Word and Image of Vermont

October 31, 2010

The election is next Tuesday. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was distressed at what seems to be happening. We are heading into a period of bad politics, which means rule by the stupid.

Now, though I regret the personal hardship this will entail, I'm resigned to its coming. I don't mind seeing the United States, as geopolitical entity, slip towards degradation. That's because I've concluded it's the only way for the American people to learn anything. We may need a time of Republicanism in order to get completely nauseated and consequently throw up the foul concoction in our innards.

I suppose all nations are sprinkled with bad ideas but in America right now we're awash in them.

We can start with the "American Dream" which appears to be almost totally materialistic. If Americans can't dream about anything other than acquiring more and more property -- in effect more and more stuff -- then what does it matter what happens to them? They're already condemned to insipid lives.

We love to have big guns, both nationally and personally. Is there anything more childish than that?

We hate subtle and imaginative intellect because it's supposedly elitist.

Our electric grid, water systems and roads are falling apart because we have concluded that the only meaning of freedom is to have no taxes -- none at all.

Our heroes, or at least the people we want to emulate, are those who have swindled billions out of the financial system, while producing nothing.

Our newspapers and television programming are produced for those who have no education beyond a seventh grade level -- and a bad seventh grade at that.
We have a criminal justice system which in some jurisdictions consigns people to prison for decades for violations identical to those which in other districts are regarded as minor misdemeanors.

So, now, you're saying I'm bitter or unfair. But am I?

Actually I'm not at all bitter. Truth is I'm quite cheerful. Think of how much fun we can all have watching John Boehner prance and bow as the Speaker of the House. It's hard to imagine more gleeful entertainment than that. He'll turn Archie Bunker into a grand sage.

If you think my quick summary of American attitudes and practices is off course, then how do you account for study after study which shows the United States steadily declining in health, education, and productivity? Even our vaunted entertainment industry is slipping more and more rapidly towards the vapid because the money mongers in charge of it think they can sell vapidity to the public more successfully than anything else.

We still have pretty good sports, though they too are in danger of being corrupted by money.

It's true that there are many areas of inventiveness in America and many interesting things going on. But I'm writing just now about our political culture which will infect more and more areas of national life unless it is transformed. And it's hard to perceive transformation coming soon. We slipped to this level gradually and if we climb out that too will have to be a gradual process.

I would like to think the upcoming elections will mark the bottom and that we'll begin to turn upwards by the beginning of next year. But if I were to predict that, you would say I was being too optimistic.

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The Ongoing Urge
October 29, 2010

A letter to the Times this morning, in response to an anti-death penalty editorial, so perfectly captures the spirit of the new moralistic political thuggery in America I thought, at first, it had to be a joke. But, then, I read a little more carefully and came to the conclusion it's probably the real thing. It was submitted by Bud Unanski of Homdel, New Jersey, and is succinct and complete to the degree it deserves to be quoted in full:

The death penalty is like Obamacare. The people of the country overwhelmingly
want the penalty, but cannot have it, except in a few agonizing cases. The majority
of Americans do NOT want Obamacare, but are having it shoved down our throats.
Who is in charge here? Certainly not the people who vote.

It calls to mind a Mafia guy who has decided to take up patriotism but who also wants to hold onto his traditional modes and attitudes.

Just think of the indignation! The people want more judicial killing but they can't have it except in such petty doses that it doesn't begin to mollify their righteousness.

And Obamacare, which of course doesn't have to be defined because the word itself is the object of outrage, is exactly like the death penalty -- except that in actuality it's the opposite -- is the desecrator of democracy.

We are naive to believe that certain political sentiments are ever permanently interred. They take on different names of course. Old names lose their utility. But underlying sentiments persist.

The banners of the Ku Klux Klan are pretty well tattered beyond use. Yet the people who once might have draped themselves in sheets aren't lacking for roosts in modern America.  The Tea Party is the latest great new thing for them , the inchoate passion of real Americans, the thrust to cleanse the country of alien elements and transform everything and everybody back to the way they supposedly once were. The rallying cry is "We have to get things back on track." Nobody bothers to tell us where the track goes.

We need a name for this package of lusts and attitudes, but we don't have one that approaches adequacy. It tends to be tagged as "populism," but obviously there are populist desires which have almost nothing to do with what Bud Unanski wants.

It would be refreshing if the various euphemisms could be laid aside  and the movement could step out forthrightly as "The Revenge Party." Then there could be an honest platform: freedom as revenge, justice as revenge, economics as revenge, government as the great and dedicated instrument of revenge, foreign policy, most of all, as the most luxurious revenge.

Unreflecting anger is probably the easiest and most saccharine emotion. Nothing else deliver such an effortless conviction of superiority. Because it's so tempting there will always be a political movement to serve it. We can hope to avoid times when movements of that kind rise to prominence. Yet it seems that, hope as we will, we're in for a period of that character now. Mr. Unanski's testimony is compelling.

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Democracy's Needs
October 28, 2010

As the mid-term elections approach, it's easy in here in America, and particularly where I am in Florida, to become frustrated. The political debates, as they are exhibited in public meetings and on television, come across as vapid and meaningless. Few politicians offer sensible proposals about how to strengthen government structures or make them more beneficent. One is left asking, "What's going on?"

I've gradually begun to shift my opinion on that question.

A common answer has been that too many people are unwilling to support procedures that are helpful for the general population. Most are so concentrated, so it is said, on their own advantage they can't be bothered with public health. Clearly, we do have many persons of that sort among the American population. And just as clearly they do bear some responsibility for the nasty turn politics have taken recently. Still, I'm inclined to consider them a secondary problem.

Our primary challenge, I suspect, is not people who are willing the wrong procedures or are unwilling to support the right ones. It is not so much a problem of willing as it is a problem of ability. We don't have a sufficient number of citizens capable of participating in a sensible democracy.

The conventional belief has been that so long as we have open and free elections we can sit back and let the fruits of democracy shower down upon our heads. That's simply not true. Democracy requires not just that people cast ballots but that they cast them with a reasonably accurate appraisal of what the actual results will be. If a majority of the people are voting in a state of ignorance and empty abstraction then democracy becomes a sham.

To have a rational perception of what it might mean to put this, or that, person in office, one needs a modicum of understanding about what a political problem is and how it might be solved. Those who have never thought about such issues cast their votes in much the same way they might fire off a shotgun with no target in view. They just want to make a big noise and there's no telling who will get hurt.

We are expecting people to do things they can't do. Expecting Sarah Palin, for example, to think realistically about government is like expecting a 400 pound man to jump out of his Lazy Boy and run a marathon. I use her as a symbol because I believe she does represent a significant element of the American electorate. They are being asked to express informed opinion about complex problems they have never spent five minutes studying. Is it any wonder they appear absurd?

We have stumbled into a political morass which almost no one wishes to drain because to do it requires refuting one of our most cherished myths. We have to step away from the faith that the American people, collectively, will in the long run make wise choices. Even to hint they won't -- or, more accurately can't -- makes one feel queasy. Still, it's the truth, an even more inconvenient truth than the fact of global warming.

We are either going to have to find ways to bring a majority of the people into informed debate or we're going to have to hold a vigil over the death of democracy in America. I don't know which we're going to do. I don't even know which we want to do. I sometimes think some of us are so enamored of ignorance we would choose it over almost any other socially potent habit.

What we cannot do is avoid the consequences of a real choice by continuing to pretend that politics in America involves a genuine clash of ideas. The campaign commercials I've been watching lately testify that political consultants have long since concluded that most of the people are devoid of ideas. It's time the rest of us learn what the political operatives have known, so cynically, for years.

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Moral Obsolescence
October 26, 2010

The topic for the November meeting of the Samuel Johnson Society in Vermont is going to be practices that are considered generally acceptable now but will be scorned as immoral or disgusting within a hundred years. We see this as pertinent to Johnson because he was strongly opposed to slavery in the late 18th century when many, and perhaps most, people saw it as a necessary institution.

It's easy enough to pick activities that are still practiced which will be obsolete by then. The legal penalty of death is the most obvious. But already the judicial killing of people as punishment is seen as horrific by a majority of citizens in developed countries. So we can scarcely say it qualifies as behavior that's acceptable now but will be banished then.

We need to find something that really is acceptable now, that few people have any objection to, which will have become nauseous a century hence.

You could say that the eating of animals fits that category. But there may already be too many people who are opposed to it to give it legitimacy as one of our topics.

If I were forced to make my best guess -- a thing I would not want to do in many circles -- I think I would put forward something to do with sex. I have been known to say that human society is insane with respect to sex, that it has been so throughout history and that probably it will be so as long as it -- or sex -- persists. So to predict that any form of that insanity will disappear is tenuous - at best.

Still, if I were forced, I might say that some forms of sexual ownership will increasingly fall under critical scrutiny. When you consider the immense burden of misery that has afflicted humankind by the attitude of ownership, you have to suspect that at some time it will come to be seen as more costly than it's worth.

I realize that by saying so I could make many people angry at me. But, then, that's the nature of this topic, isn't it? When considering things of this sort, one has to face the truth that morality is a temporal quality, and, therefore, that practices which excite moral passions in one era become less incendiary in another. In my own lifetime, for example, homosexuality has moved from behavior -- in my world at least -- that was seen as horribly immoral to relationships that are regularly depicted in the popular media as rather cute and cuddly.

The underlying concept from which our topic rises -- and which the Johnson Society may, or may not, dig down to -- is the nature of morality itself. What can we say it is -- in all times and all places? Is there any possibility of such a definition?

If we wanted to be trite, we could say simply that morality is whatever a given society approves, and immorality anything it disapproves. But if morality is something other than mores, which many philosophical thinkers have said it is, that definition won't work.

I hope no one is expecting me to supply a watertight definition here. I confess that, at times, I have toyed with the notion that morality is whatever stupid people want to inflict on other people. But that was when I was younger and more brash.

"Good" may well be the most mysterious word in language. We seem to be the only species that worries about it. That kind of speculation may be our downfall, and it might be our glory. I suppose it could be both.

Anyway, if I come up with a brilliant flash of insight, or if I'm visited by a revelation from anything or anyone that has the right and the power to reveal, I'll let you know. Otherwise, we'll just have to wait for the Johnson Society to solve the problem.

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The Power of Access to Books
October 23, 2010

On October 1st, Robert Darnton, the head librarian at Harvard, while opening a conference of librarians at his university, made a spirited plea for a National Digital Library. His talk has since been reprinted in the New York Review of Books. It was the kind of address designed to infuse people with idealism and determination. It was, clearly, a call to action.

Here's a statement he made near the end of his speech: "By creating a National Digital Library, we can make our fellow citizens active members of an international Republic of Letters, and we can strengthen the bonds of citizenship at home."

It's a nice idea but it's not true.

I don't want to be misunderstood. I have nothing against a National Digital Library. It's a worthy idea and may well be useful for some people. But it's not going to do what Darnton says it will.

He began his address with statements from the founding fathers about the power of literacy. Here, for example, is Benjamin Franklin: "The art of printing ... diffuses so general a light ... that all the window shutters despotism and priestcraft can oppose to keep it out, prove insufficient."

There probably was some truth to that comment in the 18th century because then many did not have the access to books they needed or were hungry for. That's no longer the case. Americans are not failing to join the "Republic of Letters," which Darnton proclaims to be required for the maintenance of the Constitution, because they can't get at books. They're failing because they have no interest in the Republic of Letters. Anyone who's interested nowadays has millions of books available to him. A National Digital Library will simply add more millions to that number. But if a person has no desire for the books in the first million why would he suddenly develop a taste for those in the tenth?

I don't know how much you would have to pay the average American to read a serious book but, clearly, it would require many times the minimum wage. And even if you paid a hundred dollars an hour, a majority probably could not earn $25 by demonstrating a grasp of what they had read.

Mr. Darnton is proposing a tool that possesses no utility for what he wishes to accomplish. The intellectual problems of the American people are far deeper than a National Digital Library can touch.

The reading of books which address major social problems requires genuine curiosity and long practice. Neither pop up just because it's easy to find books on the internet. In fact, it may well be the case that since the advent of the internet both curiosity and the effort needed to work through a demanding text have declined.

It's hard to know why a man presumably as intelligent as Robert Darnton would make such a flawed argument. Maybe it was just the spirit of the moment. But it's more likely that Mr. Darnton is in the same fix as the rest of us. He probably has no idea how to encourage the general population to make use of our rich cultural heritage.

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Political Transformation
October 22, 2010

If I were magically given the power to introduce a single change into American politics it would be to remove all moral questions from political debate and replace them with questions of preference.

There's no sense in talking about which policies are good, or better, unless you clarify for whom they are good or better. There is no policy that would gratify every citizen of the United States because various Americans want very different things. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging that simple truth?

I have in front of me right now, for example, a flyer from Vern Buchanan, the Republican Congressman from the district that includes Hardee County. It says that Verne "will always do what's right for Florida, our economy, jobs and families. But he'll also always do what's right for America, and get our country back on track."

This is highly moralistic language. The trouble with it is that what Vern thinks is right for Florida and America is certainly not what I prefer. Vern wants to repeal the health care bill that was passed earlier this year. That's clearly not what's helpful for the people who will benefit from it. He wants to pass a bill that would require a balanced budget from the federal government each year. That's not only highly unrealistic; it would be a disaster for the country if it were passed.  Vern can support these moves if he wishes, but we would all be better off if he would simply come out and admit that they push us towards the kind of country he, and those who reward him, want. There's nothing particularly right about them. They're just what he desires -- or thinks he desires.

What we should be debating in this country is not what's good or right. There's no way to define these things other than through foggy abstractions. Rather, we should have various visions of how our country might develop laid before us. Then we could pick among them in a fairly rational manner.

If Vern thinks it's more important for insurance executives to make high salaries than it is for sick people to receive adequate medical care, then he should say so. Then the people who care deeply about big salaries for insurance executives could vote for him and those who care more about treatment for the sick could vote for his opponent. If you want to follow Vern's path then you can have more gigantic houses dotting the landscape and more people dying from treatable disorders. Nobody can tell you definitively which of these should concern you more. But when the options are sketched accurately, you can consult your own values to choose between them.

Another of Vern's flyers informs me that he has been married to his college sweetheart Sandy for thirty-four years. If Vern and Sandy are happy together, then I'm glad for them. But their union doesn't tell me much about how he will vote in the House of Representatives. The implication is that his long-term marriage to Sandy is a sign of virtue, and that his domestic virtue will translate into political virtue. But this is a false and deceptive message. There is no political virtue that flows from a politician's domestic stability. What we need to know about a politician is what kind of social and economic system he is seeking to serve up to us. Then, we can decide whether it's a system we want.

In short, politics is a process of selecting preferences. It shouldn't be focused primarily on the personal characteristics of those who hold political office. And if we're going to support our preferences intelligently, we need to know as clearly as possible where the persons seeking public office stand with respect to them.

Pontificating about what's moral in politics is generally just a tactic for beclouding issues. We need to teach ourselves that when we get that kind of rhetoric from a candidate we should push through it to see what kind of social world he actually wants to foist upon us. If we started doing that more consistently, we could gain a healthier country, and perhaps, even, return Vern to the private life in which he assures us he functioned magnificently.

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Winter Haven
October 21, 2010

I'm not sure about Winter Haven's name. Does it imply that it's a haven from winter elsewhere, or is it a haven during the winter months right where it is? I have a sense that no one in Winter Haven is asking himself that question.

In any case, I went to Winter Haven a couple days ago and poked around. One of the key spots in town is a shopping center just to the right of U.S. 17 (when you're driving north) which has a Joanne's and a Big Lots. In the latter I purchased three cans of smoked oysters packed in cottonseed oil, for a dollar a can, which seems to be the standard price nationwide. I also got something I have no real need of -- a 30 sheet pack of 12X12 printed archival paper, heavy stock, almost of a card quality. The reason I got it was that it's listed as having a $29.99 retail value. I got it for $3.00. It's hard to pass up something that's 90% off.

After securing these treasures, I drove into what once was known as the town center. Like most small Florida municipalities, Winter Haven has become primarily a strip. The town center is where few people go. I will say for Winter Haven, though, that they have made a genuine effort to maintain some appeal in the old downtown. It has a series of well kept parks and several small shops of a more or less boutique nature. In the town's single bookstore, I discovered that a typical offering was a prominently displayed novel titled Between Hell and Texas. I didn't purchase anything there.

Coming out of the bookstore, I realized that it was well past noon and that I was hungry. So I drove back down U.S. 17, and pulled into the parking lot of Fred's. This restaurant proved to be one of many Fred's establishments in central Florida. The chain got its start in Plant City in the 1950s, as a Super Test filling station which sold sandwiches on the side.

Fred's chief claim is that it is southern. Therefore, its food is delicious just by virtue of being southern. There is no hint, anywhere in Fred's, that southernness might not constitute a guarantee of culinary excellence.

I won't say that Fred's is a bad restaurant. On the other hand, it's not a particularly good restaurant either. Its chief offering at lunch is a buffet where, if you are of a mind, you can load up with more food than any human ought to eat at a single meal. Quite a few of the customers in Fred's were evidence that they practiced Fred's style of eating more often than is, perhaps, good for their hearts. I skipped the buffet and ordered a chicken salad which proved to be so gargantuan I could eat only a third of it. But the waitress cheerfully brought me a plastic box into which I shoveled the remainder of the salad for sustenance later. It wasn't a disgraceful salad but aside from its size it was fairly nondescript. There was no surprising flavor in it anywhere. I left Fred's convinced that avoiding surprise was a signal aim of most of Fred's customers.

If you were to ask me whether I would ever again return to Fred's, I'm afraid I would have to say no.

There are a great many car lots up and down U.S. 17 in Winter Haven, so many in fact that you get the sense that buying and selling cars -- and trucks -- is the main commercial activity in town. I'm not sure why car buying is as prominent in Florida as it is. The weather is mild, so cars ought to last longer in the Sunshine State than they do elsewhere. But that doesn't seem to impede the rate of buying and selling them.

Just north of the Big Lots shopping center is another shopping center which contains a Macy's. Usually when I have gone to Winter Haven I have visited the Macy's but this time it held no appeal for me. I suspect that the fading of Macy's from my list of temptations, is a sign that central Florida is less likely to lure me than it once did. It's a consumer society, in a way, maniacally so. That the goods offered are mostly lackluster doesn't seem to affect how intensely they are sought. But, then, I suppose consumerism is based on the thrill of getting something, with the quality of it being definitely secondary.

Florida likes to advertise itself as being a kind of paradise. It may be a valid claim, but only if your vision of paradise includes nothing but physical comfort. If you have a hankering for something other than physical comfort you would probably be well-advised not to settle down in Winter Haven.

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Journalistic Practice
October 20, 2010

I read the New York Times almost every day. In fact, it has become such a habit with me I have a hard time imagining the social thought of people who don't read the Times.

That, of course, is absurd. Most Americans don't read the Times each day. Most, actually, do not read the Times at all. And it may be true that a majority of Americans have never heard of the New York Times. So, it's ridiculous for me to go along thinking I can't understand people who don't read it. Sarah Palin might call that elitist, that is, if she thought of the Times at all.

Still, it is interesting to wonder about the influence of a nation's leading newspaper (I don't think it's out of order to assume that those who think about journalism would assign that position to the Times). How do those who read it differ from those who don't?

One of my basic convictions is that sociologists -- who after all do regard themselves as scientists, of sorts -- seldom address the most interesting questions. Why do you suppose that is?

If someone were to ask me to speculate about the primary difference, I would say that it has to do with a sense of the human environment. The readers of the Times are probably more aware than nonreaders not only that the world is inhabited by persons other than Americans but that those non-Americans are exercising influence which will come to affect American life itself. I would guess, for example, that most readers of the Times are aware that the valuation of Chinese currency is causing major problems for the U.S. trade balance. I could be wrong about this but I suspect that the great majority of nonreaders have never given a thought to the valuation of Chinese currency.

Readers of the Times are aware that an overwhelming percentage of climate scientists have concluded that human activity is not only affecting the weather but is changing it for the worse.

Readers of the Times know that in the international weapons trade, the United States sells far more weapons than any other nation.

Readers of the Times know that the amount of foreign aid given by the U.S. government is miniscule, far less per person than is given by most European states.

One could go on with such a list and have trouble getting to the end of it.

The question can be asked, though, whether it matters that citizens of the United States, most of whom are not Times readers, know such things. I can't answer that question with pure confidence, but I suspect that it does. Surely it's true that if a majority of Americans read the Times we would have a Senate of a strongly different character from the one we have now. I doubt very much that Jim Inhofe would be a member of it. Or Jim DeMint, and so on.

Right now the New York Times appears to be the only publication that could generate a valid national debate about the desirable characteristics of our country. Of course, a valid national debate is nonsensical from the point of view of many of our political leaders. It's the last thing they would want. But I continue to believe that we could have a better, stronger, more healthy nation if we talked knowledgeably among ourselves about the country's genuine possibilities. So I'm going to keep on reading the Times and encouraging others to read it also.

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Who Gets What and Why
October 19, 2010

What's fair with respect to the distribution of money is a question that can never be answered definitively. That's because one's position in the distribution network usually determines his perspective. Believe it or not, the executives of major banks actually think they deserve to get tens of millions of dollars each year because they are convinced they earn it. It's an absurd notion from my point of view, but I need to remember that certain people are perfectly persuaded it's true.

How is it possible to think such a thing?

It requires a basic delusion, which is that the system one inhabits is based on the laws of nature, or the decrees of God, or some such unalterable set of rules. So when you get rich it's not because the system has been rigged in your favor. It's because you have proved yourself superior in the only system there is, the only system there can be. Consequently, your riches are indisputable testimony to your inherent worth. There is no question that they are deserved. And it doesn't matter how gargantuan they are you still have a full right to them.

This is nonsense. Human decision is the cause of wealth. Every society decides what type of person, or what set of talents, should be richly rewarded. And even if those decisions are sociopathic, the people they favor are the people who get the money.

Right now, we do have a sociopathic system of reward in this nation and as a result the country is being severely damaged. Furthermore, the damage is likely to get deeper before the system is turned around. The people who receive the biggest piles of money are not producing social wealth. But because they possess the power of money they will continue to be fairly effective in maintaining the system that rewards them more highly than anyone else.

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in last week's New Yorker which explains a good deal about the money distribution system. He doesn't go as far as I do in saying that the current system is socially diseased but he clearly hints that it might be.

His basic point is that it's out of balance. Work of a sort that may not have been sufficiently rewarded in the recent past, and particularly in the two decades after the Second World War, is now bringing compensation packages wildly disproportional to anything we have seen before. The change has been called the talent revolution. It does involve higher pay for some talent, but only certain sorts of talent. And the talent that's now being paid most richly is not the talent we need at the center of our affairs. Furthermore, the money being showered now on the most wealthy exceeds anything a sensible society would allow to any category of performance.

It's perhaps unfortunate that Gladwell chose to concentrate his analysis on the salaries of major league baseball players. Though some may think the compensation of sports stars has risen to unreasonable heights, their salaries collectively don't skew the entire financial system. The same can't be said for endeavors, such as investment banking. The "talent" displayed there in devising complex financial instruments which were sold for far more than they were worth very nearly brought down the world's system of production and exchange. That it caused much harm seems now beyond dispute. And yet the bankers, themselves, still believe they have the right to perch on top the financial mountain. And what can be said about the bankers can be said in slightly lesser degree about the expectation of corporate managers generally. They have been paid, and generally continue to be paid, at levels that undermine general social health.

The corrective for dysfunctional financial distribution is politics. The rich know it is and that's why they have cranked up the irrational cry that any intrusion into economics by government is a violation of universal law. It's no such thing, of course. Government may be clumsy, and it may be at times ineffective. But that doesn't mean we should never use government to address our social problems. If we don't use it, we surrender to a perpetual plutocracy. And in such a system the majority of people receive shoddy treatment.

The American populace need desperately to learn that riches come from social decision-making. If the rich are serving us well, we can say our decisions have been plausible. But when the rich begin to introduce social cancers into our system, we have every right to ask why they should be as rich as they are, or whether we have need of rich people at all.

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Business As Usual?
October 16, 2010

Elizabeth Bumiller's article in the New York Times, reporting on the activities of a U.S. Army platoon in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, whose members killed civilians for sport, ought to be shocking to the nation. But, guess what? It won't be.

Among the minority who bother to hear of the incidents most will write them off as rare exceptions. There are always a few bad apples people will say in their daze of cliché. But how many bad apples are there, and what effect are they having on our national future? Nobody knows and very few appear to care. It's the indifference that's going to cause the lasting consequences.

There are observers who claim to understand the minds and the hearts of the American people. I am not among them. I have no idea, at all, what's going on the heads of citizens who think we can send armies to other countries, and allow them to slaughter civilians there without serious reactions. Do they think other people won't notice? Are they so unaware of what's happening in the world as to believe that the news they receive from their own media is the same as the reports that reach the rest of the globe?

Here, in our insulation, we continue to tell ourselves that our soldiers in Afghanistan are all heroes, fighting to protect our freedom. It makes us feel good to hear that tale. Forget the truth.

Where does the idea come from that you can recruit young men with poor educational backgrounds, who often enroll in the military because they have few other prospects, and turn them, virtually overnight, into sterling examples of humanity, fully aware of the international complexities they are supposed to address? The issue is not good and evil. That kind of silly contrast cankers our thought. The point is that we are sending young men into situations they cannot either comprehend or manage. Perhaps no one could. But certainly, the requirements we attempt to place on our lower ranking soldiers are absurd.

The platoon that committed the murders which are now getting some attention was ridden with extensive drug use. The American soldiers were supplied regularly by their supposed Afghanistan allies. Nobody up the line paid any attention to it. My best guess is that the platoon leader was terrified by some of the more thuggish members of his own unit. At any rate, he did almost nothing to keep them under control. Is it any surprise that many of them went berserk? What else would any sensible person expect?

We have become an extremely foolish nation with respect to our activities in Afghanistan. We are piling up incident after incident that will damage our reputation for decades to come. Already, throughout much of the world we are considered a rogue country, populated by ignorant, violent, vicious people.

It's a false, diseased patriotism that keeps on trying to ignore these conditions and simply wallow in self-praise.

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October 12, 2010

I haven't posted anything to this site for several days, because I have been traveling and because I'm still sad about the death of my cat. The curious thing is that when I stop writing for a time, I become dissatisfied with subjects I've been discussing and tell myself I should find something different, something more vital.

I write too much about politics. The gathering and use of of political power is an important subject. Some find it endlessly fascinating. But for me, during certain seasons, it takes on an absurd sameness which repays no thought. I am weary of the quality of mind we have in American politics now. It's self-absorbed and shallow. It may well do terrible things. In fact, it is already doing terrible things. But repetitively to point out its character becomes wearying in itself.

Over past couple days I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Gladwell calls his book "the story of success." The dictionary definition of the word is the achievement of a goal or purpose. And that's fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't explain the relation of "success" to more important things. And, there are more important things than success -- to my mind far more important things. Truth is, much of what people call success I don't find very important at all.

We would commonly say, for example, if a person managed to be elected to the U.S. Senate that he or she was successful in politics. But getting elected by itself is nothing. It has no significance. Sure, there would be celebrations, and congratulations, and self-glorifying inaugural events. But if these were the reason the person was seeking the office, then he or she would be nothing as far as genuine politics are concerned. Yet, when we look at the United States Senate we discover that most of the people in it put their elections ahead of everything else. Senators are successful. They are quoted in newspapers. They take junkets around the world. They consult with other successful persons. All of this depends on their continuing to be elected. Very little of it has any meaning, that is unless one defines meaning as nothing more than success. I don't want to do that and that's why, right now, I'm tired of politics.

Though I enjoyed Gladwell's book, and found many of his explanations interesting, I wish he had paid more attention to the connection between success and meaning.

What is meaning? It is simply a justification for life. What is justification? It is a reason which is good in itself and need not rely on any other good.

The act of two friends sharing a meal and revealing their minds to one another has meaning. The act of getting elected to the Senate, by itself, has no meaning.

If we could keep the distinction between those two acts clear in our minds, I think the world would become less cruel, less vicious, less stupid. There would be more time for people to seek meaning, and less time spent on fear and warding off evil. But, then, we need to remember that most people wouldn't agree with me about the comparative meaning of the two acts I've chosen as examples. In fact, they would reverse the ranking I've given to them.

Consequently, my task is to find ways to write about meaning that will shift its application to undervalued behavior. I'm not sure I know how to do that. I'm not even sure I can find out how to do it. But at least this interregnum has convinced me even more forcefully than I was convinced before that such a shift is my purpose. And, all in all, clarifying your purpose is a good thing.

October 5, 2010

Our little cat Calo died today. She had been with us almost seventeen years.

I don't know what the meaning of an animal's life is. Truth is, I don't think of Calo as an animal. I don't really think of her as a cat, though she was very much a cat. But, mainly, I just think of her as Calo.

I suppose her life, like every other life, had whatever meaning was given to it. To me, she meant a lot. She would jump on my lap most nights and insist on having her head rubbed. Sometimes she irritated me, particularly when I was trying to write and she would push her head against my pen. I wish I could rub her head tonight. I wouldn't care about the writing.

All around the house now, eight hours after her life disappeared, I see her in my mind's eye. There was no place in this house that she didn't choose as her own at some time or another. So everywhere I look, she seems to be there.

She had a definite sense of territory. When she went in the yard she seldom went past the borders of our lot, and then only a few feet into the immediate neighbors'. How she knew what was hers, I don't know.

She seemed to think we had Godlike powers. When winter definitely set in she stopped going out. But now and then she would mew at the door, and when I opened it and she saw snow, she would glare at me reproachfully, as though I had the ability to choose what I was opening the door onto.

Some people can't love animals and they probably are superior to people like me. Certainly, they're more practical. But there's no sense in my denying that I did love Calo, even though it may make me appear weak in some people's eyes. But truth is more important than reputation.

I ache to run my hand over Calo's fur, which was rich and beautiful, right up to the end. But Calo, herself, has gone away forever. And her body is in the cold ground.

The Coming Decades
October 3, 2010

It's sad to think about it but there's no sense in trying to hide from ourselves what's happening to our country.

Thomas Friedman announced this morning in his column that "Pretty good is not even close to good enough today." Well, guess what Tom? There's only the slightest chance that we'll be able even to do pretty good.

Knowing what's "good," of course, requires a perspective. I have no hesitancy in admitting that, for me, good in a society is when most people are moving towards what might be called, for lack of a better term, the upper middle class.

I have no use for an upper class, particularly as Americans would define it. Since in America, for the majority, money is everything, then an upper class would have to be people who possess tons of it. I've gone back and forth on the rich. I've known some who seemed to be fairly decent people. But all in all I think we could get along quite well without anybody who had vast wealth. And there's no doubt that we would get along much better than we do if vast wealth were not strongly influencing politics. That's from my own perspective, of course.

In my mind, the signal mark of upper middle class life is not material possession but a certain sort of education -- an education that promotes critical thought. And what do I mean by "critical thought?" I mean merely the habit of asking what people mean by the things they say and also asking how they know what they believe to be true. It's a simple enough practice and yet it is employed by few of us. There are vast forces at work in the world who want to squash it -- financial forces, religious forces, political forces. In fact, you might say that the dominant goal of all financial propaganda, religious doctrine, and political ideology is to stop people from thinking critically and, therefore, from achieving an upper middle class mode of life.

There is no doubt that we are shifting rapidly towards a society marked by a thin stratum of the super rich and a vast majority of the lower middle class -- actually, a pretty low lower middle class. By the latter, I mean people who read little, think little, and do as they're told, even when they have a cynical attitude about those who are telling them to do it. They're the sort who say you can't fight city hall and think they've said something profound.

What are the signs we're shifting toward the lower middle class? Wal-Mart is a sign. Severe obesity is a sign. Television programming is a sign. Fast food is a sign. Refusal to pay taxes to maintain a decent infrastructure is a sign. Sentimentalism about military glory is a sign. Dreaming about wealth that can never be obtained is a sign. Sticking one's finger up in the air and shouting, "We're Number One" is a sign. Believing devoutly that the United States is superior to all other countries in the face of contrary evidence is a sign. Inability to engage in genuine conversation is a sign. Ignorance of anything outside one's personal orbit, other than, perhaps, the doings of movie stars, is a sign. Voting for people who care nothing about your well-being is a sign.

There's a dozen for you and you can easily add other signs that go along with the type.

Does preferring an upper middle class life to a lower middle class life make one a snob? Maybe. It depends on how you define "snob." I have to admit, I don't care (the defining terms, "upper middle class" and  "lower middle class" are disgusting simplifications but since they're the way we talk nowadays I have to use them to begin to get across what I mean).

I hope it's not necessary to say - but maybe it is -- that the way one earns his living does not necessarily determine one's class position. A plumber can be an upper middle class person as easily as a banker -- and, perhaps, more easily.

I'm arguing that the forces pushing us towards a bifurcated society -- the super rich and the lower middle class -- are very strong. I don't see anything on the horizon now that can defeat them. If we had more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, public school teachers we might hope in the future for a resuscitation of the upper middle class. But fewer and fewer of our teachers come from colleges where education based on critical thought or the reading of texts that promote critical thought is standard.

There will be lots of wailing about this transition in the newspapers and on TV. But it will be mostly of the Tom Friedman variety -- screaming at people to do what they don't know how to do and can't see any good in doing.

History suggests that societies rise and fall. It seems to me that the United States is falling. I wish we weren't. But in a world where Glenn Beck is seen as a great leader, what can lift us up?

Medical Tribalism
October 2, 2010

The revelation that American medical researchers deliberately infected Guatemalans with gonorrhea and syphilis over a two year period in 1946-1948 has received some publicity. But I doubt it will be a continuing news story. Most people will think it's ancient history. "What has it got to do with us now?" they'll ask.

The answer is nothing, as long as you don't want to know who Americans are. That's a bit of information most citizens are dedicated to ignoring.

The idea that what was done more than sixty years ago tells us nothing about the American character now is farcical. The underlying attitude that allowed Guatemalans to be infected without their knowledge persists today, and will continue as long as we don't face its reality.

The reality is that throughout American history the dominant portion of the population has refused to recognize persons different from themselves as being fully human. Consequently, it has been all right to do things to them we would never think of doing to ourselves.

This, of course, is not just an American habit. As long as there have been humans, people outside the tribe have been considered fair game for hideous use. But supposedly the United States has held itself to a higher standard than that. Maybe, but not much higher. As a U.S. spokesman said during the height of the Iraqi war, we don't keep count of the people killed here unless they're Americans. In other words, if they're not Americans they don't count.

This ancient practice needs to stop. It has caused immense misery throughout history, but now that the people of the world are mingling more actively than ever before, it has become intolerable.

Why is it okay to kill innocent people in Pakistan in order to take out so-called bad guys when the same practice within the borders of the United States would be met with maniacal outrage? There's only one answer: Pakistani lives don't count as much as ours do. There's no such thing as collateral damage within the United States.

This is one of many obvious truths that American politicians dare not acknowledge. They seem to think that not acknowledging it will keep it from public notice. And it may, to some degree, at home. But it certainly won't stop it from being known and talked about elsewhere.

Making apologies for something done sixty years ago will have very little effect in countering the harm our xenophobic attitudes will do our children sixty years from now.

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