Word and Image of Vermont

The Actual Breakdown
July 29, 2011
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As the sociopathic proposals of the Republicans begin increasingly to dominate the headlines, we need to face the truth that what we used to consider a bizarre fringe makes up a greater proportion of the population than we had imagined. The truth seems to be that fully a third of the American populace is in the grip of sociopathy, which can be defined generally as insisting that one’s own crotchets form the basis of social policy.

Were you once insulted by a clerk at the post office? Well, that proves, doesn’t it, that all government is abusive and, therefore, that it ought to be abolished and that the patriotic thing to do is to vote for the abolition of taxes.  Such reasoning drives the opinions of far more people than we normally suppose, and when they organize themselves into a single political party, they are transformed from harmless cranks into a danger.

That danger, at the moment, is on the verge of doing serious damage to the country.

To whom can we turn?

It used to a kind of faith that good sense resided in the majority, and that when craziness reared its head, the majority would rise up to put it down. I don’t think that faith can sustain itself any longer.

We have to clarify what the actual condition of the population is and then construct a program based on that reality. If a third of the people are cranks and sociopaths, then what types make up the rest? For practical purposes I think we can say they are divided equally between those who make a reasonable effort to stay informed and do the right thing and those who know virtually nothing.

For a long time it has been assumed that the ignorant need to be taught so that once they become knowledgeable and active they will create a majority behind sensible policy. I am less and less confident that will work. I certainly think we should continue efforts towards public education but to rely on it as the way out of our current predicament would be naive. It’s the case, regrettable as that may be, that large numbers of people cannot be persuaded to pay attention to anything serious. They are bathed in swill and schlock, and they like it that way. They would far rather read the tabloids at their grocery store checkout stands than anything reflecting accuracy about public conditions. I doubt that many of those people are going to change anytime soon. Many of them never vote, -- which is probably just as well -- and those that do cast their ballots on the basis of whim and eccentricity.

If we can’t rely on educating the ignorant, we have only one-third left. I have long argued that the United States has a significant population of thoughtful, well-intentioned people. You can hear them expressing reasonable opinions everywhere. The problem with them up till now has been that they’re squishy. They haven’t seen the need to place firm action alongside their opinions. If they want the sort of country they thought they had, they’ve got to start working to bring it about. Casting a sensible vote every four years is not enough. We have to have far more engagement than that.

No one can win election to the national legislature without some support from the thoughtful third. If candidates for Congress were informed, well before elections, that votes from intelligent people were going to disappear as soon as catering to selfish or bigoted interest groups came into play, the nature of our legislative branch would be transformed. More than anything right now in this country we need a sane Congress. And we don’t have one. We’re unlikely to get one until sensible people stiffen their spines. It’s not enough for a Congressman to vote for a few things we like. We have every right to expect that a member of Congress will repulse any absurdity or special interest which works to undercut the health of the majority.

It wouldn’t take many firmly supported positions by informed people to restore comparative sanity to the House and Senate. If we said, for example, that nobody gets into Congress who is more loyal to insurance company profits than to public health, we would by that resolution alone take a big step. For example, it would have rid us of Joe Lieberman years ago.

Suppose we said that nobody gets our vote who is more willing to spend public money to protect the profits of banks than to promote useful public works? We wouldn’t have a House of Representatives who is using a phony debate about the public debt to further enrich the wealthy.

Suppose we declared that anyone who undercuts scientific research in order to increase the profits of polluters is unfit to be in Congress. Over a third of our legislative sociopaths would be gone.

My point is we can’t be soft about this. We have to stop giving in into silliness, greed, and willful ignorance, no matter what President Obama preaches about compromise. We can’t compromise with sociopathic whims. If we would stop, definitely and without question, we would find ourselves healthier overnight.

Determined to Ignore Nature
July 27, 2011
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I think the best comment I’ve seen on the current goofy situation comes from Mike Tomasky of the Daily Beast who noted that the Republicans are the ones driving the car off the cliff but the adult in the room handed them the keys.

It has been clear from the early days of the Obama administration that the president believed he could make his opponents reasonable by treating them as if they were reasonable. It was exactly like telling yourself you can reason with a two year old in the midst of a temper tantrum. It has been one of the delusions of the past several decades to think that every situation can be resolved, to everyone’s benefit, by acknowledging the feelings of all participants. But when some of the participants are having a fit based on ignorance, bigotry, and maniacal greed, it does little good to acknowledge their feelings. You have to say no, you have to tell them that what they’re demanding is not worth discussing. It’s silly.

I’m not trying to dismiss discussion based on disagreement. Conversation of that sort will always be necessary in politics. But there’s a huge difference between compromising with positions you find less than ideal and giving way to idiocy. This is a distinction the president of the United States seems unable to grasp.

The notion that a government can assume modern responsibilities with revenues plunging below 15% of the national product is asinine. I don’t care what Grover Norquist says. It doesn’t matter how many times Republican politicians proclaim that we don’t have a revenue problem but only a spending problem. Obviously we have to recognize that such persons exist but that doesn’t mean we have to take their arguments seriously. They should be told, quietly and firmly, that those propositions are not worth discussing. And then there should be no negotiations with them about their proposals.

I admit it’s not overly easy to separate discussable issues from the ones not worth talking about. But it is a task any sensible politician must take up. And it’s a duty the current president has run away from. I don’t know why he has done it. Some of it may arise from naive assumptions about human interaction. More of it, I suspect, comes from listening to so-called political consultants who have sold the president foolish notions about the appeal of centrism. Whatever the cause, Obama’s fleeing from taking stances on what’s sensible is wrecking his presidency. It has opened the door to a flood of arguments so foolish we’re having a hard time believing they are actually a part of our political discourse. And the Obama administration has invited them in.

Suppose someone should come to the president and say that the experiment of racial equality has failed and that we should return to the days of segregation with clear rules about which groups receive preferred treatment. That after all was the way the country operated for almost two centuries, and weren’t we a great nation during that time? What would the president say? Would he appoint a national commission to discuss the issue? Would he instruct his pollsters to explore how the people felt about the proposition? Or would he say, “Get out of my office; that’s ridiculous.” Maybe you think you know the answer but I’m not sure I do.

The ideas he has been entertaining from the Republican leadership are just about as immoral and nonsensical. Clearly they are dead set on a program for turning the country into a plutocracy in which the wealthy get ever richer and take on more of the national decision-making while the majority decline in influence and the ability to protect themselves. Does Obama agree with the Republicans or does he regard plutocracy as an inadmissible form of government for the United States? We can’t tell based on his performance so far. I have not once heard him say that the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else is a serious problem that must be addressed if we are protect democracy in this land. In fact, as I think of it, I have not heard Obama say -- since he became president -- very much about what his basic stance on the nation is or what he will protect no matter what forces are brought against him. He just wants us to be one happy family luxuriating in the thought that we’re all Americans.

A nation is not a family. That’s a childish thought. I find it difficult to respect people who employ metaphors which imply that it is. Trying to conflate the nation and the family is an attempt to deny both the conditions of nationhood and the nature of politics. Whenever the attempt is made, we have to regard it as either duplicity or sappiness.

When a child, in the throes of an emotional seizure, tries to run out onto a busy boulevard, we restrain him. We pick him up and say, “No. You can’t do that.” And if he screams, that’s just the consequence of his immaturity and our responsibility. It’s the nature of things.

We have a political class now who won’t behave comparably with the nitwits who have edged their way into powerful positions. Until they’re told, “No. What you want is absurd,” we will continue to be in a sad situation.

The Cause of It All
July 25, 2011
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I sit here asking myself why we are being inundated by a wave of right-wing craziness. That we are is scarcely debatable. More and more commentators are expressing their dismay over the insanity of Republican proposals. In the last week I have read fairly sober writers announcing that the current Congress is the worst in U.S. history, that the Republican Party has become completely incapable of addressing the serious problems of government, that trying to reason with Republican negotiators is like trying to make a deal with the devil.

I’m probably not observant enough to know for sure what has brought all this about. I jotted a list for myself this morning just after I rolled out of bed. It included these seven possibilities.


Increasing complexity, and frustration about its occurrence?

An overdose of heated capitalist rhetoric?

A wild desire to avoid facing the truth that the United States is neither physically nor morally superior to other nations?

A buildup of resentment towards those who have been touted as the best and the brightest?

Inventiveness in finding ways to mask racial bigotry?

A sense that religious certainty is disintegrating?

Might it be one of these, several clumped together, or a tangled mass of them all plus others? I’m not sure but as I consider possibilities they all seem to have some element of a failure to employ minds that can confront the modern world. It is simply too much for the sort of minds we do use, so they retreat into facile prescription and delude themselves into thinking they are standing firmly on principle.

The set of bromides we apply to the political process is a pretty good example of how we’re responding to being overwhelmed. The most common announcement we get from the political punditry is that we can’t expect politicians to be intellectuals. Their minds don’t work in the same way that intellectuals’ minds work. I have no idea what this means -- if it means anything. But the application of it which emerges is that we should expect politicians to be dopes. Any other expectation is naive. Presumably, politicians are not set up to think, so we should give up any anticipation of thought coming from them. Why does this have to be true?

Was the politician not at some time a child? Did he, or she, not go to school while growing up? Were not some books read? Is it impossible that a person who read serious and complex books might not have aspired to exercise political responsibilities? Is it even more impossible that such a person might not mount a winning campaign? Is it demanded by some cosmic law that we think of persons as categories -- politician, intellectual, laborer, soldier -- and nothing more?

Why can’t we, as a polity, if we wish have intelligent politicians? Why are we required, perpetually, to elect numbskulls? Why is it decreed that if a person emits a though that is too much for the dullest people in the lowest drinking establishment in the district, he or she is automatically disqualified from winning the support of a majority?

Is it impossible for the American public to learn anything? Can we not come to see that by putting persons of John Boehner’s mental stripe into Congress we are voting to become abject servants of the people who can offer him the most money and the most praise. What other rewards might a man of Boehner’s character grasp?

It’s easy to hear the cynics. If members of the national legislature are on Boehner’s mental level, how can I possibly expect the general public to be more discerning, more subtle than he? Isn’t it more sensible to anticipate that he, limited as he is, will be far above them in his grasp of reality? Isn’t he actually as good as we can hope for?

I don’t think so. Our problem, as I perceive it, is not that we lack enough people of adequate mind to address our situation. It is rather that we have failed to recognize how we are distributing our adequate minds. We don’t understand how the system we have brought forth is seriously dysfunctional. We don’t comprehend how it regularly rules out using the most adequate persons for the most vital work.

We have become captive to the thought that only those who put these dysfunctional systems into place are competent to manage them. That’s why we have Timothy Geithner as the Secretary of the Treasury. If you think he’s the best person for that position then you have surrendered any hope that we can achieve a more just financial system. It has been widely reported that the reason Obama refused to fight for Elizabeth Warren as the head of the new consumer protection agency was that Geithner didn’t like her. If that’s true then we know why Obama’s presidency is likely to be mediocre at best.

To bring this back to the outbreak of craziness: our primary weakness is not a lack of decent minds. It is rather our inability to use them in the positions that could best benefit society. They have been gradually excluded from the public arena because we have become captive to the childish belief that there’s something peculiarly American, and therefore highly moral, about turning our basic decision-making over to people who are too savvy to be interested in complicated thought, the so-called salt of the earth types. If we keep on this way, we really are going to end up with a salted earth situation, in other words, one in which nothing can flourish.

Democratic Delusions
July 24, 2011
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Because we live in a society pervaded by democratic slogans we become evermore susceptible to democratic delusions. Right now we’re so severely awash in the latter we’re on the verge of embracing significant social damage.

The notion that all persons deserve equal opportunity easily slides over to the sloppy belief that all persons are equally competent in forming opinions. We frame this delusion by saying that everyone has the right to his own opinion. When it means simply that tastes are personal and that no one should try to impose his tastes on anyone else the sentiment does little harm. But when we move past that point to argue that every political stance deserves equal respect because it is someone’s opinion, that’s when we dive into the swamp.

The truth is that certain political opinions are insane because they are based on falsehood and because the people pushing them are intellectually incompetent. We are now being harassed and paralyzed by people who can’t begin to imagine the consequences of their own policies and who are so juvenile they can’t recognize the truth. The current Speaker of the House of Representatives is one such person.

To call him a simple political hack is probably too much of a compliment. He’s a hack with delusions of grandeur who descends to tears whenever he contemplates his own elevation. Yet over the past several days the media have reported his conversations with the president as serious negotiations conducted between equals. It’s farcical to view them that way. Obama has flaws, especially his unwillingness to fight for his commitments but occasionally he does utter a sentence which has been constructed spontaneously. John Boehner is incapable of such speech and, consequently, incapable of engaging in anything approaching negotiations. The words that come out of his mouth have been pre-formed by something other than his brain. He is an owned man, paid to say what his owners want, and probably not able to imagine any other process of pronouncement. What’s worse, he is the nominal head of political party whose members think, speak, and act as he does himself.

Shortly after Obama was elected, the political blogger John Cole made a point the mainstream media have not yet faced:

I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties
is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and
you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax.
If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy,
you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

He’s right. You can’t split the difference with crazy people, that is not unless you’re crazy yourself. It’s taking the president an awful long time to recognize that simple truth.

Another delusion of democracy is that the essence of political wisdom lies midway between whichever parties the media decide to present as the “two sides.” The people who inhabit this fabled ground are deemed “centrists” and simply by virtue of assuming that tag become blessed with eminent sanity. Tom Friedman today, in one of his sappiest columns ever, praised to the heavens a group which has assembled under the title “American Elect” to represent, according to their CEO Kahlil Byrd, the people “in the middle” As I have written on this page so many times it embarrasses me to remember, for centrists it doesn’t matter what the middle stands for, as long as its in the middle. It could even stand for something completely different tomorrow than it did today, and if it were still in the middle it would automatically be composed of the wise ones. 

Every now and then I ask myself about the centrist position in Germany in the 1930s. There were those who wished to kill all the Jews and then there were those who didn’t want to kill any. What did the centrist demand? Was it something resolute like only three million and not a single one more?

I hate to tell Tom this but the voice of the people is not the voice of God, not even the voice of the central fifty percent of the people.

Democracy can’t work unless it has some means to identify insanity. The Republican position today, as many others beside myself have pointed out, is completely batty. The democratic answer, if democracy is to be perceived as a serious form of government, is not to go half-batty. Rather it is to engage in serious debate in which the people who are telling lies are pointed out as liars, and the people who are pushing policies which will destroy the economic lives of millions of families are described as doing exactly what they are doing. It’s true, of course, that democracy leads to disaster if the great majority of the people go nuts. That has happened in history and that’s why many continue to regard democracy with skepticism. But before we decide we’re in the dire straits of a people run amok, perhaps we should push the media to describe our political leaders as being who they are and stop pretending that a country club drunk is a serious political thinker just because he managed to scramble into an eminent position.

American Morality
July 20, 2011
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I was pleased to see that Joe Scarborough brought the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill on his program yesterday to discuss Scahill’s article about a CIA directed secret prison in Somalia. It was the first occasion when a major media outlet had paid any attention to Scahill’s revelations. President Obama announced prominently when he took office that these black hole prisons were going to be discontinued, yet the one in Somalia continues to be funded by the CIA and to have American personnel posted there permanently to conduct interrogations of unnamed prisoners.

Pat Buchanan was also a member of the panel that included Scahill, and he was quick to point out that most Americans, if they knew of the actions Scahill had revealed, would strongly approve of them. Buchanan’s implication was that if most Americans approve of something then it must be all right, and, therefore, Scahill’s article was scarcely notable and didn’t really deserve major media coverage.

I don’t doubt that Buchanan actually was reflecting the attitude of a majority of Americans. It has been clear for the past ten years that the public generally supports any action against persons hostile to the United States, no matter how murderous that action may be, no matter how many innocent persons are killed in the process, and no matter what laws are violated. That is American morality.

A significant portion of Americans -- perhaps 25% -- disagree with majority morality. Some of them speak out forthrightly. But so far they have been unable to change the majority stance and there is reason to suspect that there is nothing they can do or say that will change it within the next several decades.

When polls reveal that international opinion of the United States is lower than it has ever been, we are mistaken if we think that opinion is directed only at the American government. People all around the world recognize that the American public is indifferent to the slaughter of non-Americans, and that’s the main reason we are widely despised. Furthermore, that we are scorned by a considerable portion of the world’s population is for many Americans, and perhaps most, a badge of honor. Such pride is a principal feature of what we have come to call “American exceptionalism.”

New York Times' columnist Roger Cohen was prescient back in September of 2008, when he noted that American exceptionalism had taken an ugly twist. It had become, he said, an angry refuge. It reflects a damn-the world, God-chose-us rage.

Cohen argued that to persist in a philosophy of separateness, and to reject connections with the rest of the world, would be devastating. But, then, a majority of Americans have never heard of Roger Cohen and wouldn’t care anything about his opinions if they had.

A naive belief persists among Americans of a vaguely liberal bent, that the people have been misled by greedy power-mongers and that if the public were presented with the truth, they would wake up, recognize the foolishness and viciousness of our past actions and demand that they be transformed. It’s a soothing notion. It plays on the desire to believe we really are all together here in America and if we could just comb the misinformation out of our discourse we would unify behind sensible and humane policies. That continues to be Obama’s chief rhetorical message. The problem with it, though, is that it’s not true.

Americans are, in the main, a vengeful people. Over and again they have shown that they would rather see people prosecuted and punished, even killed, than to see the innocent exonerated. Their principal notion of justice is to do something hurtful to someone as a retaliation. We saw that sentiment reflected widely in the recent Casey Anthony trial. Our national budget displays amply that we are more strongly focused on taking lives than on saving them.

Consequently, if that is not your own sentiment -- as it certainly is not mine -- you may as well face the truth that you are a minority in your own land, and that if you ever find occasion to express your own values you are likely to be despised for them. In short, you are not going to be embraced by “the people.” You can find allies, of course. You can work with them to change general attitudes. But you had best do it understanding that any success will be halting and that during the process you will be unpopular for trying to reach your goals. 

I, myself, don’t think it’s a happy time to be an American. I am one, of course, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But when I walk down the street in almost any city in the land I know that most of the people I pass would dislike me if they knew what I thought. Under these circumstances, I would be foolish to covet the affection of the people and extremely weak if I let their disapproval trouble me very much. In short, the United States is not a warm, cozy, loving place for me. I hope that over time it can become a better place, but I’m not sure that it will. At the moment it is significantly dangerous, a truth confirmed by almost every public statistic amassed.

Sluggard Intellect
July 17, 2011
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I have not commented on the debt-limit debate. The arguments reported in the newspapers are so absurd it’s hard to find anything useful to say about them.

We have now in the United States a political party composed entirely of juvenile dullards, who think it’s cute to play games with the country’s financial stability in order to indulge their self-image as radically conservative warriors. The other party is as unimaginative as any nation ought to have to endure but as things are in America it functions as the standard of responsibility. We are, in short, in a mess. And the reason we’re in a mess is because of who we are -- people of very little mind.

In 1837, in his famed address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wondered if his nation was on the verge of a transition. He suggested it might be approaching a time “when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectations of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.”

Think of it: only six decades after the Declaration of Independence the expectation of something big from the American mind was already being postponed. Now that we have postponed it more than twice as long, might we have reached a point when we should cancel any expectation of that sort? Might there be something inherent in the American mind, present from the beginning, which renders it incapable of bold thinking? The petty notion of market capitalism unabated is proclaimed by politicians from TV screens daily, as though dumping tawdry products onto a public of degraded taste is the grandest concept humanity can achieve. That it will render the earth unfit for human habitation is of no concern to people whose biggest idea is getting rich. It might be slightly better if they knew what they want to get rich for, but that would require far more mind than they can attain.

I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and August 2nd, when, presumably, if reason doesn’t prevail, the walls will come tumbling down. Neither do the adolescents who pretend to be in charge of national affairs. They have worked themselves into such a swelter of torpidity they have lost all sense of what they want to accomplish other than to make the other side look bad. The Republicans’ own propagandists -- David Brooks, Ross Douthat -- admit that the GOP has become too childish to engage in government.

Emerson saw great things coming for America but that was because he had the ability to perceive greatness, not because he knew America. He went against his own principles by arguing that a certain nation was destined to bring forth the new man. Nations have nothing to do with what he was attempting to prophesy. Instead, nations are poison to the spirit of personal self-confidence Emerson saw as the hope of the future. The irony of his Phi Beta Kappa address is that the antithesis of the “American Scholar” came to prevail in the land that was supposed to be his birthright. Rather than the cheerful, self-trusting person who models how to exist with confidence, we have evolved the narrow, stingy, grasping, fearful, suspicious personality, who is far more concerned with destroying enemies than with making friends. The Republican is the man who believes that ultimate success means the ability to possess a big house in a gated community, with guards at every entry point. You can’t exaggerate the scorn Emerson would have directed at that desire.

Make as many prideful remarks about the United States as you wish, it is hard to avoid the truth that the sluggard intellect remains in command. Why this should be the case is not easy to explain. But Emerson hinted at it with the metaphor,“iron lids.” What is seen by eyes sheathed with iron lids? We have to suppose that they open reluctantly and, consequently, see little. And given their rigid nature, they open onto fears and dangers rather than onto possibilities and hopes. The Republicans want to cut off assistance for millions of Americans because they are afraid that if they don’t the bankers of the world will look askance at American leadership. Fear of the bankers is far more prevalent in the United States now than any hope or expectation of a just and merciful nation. The President, himself, who convinced us he cared for all the people, directs his attention at bankers more than at anyone one else. Bankers are the only true Americans from the perspective of the political class. Other people scarcely matter.

I don’t guess the bankers, in the final analysis, want the government to default on its debt. That might reduce banking profits. And so a way will be found to get round the so-called dilemma. Yet the dilemma’s coming to be an issue at all was mainly an attempt to make the world more safe for bankers and those who share their mindset. It’s the value system of the squalling child -- Give me mine right now; I don’t care about anything else.

July 11, 2011
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Tomorrow we leave Bowling Green and start driving north towards Vermont. Every time we come to this community I am forced to ask the basic question of environment. Is it the determinative influence on who one is? That it is influential I have no doubt. But does it determine one’s identity?

I know, for example, that after I have been in Bowling Green for a while words come to me less readily. I find myself less eager to possess them. What do they matter?  is the query that comes drumming into my mind from all that surrounds me. Going to Walmart to get bread and milk requires almost no language. And what else is there except to go to Walmart?

At a cafe in Wauchula, I heard a man profess, rather loudly that he was a Republican and had never in his life considered being anything else. A statement like that would once have grated on me, but now I merely think to myself, “Of course you’re a Republican. Your appearance, your manner, proclaims it. It’s what anyone would expect, just as one would expect a cat to chase a mouse.”

The issue of determinism versus freedom of will cannot be resolved. It’s one of those intellectual tensions the human mind is incapable of escaping. When, however, we turn to environmental determinism, we are addressing a simpler problem than the possibility of an overweening force which causes the outcome of every event in the universe. We are simply wondering whether if we had spent our days in places other than where we did happen to spend them, we would be dramatically different persons than who we turned out to be.

If, for example, after graduating from high school in Florida, I had not left the state but had stayed here from that day to this, would I be recognizable as the person I am now?

It’s impossible to say. The question does, though, raise a hypothesis that’s generally seen  to be so far outside appropriate thought we scarcely dare to broach it. What if some people have free will and others do not?

That would be a secular Calvinism to put to shame the original version. What if, instead of a creator deity who decides arbitrarily which persons can achieve true personhood, or what religious people call “salvation,” there are simply some persons with a power of self-creation allowing them to rise above influences which history flings at them? What if they, somehow, achieve a self-command which allows them to make themselves?

What if, furthermore, one such person having come into being, there could be another, and then another after that, and so on? If that could be the case, then wouldn’t it follow that transferring more and more lives to the condition of self-command would constitute the only human teleology, the very purpose of human being and becoming?

It’s a radically undemocratic idea. Shocking actually. But knowing what we know, is it unthinkable?

If an idea separates humanity into two definable classes then obviously it creates the possibility for a vast oppression. It is in its very nature a dangerous concept, one not to be played with lightly. But what if it’s also the avenue to a fundamental truth?

Truth has always been a dangerous phenomenon. That’s why humanity has traditionally persecuted it vengefully. But where would we be without it?

I’m not yet ready to confess to being a propagator of such a radical hypothesis. I’m less than convinced of its accuracy. In most of my normal activities I would rail against it. Yet, when I consider my Republican in the cafe, or the face of Mitch McConnell, or the speechifying of Michelle Bachman, I find myself thinking, almost involuntarily, that we have to discover something to give children a chance to avoid the forces that shaped that trio.  It’s not believable that they’re the products of free will. But, then, who knows for sure?

Furthermore, when I think of Bowling Green, even with all its glories, I doubt it offers what developing humanity craves. I don’t want to be disparaging, but I can’t view the influences hereabouts as providing an evolving humanity a serious possibility for self-creation.

Anyway, as I withdraw from the Sunshine State tomorrow, and roll across the Peach State and the Carolinas, I’ll ponder these things, and truth is that though I recall my experiences in this region with fondness, I’ll be glad it didn’t constitute my whole environment. Maybe I would have been myself in any case and I suppose there’s even the possibility that I would have been a superior creature had I stayed put. Furthermore, I can’t claim I’m any great shakes as I am. Still, all in all, I don’t regret going astray.

On the determinism versus free will front, I’m reminded that while I was here the Casey Anthony case reached its climax. Many residents of Central Florida feel cheated that after vast public expenditures and intense concentration, they’re not going to get the reward of a sensational execution. Their response pushes me towards willingness to entertain the notion that our current modes of human creation need, somehow, to be consigned to extinction.

Independence Day
July 4, 2011
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Here’s another 4th of July. It finds me feeling not particularly patriotic. Truth is, patriotism is an emotion that has gradually leeched out of my system. There are two reasons for the departure. The first is the United States itself, the second, and more powerful, is the very nature of the sentiment.

The United States right now, as a nation and as a people, is not particularly inspiring. Politicians and others continue to speak of it as something awesome but the qualities that supposedly earn it admiration are not features that appeal to me.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t wish well for the people of my country. I want them to be healthy and happy. But the characteristics they regularly brag about add nothing to either health or satisfaction. The principal symbols of American braggadocio are instruments of death and destruction. At sports events, after the national anthem has been played, war planes frequently roar through the skies above the stadium, bringing forth applause and cheers from the crowd below. What is it they’re acclaiming? The planes have been designed to rain explosives down onto people below them, and to blow their bodies into small pieces. What’s that got to do with a baseball game? Why are the people pleased to be reminded of that function when they’re out to view an athletic contest?

The answer, of course, is that they have been taught to be pleased by organizations and systems which profit from war planes. The people have been schooled to believe that these instruments of war are somehow beneficial to them. But the lesson never involves evidence; it is always composed simply of assertion. Having said that, though, we then have to ask, “What sort of people allow themselves to be persuaded without evidence?” I suppose populations other than Americans fall into that category. But if we could somehow compose a list of the most duped people, I doubt Americans would be near the bottom.

A propensity for being manipulated is not a characteristic which causes my heart to go pitty-pat or that leads me to want to wave the flag.

When you consider that Americans would rather spend their money on ever more expensive wars than on a sound infrastructure at home, or adequate delivery of medical care, or scientific research, or first rate schools, you are left wondering how much praise they deserve. Of course, if you believe in war as the grandest of human enterprises, than you can bellow till your lungs burst. And if such bellowing constitutes your brand of patriotism then of course you can choose it. It’s just that I’m not inclined to bellow along with you.

Rather than dwell excessively on American drawbacks, however, I’d rather turn my attention to the question of whether the national state is an entity we ever ought to be slavering with sentimentalism. Why should we get more weepy about it than about anything else? Why is it the only venture we regularly call on people to sacrifice their lives for? And who, by the way, is it that is called on to sacrifice life?

Such sentiments arise from a form of primitive tribalism which has little to do with the actual makeup of a modern national government. You don’t have to hate government, as some of our most ardent patriots claim to do, to see it as an object scarcely worth sacrifice. At its best, it is an organizational tool which can perform certain functions better than other tools can. We can be glad to see it working well without ever getting gooey over it, and certainly not so gooey as to talk about giving up life for it. When a national government is working adequately it is preserving life, not destroying it, or asking anyone to sacrifice their own lives for it.

When you reach the point of inquiring why nationalistic sentiments have such a hold on people’s emotions you’re obviously delving into an extremely complex question. It touches on the whole issue of meaning, and what it is that makes life worth living. I can’t begin to give complete answers to such questions in a short space, nor could I if I were prepared to write volumes on them. But I think there is a distinction worth making even in a brief essay like this. If we take thought, we can tell the difference between things that justify emotional loyalty and things that are set up as manipulative structures. Love of other persons, of family, of place as a natural phenomenon, of cultural processes can deliver rewards that fit with intense devotion, that are legitimate, you might say. On the other hand, sentimentality about supposed duties to gigantic abstractions, like nations, religions, large ethnic groups, and ideologies are far less likely to stand the test of careful scrutiny. More often than not, they end up being the manipulation of one group by another. They are pretty much con games. I take the clearly unpopular position of putting patriotism in the latter category. That’s why I hope the 4th of July will become mainly a time for family gatherings and pleasurable amusements, and less the occasional for false readings of history, bragging about military might, and slights towards other peoples and other nations. You can argue all you want that love of national grandeur is a valid emotion, but in my concept of truth it’s little more than cheapness and vulgarity.

©John R. Turner

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On and Off Archive    -    July  2011