to a profession which depends on war or the threat of war. Without war, there would be no use for them. You can, of course, say the same thing about doctors and sickness, and police and crime. And there doubtless is among the latter two pursuits a dependence on the activities that are to be combatted. But crime and sickness -- we hope, at least -- rise more directly from human nature than war does. I realize that's a controversial statement and that some people believe war to be an essential characteristic of human nature. But I'm prepared to argue against that notion and have argued against it fairly persistently over quite a few years. I have little hope that crime or sickness can be ended any time in the next century. But it does seem to me possible that war -- as we have traditionally experienced and pursued it -- might come to be seen as the insanity it is and consequently be laid aside.
I suspect that General McInerney and most of his colleagues would disagree and somewhere deep within their psyches dislike that idea. It is a rare high-ranking military officer who actually hates war.
When I say that generals are commonly warmongers, I don't mean that they are monsters, nor do I mean that they should never be listened to. But I do mean that their underlying motives should always be taken into account. You could reasonably say the same thing about anyone. But the difference between a general and anyone is that the former's unacknowledged impulses are lethal. A pedant's impulses may tend to canker the spirit, and that's bad. But it's not as directly bad as being blown into little bits by a bomb. One can recover from the influence of a pedant, or a cheating banker, or a manipulative politician. But frequently the influence of a general places people beyond recovery.
So if we are going to subject words to critical examination -- which I think is the hope of humankind -- let's put the words of generals first on the list.
A Distinct Minority
January 2, 2010
Sitting in a Hyde Park restaurant, eating Eggs Benedict and watching the wide screen television across from me proclaim the need for more security experts in America, I began to wonder. What will it be like when everyone in America, other than children under seven and myself, has become a security expert? Will I feel more, or less, secure?
I was reminded of an earlier episode in my life. During the days when I had a security clearance I would periodically be required to attend security briefings and be reminded about the requirements associated with my position. One day a top level security expert had warned us that we must speak to no one -- outside our work -- about the things we knew. Even your mother might be a Communist agent, he said solemnly.
Shortly thereafter I raised my hand and was acknowledged. "I would just like to go on record," I said, "that I know my mother is not a Communist agent, know it beyond any doubt whatsoever." At first, there was silence, then a few chuckles in the room. The top security expert glared at me.
When the meeting was over, he took me by the arm and led me into the hall. "Security is too serious to be joked about," he said vociferously. "I wasn't joking," I answered. "My mother is not a Communist agent and I have no interest in living in a country where people routinely suspect their relatives of being enemy agents."
"You don't know anything," he ejaculated and stalked away down the hall.
I've often thought of that guy and the mentality he represented. Persons of his ilk are sprinkled liberally through the government and although they are often seen as buffoons, they also exercise considerable influence.
Just think of Gordon Liddy.
I suppose there are psychological types who worry about security all the time -- meaning by the term not prudent ways to live healthily but a fanatical determination not to be injured by persons hostile to our nation. I'm afraid I can't see them as interesting companions, and if we reach a stage where virtually everyone is like that I suppose there will be nothing left for me other than to retreat to a hermitage.
Such persons are peculiar in many bizarre ways. But this is how they are most bizarre: if you should say to them that the best way to guard against injury by people hostile to our nation is to reduce the reasons for being hostile, they will virtually explode.
They are obsessed by the notion that people hate us not for any reason but just because we, being virtuous, naturally attract the enmity of all devotees of Satan. They actually do see the world as divided between worshippers good and those who adore evil. In truth, I'm afraid, they take it even farther. For them, the only way to define good is to identify what they worship, no matter what it is.
All of us, of course, can seek the world we prefer. As for myself, I hope that if the United States is adopting the religion of security, I will, during the time left to me, be able to find small groups of heretics with whom, occasionally, I can share a cup of tea.
January 1, 2010
I had intended to make a posting to this site yesterday. But the silliness of public discourse overwhelmed me. I decided I didn't want to be a part of it. What, for example, is there to say about the looniness of the former vice-president of the United States? He seems to be everywhere in the news now, lauding the idea of perpetual war and castigating anyone who doesn't share his appetite. But we've been hearing this nonsense for years. What is the sense of listening to it anymore? Or what's the sense of bothering to comment about it. There are thousands of crazy people in the world. Dick Cheney happens to be one of them. So what?
Generalize the feeling I had about Cheney and you can understand my response to public commentary overall. Although occasionally you can find someone with intelligent thoughts, the majority of what appears, as news on television and the internet is farcical. Does that make one farcical to pay attention to it?
Yesterday I thought it did. Today I'm struggling towards a different outlook.
There are several reasons for trying to construct interstices of sanity in a world dominated by farce. First, they give harbors of repose to others with a taste for sane thought. It's possible, in a world like ours, to suspect that you are the only sane person in existence. And that, of course, is a suspicion that translates eventually into one's own insanity. But if you can find just a few others who share your views and, at the same time, try to employ evidence carefully, they provide you with a degree of comfort.
A second reason is intellectual calisthenics. Setting your own mind into contrast with lunacy, and finding adequate reason for doing it is not as easy as it sounds. A cacophony of craziness is disconcerting. Concentration becomes difficult. Trying to stay on your feet in the midst of it can be seen as an invigorating game, one that builds the muscles of the mind.
Third, in the absence of resistance, you'll be swept away. Just think of looking into the mirror in the morning and saying to yourself, "I'm just as crazy as Dick Cheney." Could there be any torture deeper than that?
The first thing I read this morning was a set of passages from Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. In one of them, he says:
The price of fruitfulness is to be rich in internal opposition; one remains young only as long as the soul does not stretch itself and desire peace. Nothing has become more alien to us than that desideratum of former times, "peace of soul," the Christian desideratum; there is nothing we envy less than the moralistic cow and the fat happiness of the good conscience.
Setting aside Nietzsche's slam at Christianity, which, of course, depended on his particular definition, which it is not necessary to share, there's good sense in those sentences. Yesterday, I was longing for peace. And to want the sort of peace I thought I wanted yesterday is not either a noble or a sensible desire.
The world we find ourselves dropped down into is neither peaceful nor reasonable. Yet, there it is, the only world we've got. What else is there to do except take pleasure in both our enemies and our friends, and to face the hard truth that the former are probably as required for meaning as are the latter.
It's a screwy system one might say. But we didn't set it up; we just have to deal with it. I hope I can remember that at least as well in the year just starting as I did in the year just past.
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