At a Loss for Words
April 30, 2011
I have taken a break from posting here for the past couple weeks mainly because I went on a short vacation to visit my daughter in California. But now that I'm home, I'm having trouble getting started again because it's hard to know what to say about the political situation in this country. It has become so bizarre that saying anything about it seems either useless or absurd.
I recall that years ago Herblock, the cartoonist for the Washington Post, had a drawing showing some odious creature crawling out from under a rock with the caption, "I guess it's time to go back under again." Any sensible person knows there are rocks with things under them that aren't fit for the light of day. But exactly why they all come creeping out at once, as they have recently, is something of a mystery. When they do, we become aware that there are more rocks with more numerous populations under them than we had supposed. There are indications now that the total number approaches, if not a majority of the whole population, certainly a significant portion of it.
Has this always been true? Or are we just beginning to learn it? I don't know but I suspect the former. What reason is there to believe that all of a sudden vast numbers have decided to dive to depths they never occupied before?
The Donald Trump phenomenon gives us a hint of our condition. You watch the man talking on television. You see obviously that he's a complete, and nasty, buffoon. And then you realize that literally millions of your fellow citizens think he's a smart guy. What's to be done about that?
The most popular theory of democracy holds that if the people shake themselves awake they will choose reasonable and humane policies. All we have to do is make sure they're informed and then the nation will meet its problems sensibly. But what if that theory is flawed? What if the people have minds that cannot be informed? What if they will choose vicious policies regardless of what they know? What if they are so in thrall to fear and hatred that all they can think to do is be nasty?
I don't think a majority of the public is in that condition yet. But I do think a larger portion of the public is confined by ill-informed anger than I had previously assumed.
One thing we do need to face. One of our two major political parties has slipped over to the filthy side. The other is no great shakes. It too is saddled by corruption. But it does have some positive elements within it. It remains a normal political party and not one that has become thoroughly preposterous.
The mainstream media has resolutely refused to acknowledge the political transformation which has taken place over the past three decades. They desperately hold onto the notion that the two parties are engaged in a reasonable debate about a reasonable course for the nation. Since they do, a major sector of the people, who pay little attention to what's actually going on, also continue to think that's the condition we find ourselves in.
We need to wake up from this delusion, and there are tepid signs that a bit of waking up may be taking place. The reaction to Donald Trump has stunned some of the commentators who like to think of themselves as centrists. They are having a hard time believing that American citizens will not only take him seriously, but also applaud his attitudes. The response has been something like, "Hey! What's going on here!" It's long overdue.
Another indication is the growing recognition that an entire political party has committed itself to an economic program which will seriously punish a great majority of the people in order to reward a small slice of the wealthy. Paul Ryan's budget, which swept through the House almost unquestioned by his fellow party members, is an absurd mess. It makes no sense on its own terms and it seeks to disassemble the basic welfare provisions that the nation has put in place over the past half century. A plan that tries to do away with Medicare is simply goofy. There's nothing else to be said about it. An increasing number of journalists are beginning to say so.
A third sign, which may be arousing the media more than anything else, is that as next year's presidential race approaches, one of the parties has no credible candidates, nor does it offer a promise of ever having any. The few who might have presented themselves as rational men have so prostituted themselves by playing up to the bigoted, ignorant and vicious elements of the population they have probably gone beyond the possibility of coming back.
Might there be an acknowledgment coming about what has happened? No one can be sure. I continue to hope so. The mainstream media has been so deficient for so long it would be a grand thing to see them take a turn towards the truth.
April 16, 2011
I doubt it's possible to sort out all the influences that go to make a human mind. We know from the outcomes that the shaping causes have to be multifarious and entangled. I was reminded of this last night listening to Lawrence O'Donnell's diatribe against the British monarchy. It was wild, historically erroneous, on the verge of insane. I was perplexed by how a person I usually respect could come out with anything that nutty. Then, I thought of his name and felt less irritated. Goodness knows what he was told as a child about the British government. And what we're told in childhood sticks with us -- in some ways -- even after we arrive at mature skepticism.
I have often been struck by the thought processes of friends who were raised as strict Catholics. Most of them now say they have dismissed Catholicism and some say they are appalled by it. Yet even in denouncing their former religion they exhibit many of its tendencies, its sense of certainty and of rectitude.
Another phenomenon I've noticed is the persistence of anger and resentment directed at people with whom one once disagreed. Even after a person comes round to an opponent's point of view, the dislike generated by the earlier disagreement tends to hang on.
I don't guess we can ever completely wash anything out of our brains that was once settled there. Perhaps we can, though, come to recognize its presence and mitigate its effects. Doing so is what Chris Hedges in a recent essay calls "education." As he says, "The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves."
Our frustration with American political system rises primarily from the educational failure of most political operatives. They have not learned not to lie to themselves. And once one lies to himself it becomes very easy to lie to everybody else.
We say that politicians lie deliberately in order to gain advantage. Evidence seems to support the proposition copiously. As a rough rule of thumb the notion of deliberate lying is probably serviceable. But if we wanted to get more subtle about the processes going on in the minds of lying politicians we would have to recognize that the web of deception falls not only on listeners but on the speaker himself. Some part of him believes what he says or else believes that it is justified in a way that makes the falsehood palatable, even noble. This can be the case regardless of how absurd the proposition might be. Take, for example, the budget proposal worked up by Paul Ryan and adopted by his Republican colleagues in the House. The arguments put forward in its defense have been as fallacious as any widespread political rhetoric we've ever heard. It is not an attack on Medicare, Republicans say, but rather a sincere attempt to save it. It is not designed to help the rich get richer but rather an honest effort to create employment for the poor. It is based entirely on facing the reality that the United States is broke. All these arguments are silly, of course, but are they completely devious?
My guess is that they are not. The human mind has the astounding ability to want something, to recognize that directly expressing a desire for it would be impractical, to then make up an argument that would produce it without admitting the desire, and then -- amazingly -- to believe the argument, at least to the degree that it can be supported with seeming sincerity. We observe politicians doing that every night on television. You might say it's their stock in trade.
Is it possible for politicians to give up their traditional modes of thought and seek to become educated, in other words, to stop lying to themselves? It depends on the audiences they are trying to sway. If you could somehow chart the general intelligence of political districts and overlay it with the number of lies their representatives tell, you would find a close correlation. As the education -- defined sensibly -- of a population goes up, the political lying goes down. In a democracy, it really does all come back to the people.
To learn the mind of an entire people and the influences that created it is highly speculative work. It may not be impossible but it is, right now, outside the bounds of what we call science.
I recall that Morris Berman in his most recent essay opined that the United States now is made up of about 310 million "stunted human products." The reason given is that they have been lied to, and have lied to themselves, so much the possibility of forming good minds has been obliterated. That's harsh. Is it also absurd? Each of us can decide as he will about that. I, myself, would set the number somewhat lower than 310 million but probably higher than the average person would.
In any case, it would be a healthy development if we could introduce into our political discourse two questions. "Why do you think that?" and "How do you think that?" They would, of course, be met at first with indignation. But if they became frequent and regular, they might inch politicians in a slightly different direction than the one they are on now.
The Nature of the Nation
April 14, 2011
Paul Broun, Congressman from Georgia, is receiving quite a bit of attention for remarks he made in the House on April 12th, to the effect that Franklin Roosevelt wanted to replicate the Soviet system in the United States and did everything he could to bring that about. I suppose that was the most sensational element of Broun's speech. But it wasn't the most significant.
Preceding the charge against Roosevelt, Broun said that the purpose of the founders in the Constitution was to promote the general welfare of the nation, not the welfare of individuals. Since the whole people are made up of individuals, we have to conclude that in Broun's mind the nation is something other than its people, something more important than they are.
I'll admit that Broun is widely perceived as one of the topnotch kooks in Congress, perhaps rising above even Michelle Bachmann or Steve King. But that doesn't invalidate the import of what he said. Often kookism is little more than the willingness to say out loud what most of one's colleagues are thinking.
If you once get clear in your mind what Republicans actually consider the nation to be, their policies become far more understandable than when you accept what they say about their motives. They see the nation as something quite distinct from its people, or, at least, from the majority of its people. It is grander, in their mind, more glorious, and deserving of the most ruthless action to protect it. The function of the majority is to sacrifice themselves for this greater thing. They, of course, can't understand this so they have to be led by a perceptive minority to serve the people's function without being aware of what they're doing.
The actual nation is made up of the institutions of power which direct its behavior and of the minority which deserves to be in charge. They deserve this authority, and the perquisites which go with it, because they are the only persons who genuinely understand what the nation is.
This is why it is entirely appropriate for a majority of the population to suffer so that the rich can become more wealthy than they are already.
This is why it is highly moral to scoop up hundreds of thousands of the undereducated classes, brainwash them, and send them off to kill and be killed in other countries in support of policies that have nothing to do with their own well-being.
This is why the medical system should have as its first priority the treatment of the rich, and let the rest of the people catch as catch can. This is also why is it more important for the medical system to be a system of profit than it is for it to serve all the people.
This is why it is okay to allow the physical infrastructure of the country to decay, since the rich can use their wealth to escape much need for it.
This is why we maintain a two-tiered system of justice, which is savagely punitive toward the lower orders, imprisoning them by the hundreds of thousands, whereas the rich seldom have to bear any repercussions at all for their crimes. It's why the announcement of the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, that the actions of the financial moguls leading up to the recent severe recession were "certainly illegal and clearly criminal" were ignored and followed by no prosecutions of the bankers who committed the crimes.
These are the reasons why the conservative program should be opposed by those who don't view themselves as members of the elite. But they are not the reasons why the conservatives should be scorned.
There is doubtless a rational case to be made for the idea of a nation being something more important and more precious than its people. I can't agree with it but it can be advanced. There is even a reason for arguing that an elite is needed to serve the interests of the nation independent of the concerns of the people, and to receive proper and sumptuous compensation for the service. If the conservatives would make that argument forthrightly and honestly, they could win respect for their candor. But aside from a few kooks like Broun -- and not even he consistently --they don't have the courage to do it. Instead they employ deception, falsehood, and weasel words to lure the populace into thinking their well-being is an element of the conservative concern. This is a craven way to advance one's position.
The conservatives obviously see themselves as the only legitimate human element of the nation whereas their opponents are excluded. Conservative champions are often given to speaking of "real Americans" to distinguish themselves from others. Though they believe the nation should reward them for being loyal servants, they don't think the nation owes anything to anybody else. Being special, being exceptional, being a kind of elite, they should have privileges others shouldn't get. It's not an unusual stance to take. It has been a standard position for many groups throughout history. Nations and empires have been ruled by such groups for centuries.
There is the small problem with American conservative elitism that its adherents tend to be inferior in quality of mind. But even that's not unique. Matthew Arnold used to speak of the English aristocracy as being barbarians.
My point here is not to castigate the conservatives for being who they are or for viewing the nation as they view it. I just want them to own up to their true identity and to what they genuinely believe.
April 13, 2011
Roger Cohen in the New York Times yesterday wrote of "an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being." And what is it? It's the past, he says.
The force of the past probably is unsuspected most of the time, and for good reason. But occasionally hunks of it do float into the conscious mind and cause one to wonder. Lately, the part that has broken away from the submerged mass of my psyche and risen to the surface has been the truth that for most of my life I was far more a dupe of the national security state than I should have been.
I don't really blame myself for the gullibility when I was a soldier. The surrounding power of propaganda was great and I was too young to know anything. But I should have learned more quickly as I moved into my late twenties and thirties.
I'll give myself a bit of credit. I don't think I was as big a dupe as most of my companions, even when I was a soldier. I knew then that much of the stuff I was being told by the "authorities" was nonsense. But the big things -- the essential goodness of my fellow citizens and the consequent goodness of their government -- still held me.
The reason it did is that I was too ill-informed to know who actually was putting the governmental structure together, and what their genuine motives were. Getting to the core of what was going on required peeling off layers of delusion one after another after another.
An early layer to go -- which, at first, may seem to have nothing to do with the national security state -- was the assumption that most of my fellow college professors were committed to a well-conceived ideal of education. I began to see that not only hadn't they made much effort to come up with a defensible idea, they were more than ready to sacrifice any idea they did have for egotistical rewards -- mainly money, position, and status. I got a whiff of the corruption when I was still in graduate school but it wasn't until I became a professor myself that I realized how overwhelming it was.
The link of that discovery to the sins of nationalism was simple. If college professors weren't loyal to what they professed to believe, why should I think that people in arenas where the rewards for hypocrisy were much grander would be?
I was in thrall to the notion that when the stakes were high, when they involved the well-being of the entire population of the country, the people in charge of national affairs would rise to the importance of their task. That was based on the assumption that those who had climbed the political ladder had mind enough to distinguish the significant from the trivial, to know the difference between lasting gains and fleeting boosts of egotism. I was wrong about that because I didn't realize how little soundness of mind contributed to nominal political success. I didn't know that most members of Congress have never had a serious thought in their lives.
In the United States we have created not a meritocracy, but its opposite.
The persons who could guide our institutions most honestly are precisely the persons screened out by our system of rewards. There are legions of able people in the United States and most of them are able to secure for themselves positions in peripheral institutions, which provide some gratification and sustenance. But they are always seen by the power brokers as marginal, ineffective, slightly kooky. And it is the power brokers who, right now, have the power to speak to the masses.
Just a couple days ago, more than two hundred and fifty of the nation's most respected legal scholars signed a letter written by Bruce Ackerman of Yale and Yochar Benkler of Harvard denouncing the unconstitutional and vicious way the government has treated Bradley Manning. If you want to see a copy of the letter it's reproduced in the New York Review of Books. It's not wild or sensationalist but it is unequivocal about the indefensible nature of Manning's confinement.
At about the same time that letter was being signed, The National Conference for Media Reform was meeting in Boston. At the major session the attendees were addressed by Greg Mitchell, Micah Sifry, Christopher Warren, Emily Bell and Glenn Greenwald. All the talks were informative and heavy on facts. They could scarcely have been more different from the discourse in Congress, which my local representative calls a fact-free zone. They offered a description of the United States government which had little resemblance to the picture we receive from the major TV outlets.
What percentage of the American people, do you suppose, have heard of either of these events, or have heard the names of any of the people who participated in them? Yet almost everyone hears almost every foolish remark that issues from the mouth of Donald Trump. Why is that?
We say the popular press likes manufactured drama in order to get ratings and that undoubtedly is true. But it's not just the press that profits from cheap sensationalism. It offers the people in charge a smokescreen behind which they can conduct their affairs largely undetected by the general public. And what do the power brokers do when only a few are looking? They feather their own nests, indifferent to the health of most of their fellow citizens.
It's obvious that they would do this, when it's so easy to get away with it. That I was too naive, for many years, to see what was right in front of my face, fills me now with considerable regret. And, yet, supposing I had seen it earlier? I might be a little higher up in the dissident community. I might have one of the peripheral positions I spoke of earlier. But I doubt the country would be much different.
The past that produced this present is far more powerful than most of us are willing to admit. It has to be explored for generations before it will start to give us a more realistic picture of who we have become. The only hope for increased public well-being I have now is that the exploration of who we have been will increase in energy in the coming years.
The Deadly Trio
April 9, 2011
I've read considerable commentary lately to the effect that the problems of the United States are so severe they can't be solved. We are, it is said, on a one way road to decay. I have no ability to assess the accuracy of that argument. I've never had any sense that I could predict the future. That position, however, does strike me as credible enough that I wouldn't be surprised if general social conditions in America worsen over the next several decades.
When I think of large America problems that are pretty near insoluble, three stand out for me. The first, and probably the greatest, is public ignorance. It is astounding in its scope and almost every day I come on another revelation of how abysmal it is. The latest I've seen -- small but telling -- is that 78% of the schoolchildren in Oklahoma don't know who George Washington was.
As long as there is a mass of sixty million voters who make no serious effort to inform themselves and who acquire what they think they know through gossip, democracy in America is nullified. This gigantic throng will fall for virtually any lie and since they will, there will naturally enough be a political party whose principal tactic is the big lie. Over the past decade we have seen that party metastasize to the point that it now makes no pretense of truthfulness. It has learned there is little price to be paid for falsehood, so why not employ it bounteously? In the recent budget debates an eminent senator from Arizona made a deceitful statement about Planned Parenthood, and when confronted with his inaccuracy, he said simply that he hadn't intended his statement to be "factual." That was his explanation, his excuse. I would bet that if you were to take a poll in about a month, you would find that his lie about Planned Parenthood was believed by thirty percent of the American public.
I have no idea what to do about public ignorance and its accompanying gullibility. To the degree it is addressed at all, the efforts come in the shape of increasingly dubious projects for school reform. But the majority of professional school reformers are, themselves, not well educated and, consequently, can't imagine the sort of mind that might wish to inform itself. The assumption in school reform seems to be that if you can get most people to do simple arithmetic and read directions for finding a supermarket, you will have effected something magnificent.
Why it is thought that working on children will carry over into an active-minded public, I don't know. Regardless of how well teenagers can calculate and read, if the public generally never rises beyond teenage attainment, there will be no healthy citizenry. A society which has scant concept of intellectual growth during the mature years will never have reasonable politics. Though there are many signs of intellectual ferment in America -- book clubs, public lectures, poetry groups and so forth -- only a distinct minority ever participates in it. Most Americans don't read serious books, don't have intelligent conversations, don't dig into the intricacies of social problems, at any point in their lives. There is in the United States little curiosity, little zest for thought. Why that might change, what might change it, no one seems to know. I certainly don't.
My second big problem is plutocracy. Plutocracy means that a small sector of very rich people own the government. There are degrees, of course. Rich people are always influential. But plutocracy develops when there are no effective counterweights to the power of the rich. That's pretty much where we are now in the United States. Rich people don't give up their power voluntarily. Rather they seek maniacally to increase it. I know it will be seen as extreme to say this, but I actually do believe that dedicating one's life to doing nothing other than accumulating money is a form of insanity. You can't expect crazy people to care about anyone other than themselves. In fact, being so wrapped up inside the self that one can't imagine what's going on outside is a pretty good definition of insanity. There is little indication now that the wealthy classes in America can sympathize with the difficulties of those who are not wealthy. Tell the average rich man that if we don't have public provision for health care many people will die unnecessarily, and he will just shrug. I have actually seen rich men do it. The attitude of the rich goes beyond the inability to care. It's, rather, the inability to conceive.
That some few wealthy people -- Bill gates is an example -- break the mold of the plutocratic attitude, does not in any way mitigate the damage it inflicts.
I don't see anything in America that's going to break the power of the rich, or even reduce it. There is little will to shrink the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and even less in the way of institutions that might do it. The Democratic Party used to be thought of as such an organization , but though it is not owned by the rich to the extent the Republicans are, it's not really going to challenge the power of the rich either.
My third problem is militarism. It is now a cult in America. No sensible person believes that the time and treasure we devote to military activities and military material work primarily to protect the American people against physical threat. It's probably no longer true even that the American military serves mainly to project and promote American economic power around the globe, though that remains one of its important sub-functions. No, the principal thing the military does now is to give us a religion. It is the mechanism by which we, as Americans, worship ourselves. It provides the ubiquitous ceremonies by which we tell ourselves we are great. We can't even have a ball game without some solemn recitation of the debt we owe to the military for protecting our sacred freedoms, though exactly what freedoms are protected by the military no one bothers to say. Any time the military is mentioned in public discourse it is accompanied by an obligatory bow.
No matter how many revelations there are of military misbehavior, of gross and filthy cruelty, of wasted money, of political manipulation, of callous disregard of life, the military itself rises in shining purity above it all. These are mere specks that in no way diminish its refulgence. Generals and admirals constitute our only priestly class.
It's an extremely expensive religion, though. The take of the sons of Aaron in Leviticus was almost nothing compared to what the military creed demands of us. It insures that we cannot have an adequate infrastructure in this country and consequently that our societal well-being will decline as our faith engorges itself. Did you notice that Paul Ryan's courageous and much extolled new budget dared not step across the portal of the military temple to pluck out even a single sacrificial cup? Our sacrifices must come from elsewhere.
Who knows how long this bloated expenditure can continue? Right now, though, it shows no sign of diminishing and as long as it flourishes there will be no economic peace, nor much development, in the land.
I hope these problems are not as intractable as I've presented them here. There may be germinating somewhere, beneath the gaze of our glorious media, ideas, plans, and movements which have a chance to do something about them. But if those saving efforts are coming they aren't yet evident.
We are held back by the truth that if anyone attempts seriously even to point to one of these problems, he or she will be moved outside the realm of "really serious people" or of "grownups" as the current lingo has it. Why is it, for example, that our most distinguished economists, men like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz -- two of them Nobel Prize winners -- have virtually no role in governmental policy whereas a flunkey for the banks like Timothy Geithner is at the center of our economic affairs? If you want to know, don't go to the Chris Matthews Show to find out.
As I said at the start, there's no predicting the future. America's prospects may be brighter than I can see right now. Yet there's no value in running away from the truth. And most of the evidences of truth tell me that in America we're in for a long and fairy grim haul.
The Power of Religion
April 8, 2011
I want to make clear at the start that I'm using "religion" here to mean the doctrines and the structures of belief advocated -- usually dictated -- by organizations, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, synods, general assemblies and so forth.
The topic came to my mind this morning by watching a conversation between Jon Stewart and Mike Huckabee on the Daily Show. They fell into a discussion of David Barton, whom Huckabee has described as being America's greatest historian. I had heard of Mr. Barton before, but not until I listened to Stewart and Huckabee talking about him had I paid much attention to any of his distinctive teachings.
Mr. Barton has said, to take merely one of his many pronouncements, that Jesus was -- and presumably is -- opposed to the minimum wage. That statement raises more questions in my mind than I can list here.
My first puzzle is how it can be regarded as either historical or sane. Huckabee said it's a derivation from scripture. It comes from the parable in the 20th chapter of Matthew about the landowner who hired men to work in his vineyard and paid them the same whether they worked all day, just a half a day, or a couple hours. If you consult the story, it's clear that Jesus is saying that the men who worked all day have no right to gripe because the men who worked less get the same amount. The all-day guys agreed to a certain amount and that's what they got. They are not being penalized because somebody else worked less.
This has nothing to do with the principle of the minimum wage. The rules concerning minimum wage don't forbid paying someone a lot for a short period of work. The employer can go up as high as he wishes. But he can't pay below a certain level because if he did the worker couldn't provide a decent life for himself, and because there's a recognition that the wealthy have power over the poor that requires some regulation -- in a decent society, that is.
But this is probably over-technical. The point is that Jesus's story was directed to a society markedly different from our own. Trying to translate it, unaltered, from the kind of world he was dealing with into the kind we have now is not rational. Yet it's the sort of thing people who claim to be devotees of religion do frequently. They want to argue that none of the historical changes over the course of the past two thousand years, require, or even justify, changes in the way people interact with one another.
I don't understand what's going on in their minds.
They have to grasp that discoveries and developments in science present people with a different social environment from the one that prevailed two millennia ago. Religious people -- for the most part -- use cell phones, and computers, and television transmissions in the way everyone else does. Nonetheless, they want to argue that texts produced then offer a complete guide to how we should organize our affairs now. And they accept as a valid historian a man who bases all his interpretations on that premise.
My intent today is not to argue with their interpretations. It is rather to ask, what's going on in their minds. How can an organized set of doctrines force them to accept propositions of the sort that if they came from any other source they would think of them as being looney? Even when propositions come from a religion other than their own they think of them as looney. But their own doctrines have a power that is not to be confronted, criticized, or doubted in any way. What gives those doctrines that power?
I think I understand something about historical inertia, and about the comfort of old habits. But the brand of mind-set Huckabee and Barton exhibit goes beyond those influences. I think we can see it only as something deeply mysterious, a conclusion they might well agree with. But they offer us no tools, no analytical processes, to distinguish their mind-set from delusion.
The only difference I can see between them and the man who rushes with tattered clothes down the middle of the street screaming that the world will end tomorrow at 10:38 A.M. is that they have organizations to back them up. In other words, their potency is not intellectual, nor is it based on evidence or proof, it is simply political. This is the reason that many call them charlatans.
I don't want to make that charge against them. I don't know if they're charlatans or not. But if they are what we call sincere -- a word we can't define very well -- then they have a mental compulsion that can't be explained by anyone not similarly driven.
The trouble is they are not content, simply to allow this compulsion to shape their own thoughts and determine their personal behavior. They want it to guide public policy as well. In other words, they don't want public policy to be formed by common opinion. They want it to flow from a power they are completely unable to explain, a power which many people regard as damaging.
Is it that Huckabee and Barton and others of their ilk can't imagine anyone failing to want what they want? Or is it a darker urge?
Frustrated as I am by my inability to understand what they are talking about, I still am clear enough about them to not want to give them power over other people.
April 6, 2011
Spring has been slow in coming here in Vermont. We’ve had almost no warm weather, though we have now reached a plateau when the temperature rises into the 40s most days. So there is some melting of snow and ice, though it proceeds slowly.
Yesterday, I went out and hacked the last of the snowpack off my back deck. I’m not sure why I did it except that seeing the deck clear helps me believe that spring will come eventually. And this has been, I think, my longest winter -- psychologically that is. Nothing disastrous has happened to me, so it’s not as though I were suffering. But it has been long.
It wasn’t completely easy getting the snow off the deck, so doing it gave me a sense of triumph. After a long winter there are thick layers of hard ice in the snow that piles up on a level surface. You can’t break them up with a shovel. I use a garden mattock and manage after about six chops to split off a chunk of ice. I don’t know why that makes me feel good, but every time I break off an ice section I have a moment of euphoria. I think it took me about 45 minutes of fairly hard work to get the last of the pile off and down into the yard, but when I had done it and was able to walk freely around my deck, I felt gloriously superior to the softies in Florida and elsewhere.
When I was younger, spring was my favorite season. The pale green leaves sprouting on the oak tree outside my window in Decatur, Georgia struck me as more beautiful than anything else anyone could imagine. When I went out in the morning and breathed spring air I knew that no one in the world, ever, had felt as good as I felt right then. There is no spring more glorious than the spring in north Georgia. The air there is different from any other place I have been. I’m not saying there is not good air elsewhere, but spring air in north Georgia is distinctive, and that remains true even though the political atmosphere in Georgia becomes ever more odoriferous. You can’t blame geography for the people who grope their way into it. And I don’t think you can blame it for the ideas they stuff into their heads. There was a time when I was a kind of geographical determinist, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to see that mental and moral degeneration are so complex you can’t assign any one reason for them.
Spring now has come to take second place for me among the seasons. Autumn brings more powerful emotions, and though they tend to be not as pleasant as the spring’s, they are grander and more meaningful. People will say I’ve changed because I’m older now but I can’t be sure that’s the reason.
The finest springs I ever had was when I was in college at Georgia Tech. I was in love with the girl who became -- and has remained -- my wife, and we used the springs magnificently. Among my happiest memories is the recall of one night when we left a party fairly late and were not in the mood to go back to our dormitories. There was some danger for her in not returning (in those days, girls in dormitories were regulated). But we figured that if we didn’t go back till the next morning, no one official would know she hadn’t been in her room during the night. So we risked it.
There was a golf course near the building where the dance and party had taken place -- I confess I don’t remember a single thing about it -- and we walked out onto its groomed grass and continued to walk, and talk, and sit on tree branches for the next six hours. The moon was bright so we could see the dogwood trees in bloom all around us, like benign entrancing spirits. Those trees are just as sharp in my memory as they were the night they beguiled me. To have a night like that almost makes the whole of life worthwhile, and it was a gift of spring.
No authoritative person at Emory ever knew or said anything about the vacant room. Truth is that though the regulations were fairly strict they were not impossible to get around. I never knew for sure whether the adults charged with enforcing them took them seriously or not. They pretended to, at least. Some people, I guess, actually are that stuffy.
I have been in England “now that April’s there,” and those springs have been second best -- maybe. It’s hard to gauge, perfectly, the quality of a given spring.
Anyway, another one’s coming and I’m glad. We have a little trip planned that will make it even more welcome. My mother used to say, “Don’t wish your life away,” when I was anxious to get to some desired event. It’s good advice. These 40 degree days and 20 degree nights now in Vermont have their charms, and I don’t want to miss a single one of them that has been granted to me ( time being what it is, I couldn’t miss them if I wanted to, but, still, the valuation is important). Yet when warm weather does come again, and green leaves, and little flowers, I’ll be happy to see them as I have always been happy before.
April 5, 2011
Joe Nocera, in the New York Times, says that commentators have been making an unreasonable fuss over the revelation that General Electric paid little or no taxes in 2010, despite having made gigantic profits. G.E., Nocera says, is only doing what we all do; it works to find provisions in the tax code that will allow it to pay as little as possible. What’s wrong with that?
There’s nothing wrong with it from one point of view. But here’s the problem. G.E., and other large financial institutions, not only use provisions in the tax code, They get them inserted, in the first place, by buying the requisite number of Congressmen. One could say, of course, that the corporations are just lobbying. But when lobbying is practiced as it’s done now by powerful institutions, it is nothing more than buying votes. We ought, at least, to have the honesty to face that simple truth.
The voters, presumably, should ask themselves the question: which is worse, buying legislators or allowing oneself to be bought? Nocera clearly thinks it’s the latter. I’m not so sure. Practices of this sort, though they are tweaked by individual players, rise out of the general culture. The cultural feature that allows Congress to be bought is the widespread belief that one ought to be able to buy anything. If you have the money to buy something, you have the right to buy it. That’s the American way.
Americans have never had mind enough to grasp what money is. In their minds, it’s something that you earn. And if you manage to pile it up without breaking many laws, then Americans say you have earned it. And what you have earned you can use any way you want to. It’s a theory infused with falsehood.
Money is not an individual creation; it is a societal product. And being what it is, society itself decides how to distribute it. How a society lays out its money is one of its fundamental identities. There is no natural way to do it. God doesn’t decree how it should be done. It doesn’t happen according to a law of the universe. The financial distribution system in any society is a human product.
Consider, for example, two houses, side by side. In one of them, luxury of the most excessive sort prevails. The inhabitants eat food brought at great expense from all quarters of the globe. They wear clothes for which they paid, per item, more than the average family receives in a year. They have a swimming pool, heated year round, whose maintenance involves an expenditure that could supply adequate food and shelter for a hundred people. They have a garage with a half-dozen cars, no one of which cost less than $80,000. The house itself covers 18,000 square feet.
Next door is a family with three small children. They have virtually nothing to eat. The children are all suffering from lingering diseases but the family can’t afford treatment. In the winter, the house is miserably cold because there is no money to pay for any form of heating. The roof leaks. The house itself makes up 900 square feet.
Is this all right, or is it not all right? You of course can decide for yourself, but it is society that makes the definitive decision. Society can say: “Sure it’s fine. The people in the rich house got the money somehow, so they must have earned it. The people in the poor house didn’t earn any so they deserve to starve.”
Or society can say: “No. This degree of inequality is not something we will permit. Regardless of the money-accumulating power of the two families, we recognize in our society a basic humanity which decrees that nobody should starve or live in misery. That’s not acceptable.”
Societies make decisions like this all the time. They have to make them. They are not guided by universal laws. They are guided by their own values.
Guess what? In the United States right now you can’t keep an atomic bomb in your basement, no matter how rich you are. That may strike some as an intolerable infringement on freedom, but it’s the truth. Society decided that the danger posed by individual possession of atomic weapons was unacceptable. And what allowed society to make that decision? It wasn’t God; it wasn’t universal law. It was society’s own will.
So, to get back to General Electric, it is the decision of this society, right now, functioning as it functions, to allow a gigantic corporation to make huge profits, to pay fantastic salaries to its top management, and to make almost no tax payments for the general well-being. Nobody imposed that on us. We set it up ourselves.
No overarching law or moral precept would be violated if we decided to change the situation. We probably would change it if the general electorate understood what it was. But there are political operatives in the nation now who grasp that it would be disastrous for them if the public understood much of anything. So they push all the lies they can to keep their privileges intact.
So we come to the basic question: who’s to blame for the public’s not knowing what it needs to know? Is it the members of the public themselves? Or is it the people who work furiously to delude them? It’s more or less like choosing between a louse and a flea.
Forms of Doom
April 2, 2011
A headline in the Daily Beast yesterday asked: "Is Newt Gingrich Doomed?" I thought for sure it had to be a spoof but when I went to the article I found it was an earnest attempt to assess Newt's presidential prospects. Author Shushannah Walshe even went to the trouble of consulting two university political scientists, one from Clemson and the other from Emory (as you would suspect, the one from Emory was more sensible).
The article's conclusion is that Newt is just being Newt, and that may or may not foul up his run for the presidency.
I had thought the piece would say that Newt is doomed to be Newt, and that's a fate as bad as you would want to wish on your worst enemy. For myself, I don't think I would turn even Muammar Gaddifi into Newt, though as I consider the transaction, I see it probably wouldn't change anything significantly.
There's an old saying, much hackneyed now but still generally valid: character is fate. It's a proposition journalists seldom take into account. They are constantly saying of political aspirants that if they would just do this or that they could substantially strengthen their prospects. A common example is that shortly after the election of 2008, dozens of commentators announced that if Sarah Palin would just go back to Alaska and study up on history and world conditions she could make herself a formidable candidate by 2012. Did they begin to comprehend how fantastic that advice was? It was like telling a hundred and fifty pound man with a bad knee that if he would bone up on defensive formations he could become a linebacker in the NFL.
People are not going to do what they cannot do, or what they cannot imagine doing. That's not to say that some can't develop abilities they don't currently have. It's a thing to be hoped, for ourselves and others. And when someone achieves complicated knowledge or difficult skills, he or she deserves our congratulations. It's one thing, however, to work on something with dedication and courage; it's another to become someone essentially different from who you are.
I can't be sure of this, of course, but I would be willing to wager that Sarah Palin cannot digest a serious or complicated book. It's not because she lacks the basic skills. She probably is adequate in that respect. It's because she can't imagine why she would want to do such a thing or what the benefit of it might be. To be fair, it's likely that if she were placed in a certain environment, with certain companions, and stayed there for several years she might change her basic orientation and begin to do things I would wager now she can't do. The point, though, is that she's not going to move to that environment or take up those companions. Without something extremely dramatic happening in her life she will stay on the course she's on now. And why shouldn't she, considering her point of view?
What we can say of Sarah Palin we can say of most of the political figures who manage to get themselves into the news. By the time they reach that stage, they are going to keep on being who they are. There will, occasionally, be a near-miraculous transformation. But it will be extremely rare.
The same is true of political movements. They are less capable even than individuals of learning anything genuinely new. Over the course of decades, some very well established political parties can change their public demeanor. They can go along with policies they formerly would have foamed at the mouth about. But uprisings of the sort we see now in the Tea Party won't change. They will keep right on being who they are until their eccentricity or their stupidity causes them to melt away. They, like Newt, are doomed to be who they are.
There is some consolation in this stability of character. Over time it reveals itself and anyone who pays attention to it can see it for what it is. I'm not encouraged by the state of political wisdom among the American people now but I do think enough of them see Newt Gingrich for who he is that we don't have to worry about him a great deal. He has made his bed, as we say, and it's not likely to be moved into the White House. And though a movement like the Tea Party can hurt some people -- and some quite badly -- its influence on the nation will subside. Already its ignorance and mean-spiritedness are showing themselves more fully. It is doomed to be grouped with the Know-Nothings, and the White Citizens Councils, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and McCarthyism in the history of the nation. When people start thinking of themselves as exemplars of virtue, you can know they are bringing doom down upon their heads.
The upcoming presidential contest will reveal more basic character than many campaigns of the past have done. The Republican candidates, slashing among themselves to try to secure the nomination, will seal their reputations as a pack of petty opportunists. But the president will not escape judgment either. I suspect he will show himself even more completely to be a person of great potential who, out of timidity, chose to throw a good portion of it away.
In history, that's a kind of doom too.
April 1, 2011
Talking Points Memo features several videos of interviews conducted yesterday with Tea Party adherents at their rally in Washington. The views expressed were not sane.
The interviewees were sure either that President Obama was not born in the United States or that he is a Muslim. They gave no reasons or evidence for these beliefs; they put them forward as though they were self-evident.
We use the word "belief" very sloppily here in the United States. It's used so loosely no one can be sure what it means.
Let's consider two statements. A research scientist says, "I believe this is a competent study because I looked carefully at the data and I also examined how they were collected." A political advocate says, "I believe Obama is a Muslim because I just know in my heart that he is." Obviously two completely different mental constructs are in play here, and yet we call them both "beliefs." Why do we do that?
By giving them the same name, we put them both on the same plane; we afford them a kind of equality. But they are not equal in any respect. They are not the same form of psychological entity. One is a conviction which comes from having studied something carefully. The other is an expression of desire.
In our political conversations, we fail to distinguish thought that arises out of what people want from those that come from a weighing of evidence. And through that failure we create the notion that one man's belief has the same weight as another's.
When a person asserts that Obama is a Muslim all he's saying is that he wants Obama to be a Muslim because if were, his influence would be diminished. In short, this person believes what he wants to believe. I suspect that the beliefs of about thirty percent of the U.S. population come almost exclusively from their desires. Furthermore, it's probably true that this portion of the people can't imagine a belief coming from anywhere else. For them belief is simply wishful thinking.
It's a tricky proposition to determine at what point wishful thinking steps over the line into insanity. We have no solid definition for the latter term, and yet it's too useful to be abandoned altogether. If I were made the Czar of Definition and asked to inscribe the entry for "insanity" into the Ultimate Dictionary, I think I would say it's a mental condition in which a person can take nothing but his own desires into account in deciding his behavior. That also strikes me as a pretty good description of the typical Tea Party adherent, and it's for that reason that I think of the Tea Party as being insane.
We are unwilling, in this country, to face, forthrightly, insane propositions. When, for example, Louie Gohmert goes onto the floor of the House of Representatives and says that Obama's support of the health care reform bill comes from its including a provision for a presidential military force controlled by no one but the president himself, he is not being merely eccentric, or even calculating. He has made up a fantastic threat based on his own desires and, as a result, meets the definition of the previous paragraph.
We can make the same assessment of Steve King, Paul Broun, Sharon Angle, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Frank Gaffney, Jeffrey Cox, Rick Scott, Spencer Bachus, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (known mainly by another name), and so on. I wish I knew more about Governor Paul LePage of Maine; he probably deserves to be included in this group. You might think, by the way, that somebody like Newt Gingrich ought to be here too. But Newt is too much a schemer to be called a true Tea Partier. We need to distinguish between people who actually believe their self-induced craziness and those who say crazy things in seeking their own advantage. One might ask, what's the difference, since what they do comes solely from what they want? But it's useful to keep them apart because each type calls for a separate tactic.
Countering Newt requires that he be kept in a small minority whereas countering Gohmert requires establishing who he is. You can't establish who Newt is because he can be anybody at a given time. Note his recently discovered passion for Christian piety.
Anyway, one thing at a time. I don't think the Tea Party belief structure has suddenly become more prevalent. The thirty percent it rules among is probably a pretty steady number. But it has become more newsworthy. And since in America publicity translates into some sort of power the believe-what-you-want-to-believe phenomenon has become a bigger social problem. I doubt we can go back to letting it skulk in obscurity. It has got out of its box.
So the answer for it now is more light rather than less. People like Jon Stewart help in that effort, but TV comedians aren't enough. Ordinary people need, more often, to take on the burden of baffling the tsunami of absurdity by pointing out when a pronouncement makes no sense. It doesn't have be done angrily. We don't need to be mad at Louie Gohmert; we just have to say he's a loon.
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