March 1, 2012
Yesterday in Bowling Green, a half dozen buzzards spiraled over our house for about an hour. I hope they aren’t prescient.
Pulling up to the traffic light on U.S. 17 this morning I noticed a red pickup truck with a message stenciled in its rear window. “Is there life after death? Mess around with my truck and you’ll find out.” It was a solid depiction of Hardee County masculinity.
On a related note, the main headline in the Lakeland Ledger this morning read, “Deadly Storms Hit Heartland.” What is it about the term “heartland” that’s so nauseating? I suppose it does waft a slight fascist odor over its vicinity. But I doubt that’s the main thing. It’s a usage for persons who consciously consider themselves to be good, who take pride in their own goodness. Moral smugness at any social level is, I suppose, a bit hard to stomach.
Since I’m on a roll this morning, I may as well construct a trilogy. On the way back from Walmart I noticed a billboard depicting a young Marine saluting. The caption read: “Committed to something greater than themselves.” What is that, I wonder, that something greater than themselves? Who says it’s greater? And if someone does, why should we believe him? I don’t guess these questions are put to Marine recruits. Being willing to serve something greater than oneself is taken to be a noble disposition. Perhaps it doesn’t much matter what that thing is.
I read an article in the N.Y. Times this morning about the time it takes to access a web site. Evidently, tiny stretches of time make a difference. If one site is in competition with another and opens a quarter-second faster, that gives it a big advantage. Supposedly, the average time for opening a site here in the United States, using a computer, is 3.6 seconds. If you’re on a smart phone the time rises to 9 seconds. If an opening stalls for even a couple seconds, four out of five users will go on to something else.
There’s little doubt that impatience measured in quarter-seconds will, over time, have an effect on brains. They will, as many critics have noted, begin to operate differently. The common assumption is that they will operate worse. But how do we know? We have no accepted standard for quality of brain function. Many people measure smartness by how much money a person can accumulate. Truth is, that’s probably the most popular yardstick here in America. Others -- a decreasing minority -- hold to something more deliberative.
A truth that may begin to worm its way into our thoughts is that there is no such thing as intelligence. There is simply a great variety of abilities with respect to an even great variety of tasks. An ordinary pigeon can get more peanuts out of a machine than I can by punching an ordained sequence of colors. Does that make the pigeon smarter than I am? I guess it does with respect to a particular mode of acquiring peanuts. But, then, I can go to Walmart and purchase a gigantic jar of peanuts, which a pigeon would have a hard time doing. So where do we stand, the pigeon and myself? I’m not sure. But the main effect of the comparison is that I don’t much care. And that’s liberating. If someone were to call me stupider than a pigeon, it would leave me just a cheerful as I was before.
I have begun to read the Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I was able to purchase the first four as a single item for my Kindle for only ten dollars. A fifth novel has just been published, which is reputed to be the last in the series.
I have not read far into the first novel yet -- titled Never Mind -- but even the bit I have read tells me that the story, overall, is about certain members of the English upper class and their various hangers-on. These people, particularly the men, are all astonishingly obnoxious. But they are described in fairly vivid and witty ways. In other words, the language is good even if the characters are not.
My question is whether the language alone will be enough to carry me through all five novels if I can’t find some characters to care about, at least a little. Somehow, I suspect it will, but I can’t be sure. You’ll have to stay tuned in to find out. I’ll tell you how it’s going, from time to time.
March 2, 2012
In my mother-in-law’s kitchen window there is propped a small plastic plaque imprinted with what is claimed to be an Indian prayer: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” I find it hard to believe that this was ever a prayer uttered by any ethnic group, and especially not an Indian one, seeing that no such human as an "Indian," -- within the definition popular in the United States -- ever existed. There were, of course, persons who lived within the current boundaries of the United States before European settlers came here. But I have seen no evidence that they called themselves "Indians," and so the idea that there is a single prayer which could be legitimately assigned to them all seems far-fetched.
When I see the plaque, I am reminded of the directive embroidered on a framed tapestry which hung above the arch opening into my grandfather’s living room in Armuchee, Georgia: “Work Out Your Own Salvation.” When I was eight years old, I would read it, over and again, and ask myself what it meant. Though I never answered satisfactorily, I did pick up that working out one’s own salvation was a positive thing to do. I also got the point that one person’s salvation might be different from another’s. This ran contrary to what I heard in church almost every Sunday. I got in the habit of wondering which was right, church or the picture in the old wooden house in Armuchee. The puzzle doubtless led me on to the conviction that you can’t believe everything you hear in church. That arrived when I was about twelve. Since then it’s been downhill all the way.
The path to paradise is strewn with many barriers and side paths.
Now and again, I find myself wondering how long religion -- or at least religion as we now define it -- can persist. It has already held on longer that any sensible person would expect. When I hear politicians expressing their religious convictions, I naturally enough assume they’re lying. Yet I’m probably, in a way, being unfair to them. It’s more likely they don’t know what lying is. After all, truth and falsehood become fairly complicated subjects when you subject them to examination. And our political culture does not prepare persons to have inquiring minds. What would be the use of them? They would get in the way of garnering votes.
I see that Richard Cebull, a federal judge, has forwarded a joke to friends which implies that Mr. Obama was sired by a dog. Judge Cebull said he thought the story was touching. I suppose we can congratulate him on his sweet sentiments but I feel fairly sure that the originators of the joke did not have kindly feelings towards the president.
One of the benefits of having elected a non-purely-white president has been a flow of lessons about who the people of the United States actually are. In the past when we heard of events like this we could say, “Oh, well, that’s just some kook.” Now it has become evident that kooks of that nature are numerous enough to make up the great majority of one of the two main political parties. They think of themselves as being clever, of course. And from a certain perspective, I suppose they are. Humor and character are so intricately mixed that hilarity for one man is pretty much sewage for another.
Mr. Obama is in the habit of saying that we’re really all just Americans together. Nothing more absurd has been said in politics since Jimmy Carter used to intone that he would work to give the United States a government as good as the people themselves. I recall the first time I heard that, I prayed, “Oh, my God! Please don’t let it happen.”
I suppose the people of any large nation are widely divided by sentiment, values, taste and intellectual quality. For some reason, here in the United States, we have wanted to pretend that’s not the case. But the evidence is now indisputable. The citizens of the United States differ so markedly in what they want for the country that some groups would be more than happy to expel, or in some instances even to slaughter, another portion of the public if they thought they could muster enough force to get away with it. And at the moment we can discern no general sentiment on the horizon to dissipate the surging hostilities.
I would like it if we did have a bond as Americans that could always step in to overwhelm violent resentments. But I see no sense in telling myself tales.
March 3, 2012
I mentioned a couple days ago that I started reading the Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. They are so brief, my completion of the first one -- Never Mind -- was unexpected. Reading on the Kindle, left me not knowing how far along in the book I was, so that when I got to the end, it was quite a jolt. The truth is the first four Melrose novels together are no longer than many single novels; they add to a total of about 680 pages.
Never Mind is a study in social depravity. I have not before seen so many disgusting characters operating in so few pages. Perhaps you can get a hint of my assessment by being told that an alcoholic mother who hideously neglects her five-year-old son, is one of the more sympathetic persons to appear.
When I read about characters of this nature, I have to wonder if there are actually people who resemble them. I suppose there must be. Still, though I have met quite a few louts in my life, I don’t think I’ve come face to face with anyone as loathsome as several of the characters in Never Mind. One of them, in fact, is as complete a monster I’ve encountered, and he’s the most charming personality of the lot, and the one with the most interesting mind.
The series has been described as a study in the decay of the British upper classes. If we were to compare St. Aubyn’s characters with those of Trollope, "decay" would be a euphemism. We would have to say, at the least, "nauseous rot." I doubt such radical change has actually occurred in any social class over the course of a century, or so. With St. Aubyn, what we have is a creepy psychological drama, which might have been set in any era, fascinating but sickening at the same time. Or at least so it seems on the basis of the first of five novels.
I’ll probably continue on with them, and let you know how things progress, or disintegrate.
Has it finally happened? Has Rush Limbaugh managed to say something so loony and disgusting that even Republican politicians will criticize him for it? Yesterday, Mr. Limbaugh announced that Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who has pressed the university to include contraceptives in its student health plan, is a slut and a prostitute. His thinking -- if you can apply that term to the workings of Limbaugh’s mind -- is that she’s demanding that the public pay her for her promiscuity.
Rick Santorum responds that Limbaugh is being absurd, but then adds that he’s an entertainer and that persons in his line of work can be absurd. I wonder if Santorum will be forced to apologize to Limbaugh now.
I’ve been fairly happy to see the way that people who are obsessed with the immorality of sexual encounter have tried to turn ordinary birth control measures into a cosmic issue of religious freedom. I don’t think the public is usually astute about these matters, but most people probably do get the point that making a huge sin out of a practice employed by more than ninety percent of women, is going, as they might put it, a little too far
I have faith in Rush, though. Not only will he not back down, he’ll probably try to find something more outrageous to say about Sandra Fluke and other young women who feel as she does. I’m waiting with bated breath.
I’ve been worried about the sign-keeper at the First Baptist Church in Bowling Green. Until yesterday the area that usually has a message of some kind was blank. It got me to wondering if the keeper had fallen into the hands of Satan. But then on Friday relief came. A new aphorism advised me that “Anxiety is unbelief in disguise.”
It’s an idea to be considered. If you’re in belief, rather than in unbelief, then there’s nothing at all to be worried about. Nothing. That’s assuming, of course, that your belief is of a certain sort. But that there could be belief of any other sort is a notion that probably has not occurred to members of the church on U.S. 17.
If you believed, for example, that all humans are schmucks, and that there’s nothing to be done about it, I doubt that would be considered genuine belief, no matter how firmly one held it. It would be called something else, like, perhaps, delusion, or even possession.
In any case, when we return to the thought that anxiety of any sort is completely unnecessary, that people can live their entire lives without having to worry about a single thing, we find ourselves contemplating a condition of existence that’s difficult to imagine. Has there ever been anyone, in the history of the world, so rolled up in belief that he, or she, never had to endure a moment’s worry? And if there never has been such a person then the suggestion on the sign of the First Baptist Church in Bowling Green strikes me, at best, as impractical and probably a bit of dishonesty in disguise. It’s so disguised, in fact, that the people perpetrating it likely don’t recognize its genuine nature.
March 4, 2012
Can it be? Have we lost everything dependable in the world? If I had faith in anything it was that Rush Limbaugh would always be a completely obnoxious blowhard. And now we get word that he -- or at least some of his lawyers -- has apologized for the remarks he made about Sandra Fluke. What’s going on?
I realize Rush was losing some of his sponsors for calling Ms. Fluke a slut and a prostitute, but surely money is not as important as maintaining the brand. Rush has worked hard to build his reputation as a quintessential clod. Why diminish it in any way for a few lousy dollars?
The only thing I can figure which allows me to hold onto a shred of my former belief is that Rush and his legal advisors will assume that the Ditto Heads will take the apology as code. They may read it as an added sarcastic slam at Ms. Fluke. I certainly hope that’s the case.
I was pleased to find in the Lakeland Ledger this morning a full-page ad for the “Ignite Your Flame” conference to be held in the local branch of Southeastern University next week. There are to be ten speakers who will discuss “excellence in leadership” over a two day period. Leading the list are former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, Tim Teebow. I don’t know much about the other eight speakers, though I may have heard the names of a few of them. Mark Sanborn and Howard Putnam seem to trigger a faint recognition in my memory.
It was exciting to find that such an important event was taking place near to me, so I began to anticipate attending. I felt I needed to have my flame lit as much as the next guy. I went on the internet to see about buying a ticket, and there I discovered I would have to give up either the conference or my wife. The cheapest ticket is $650, and if I were to lay out that amount of money to have my flame lit, I’m afraid Shirley would simply blow up.
It’s too bad. These speakers are going to “provide encouragement and motivation to achieve excellence.” I suspect I’m likely not to get it without them. But $650 is outside my range.
Shirley says we can mitigate my disappointment by going to a spring training baseball game, and maybe we can. I hope that sacrificing excellence for an afternoon of balls and strikes will be not too bad a deal.
At the Walmart in Wauchula I bought a Lights of America LED bulb for $5.75 which is advertised as producing 110 lumens -- about the same as a hundred watt bulb -- using only two watts of electricity. The usage figure may be correct but the lumens claim is a complete falsehood. The light produced is quite dim. That’s not to say that the bulb may not be useful, as a nightlight in a hallway, or something of that sort. But the bulb I’m looking at right now would not be sufficient as a bedside light for reading before sleep. You couldn’t easily see the text, even if you had the keenest of eyesight.
I wonder where the claim of 110 lumens came from. Do you suppose Lights of America is being purposively deceptive? They wouldn’t do that, would they?
March 5, 2012
Reading in Bad News, the second volume of the Melrose series, I realized probably more clearly than I have before that I generally adhere to conventional morality not because I have any particular affection for it but mainly because I have no affection for its opposite either, and because I don’t wish to discomfit people I care about, who, for some reason, seem to like the thought of my being an upstanding person. I’m not sure, however, that reputation alone would keep me on the straight and narrow path, so to speak, if I were strongly tempted by vices.
When it comes to drugs and their effects, which is almost totally what Bad News is about, I have never felt any pull towards them. I have very little sense of what it is to want them. Consequently, I see no profit in risking the troublesome consequences they often bring in their wake.
About the only violations of conventional morality that appeal to me are expressions of untoward thoughts, lack of respect for attitudes that other people hold sacred, and so forth. But since I don’t ordinarily reveal those thoughts outside of scribblings like these, they cost me almost nothing because nobody pays them any mind. Occasionally, I will engage in small acts of rebellion, such as failing to applaud for military persons who are introduced on airplanes as heroic defenders of our country. But when I do that, the other passengers probably just think I’m asleep.
All this is preliminary to confessing that I don’t know how to assess characters like the ones who figure prominently in Bad News, people who, in order to experience certain sensations, are not only happy to break the law, putting themselves in danger of legal penalties, but also willing to court severe threats to their health. Are they being foolish or are they being supremely intelligent? I know it’s possible for persons to go all the way through life without having any intense occurrences, and that seems a droopy thing to do. Yet if one wishes to escape that sort of droopiness, how do you do it? Is it necessary to run athwart morality. I suspect it is, but exactly what morality to flout I’m not sure. I doubt that at my age I’ll take up cocaine.
At the beginning of the third novel, Some Hope, a character who has managed to kick the drug habit, at least for the moment, says that the real strain of giving it up “is being forced into the lobster pot of good behaviour while being forced to sing its praises.” I agree with that pretty thoroughly. To have not only to surrender one’s vices but to denounce them also would be too much. No one should be required to be that pathetic.
As you see, I’m plowing ahead with St. Aubyn’s novels, though reading them is seldom a pleasant experience. Perhaps they promise more than they will ultimately deliver, but about that we’ll have to wait to find out.
Kathleen Parker irritates me.
In her column this morning denouncing Rush Limbaugh’s language about Sandra Fluke, Kathleen tries to make the same points Rush made while maintaining her own precious gentility.
No Kathleen, the issue at the Darrell Issa committee was not religious freedom versus government overreach. Nor has “the only question -- ever -- been whether the federal government can force religious organizations to pay for something that violates their freedom of conscience.” The government has been doing that for centuries; it’s what any government must do when religious entities engage in commercial activities. Rush has not marginalized legitimate arguments, because there are no legitimate arguments with respect to this particular flap. The Republicans have been using it to confound the public, which is exactly what Kathleen Parker is trying to do. Given that she and Rush are working for the same thing, I prefer his method to hers. When garbage is being pushed, it’s better for it to be openly rank and odious than having it covered up with coy manipulation.
March 6, 2012
I sat for two and a half hours this afternoon in the waiting room of a clinic in Winter Haven trying to decide whether my companions in the room were insane before they arrived or if being the vicinity of medical activity had driven them mad. I didn’t reach a firm conclusion.
One quartet discussed vociferously what needed to be done in the Middle East. Listening to them idly I discovered that not one of the four was aware that Iraq and Iran were separate countries. Yet their opinions about the actions the U.S. government should take were firm and fairly bloody.
Another couple had determined that Jacksonville was the biggest city in the United States. “You mean it’s bigger than New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago?” the wife asked eagerly. “That’s right,” the husband responded sagely. Neither conceived that the bigness they were talking about was measured in square miles rather than people.
One man who had earlier announced that he was a life-long resident of Winter Haven asked another where he worked and was told that his seatmate taught school in Bartow. “Where’s that?” the first man queried. Bartow is ten miles south of Winter Haven.
I suppose it was mere coincidence that this morning I had read of research conducted by David Dunning of Cornell and Justin Kruger of New York University. The two scholars concluded that the population of the United States is not sufficiently intelligent to allow government to function effectively. The general public does not understand social problems well enough to vote for fully sensible measures. They probably do know enough not to elect complete dolts to important national offices, i.e., they won’t put people like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump in the White House. But neither will they elect persons who will challenge popular misconceptions or push firmly towards the most intelligent solutions. As a consequence, our democracy will be mediocre and corrupt as long as common levels of understanding and knowledge remain as they are at present.
I don’t suppose anyone should be surprised by these findings. If you listen to how political debate is conducted you will pretty quickly conclude that the public is being duped and doesn’t have the intelligence to know what to do about it.
My companions this afternoon were probably average Americans -- basically good people, as we say, but inadequate to think about the difficulties of modern life. It’s difficult to imagine that future Americans will be, on average, significantly different.
March 7, 2012
I’ve said this before but I think it’s worth saying again: the greatest weakness, the greatest cowardice a public official can display is to trample on the nation’s code of civil rights in order to appear tough and strong to right-wing freaks.
If you want to know how that condition is proceeding right now, read Glenn Greenwald’s column in Salon today. He is commenting on the speech Attorney General Eric Holder gave at Northwestern University two days ago concerning the targeted killings being carried out by the Obama administration. And if your want a quick reading of Greenwald’s stance, you can get it from an assessment of Holder’s speech by Charles Pierce of Esquire which Greenwald quotes approvingly: “a monumental pile of crap that should embarrass every Democrat who ever said an unkind word about John Yoo.”
Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I can’t help but believe that the Obama administration is behaving as it does not as much out of concern for the nation’s security as out of anxiety over being called soft by the Republicans, and worry about how such attacks affect the election returns.
I finished reading Some Hope, the third of the Melrose novels, this morning, and I have to admit the series is beginning to win me over. The plot of this third episode is consumed entirely by a huge party held at a country house somewhere near the Cotswolds, a party graced by the presence of Princess Margaret. If this is a fair reading of the exclusive classes in England, then the land of Shakespeare has descended to Hades. The portrait of Margaret, herself, is about as shrewish as anything I’ve read, and it leaves one wondering if it is entirely fictional or based on inside information. But floating on the oceans of idiocy are little islands of insight which add more humor to this piece than the two earlier novels contained between them. I was particularly taken by a theological point that arose during one of the cocktail party conversations, that Jesus may not have been the first man in history with a Christ-complex, but he was certainly the most successful. So I am wading forward into Mother’s Milk with greater optimism than I drudged up from my earlier reading.
March 8, 2012
Of all questions which bedevil me, the most perplexing is: who’s responsible for what?
Sometimes, in frustration, I conclude that only I am responsible for anything. That, however, isn’t a position which would win great popular assent.
I was reminded of the conundrum this morning reading a column by Cal Thomas which explained that Rush Limbaugh’s first apology about Sandra Fluke was not perfectly sincere whereas his second was heartfelt, seeing that in the second Rush explained that the heat of combat had temporarily caused him to descend to liberal tactics. For that he was sincerely sorry.
Whenever you come on anything written by Cal Thomas you can be fairly sure it will be profoundly stupid. But can we blame Cal for that? Is he capable of anything other than stupidity? Was he programmed from birth to be a stupidity machine? If he was then blame seems to be off the table.
After you ask the question about Cal, you find yourself pushed to ask it about others. Could they have done other than they did? And if they could not have, is there any role for blame to play?
Take an extreme example, say Adolph Hitler. Can we blame him for his actions? There’s no doubt that most people do blame him, but are they intellectually coherent in doing so?
This, of course, is an ancient philosophical problem we will not resolve. Yet thinking about it is useful, at times. It causes us to be less resentful, less passionate about revenge, less likely to equate justice with torture and bloodshed. When we can mitigate any of those emotions it’s a good thing -- at least from my perspective.
Consequently, this morning I do not wish for Cal Thomas to have a stomach ache, or stub his toe, or get a parking ticket. Is not being Cal Thomas enough? My God! How vengeful can we get?
I guess it’s all right for Mitt Romney to wear blue jeans, if he likes them. But it is strange that he went this long before discovering the taste.
I spent a good part of yesterday driving from Bowling Green to Odessa, north of Tampa, and then driving back. Each way took a little over two hours, for a distance of about ninety miles. The trip made me sad. There are many questions about degeneration versus progress in modern life. Yet there is, for me, no question that the Tampa area has degenerated mightily over the past half-century. It is more spread out now, and doubtless richer. But what was once a fairly comfortable, and somewhat charming medium sized city has been transformed into a sprawling mess, with great piles of junk dotting much of the landscape.
What most people in the North and West fail to understand about Florida is that the gleaming resort areas make up a fairly small portion of the state. Most of it is run-down and ugly, so far as human development is concerned. Small cities like Wauchula which once were genuine, thriving communities are now simply unsightly strips. In Wauchula, there is not a movie theatre, there is not a book shop, there is not a newsstand where you could get any sort of national or international coverage. The former downtown area shows little but decay. This is the result of capitalism made into a god. If you want to see what sort of world the Republicans want to produce, I suggest you start in Bartow and drive west to Brandon, and you’ll see the quality of civilization that uncontrolled capitalism wants to deliver to you. Maybe you would like it, but if you did you would have unusual taste.
Perhaps I’m being simplistic. A sociologist might tell me there are forces in addition to economics which produce the conditions I’m describing. Still, at bottom, the idea that nothing should compete with capital accumulation in shaping social reality is the driving force behind the transformations I observe when I drive through areas formerly familiar to me. When money is all, the motivation is to extract all the profit possible from an activity, and leave the refuse behind. And central Florida is the genuine “Left Behind” of American society now.
March 9, 2012
Now and again I think about fleeing the United States because it has become such a creepily corrupt and ignorant country. But then I am accosted by two questions.
1. Where would I flee to? 2. Has the United States “become” corrupt, or is it just the same as it has always been, and it just seems more corrupt because I pay more attention than I once did?
Neither of these questions can be answered satisfactorily. I have never lived in another country long enough to test, in a serious way, whether it is more satisfying than the United States. I have, for example, spent a lot of time in England and have always enjoyed my time there. But I have been a visitor. I haven’t had to deal with governmental stupidity, except peripherally, nor have I ever acquired a full set of friends and acquaintances as I have here. I still suspect I would enjoy daily life in England more than I do here, but I can’t be sure. And what if I were wrong? If there should happen to be any Republican reader of these sentiments who is preparing to tell me to get out if I don’t like it here, let me precede that invitation by inviting him to go immediately to the place reserved for the eternal repose of Republicans.
As for the past versus the present: there simply is no yardstick that can tell me whether the United States is more icky now than it once was. It seems that way to me but that may be because I have looked at reality more intensely lately than I once did. Perhaps, in a fair-minded reading, the United States has actually improved since Ronald Reagan became president. My emotions tell me that’s absurd but my more rational mind tells me it’s a genuine possibility. I know, also, there is no way to answer the question definitively and correctly.
Also there’s this: love it or despise it, America is my home. The truth is -- bitter or not -- it’s probably not possible for anyone to be more American than I am. I have certainly never met anyone who is.
So here I am, a bit fed up, but stuck. I’m not going to give up disliking the things about America I dislike -- the military-industrial empire, the filthy criminal justice system, the inclination of Americans to enjoy killing people, the widespread hatred of science, the inability of most Americans to tell the difference between the 19th and 20th centuries, the asinine forms of religion, the cupidity of those who think business is the avenue to perfection. But I’m going to live among them and give them a swat whenever I can. And if Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich don’t like my presence, I can give them my sympathy but not much else.
March 10, 2012
So who, after all, is crazy?
It’s a question causing much confusion in America today. There appears to be no standard of sanity widely enough respected to win the assent of even a bare majority of citizens now. The United States is now so chopped up into opinion groups, and the opinions are so diverse, that no one can identify with any majority as being balanced and sensible. There is no such thing as general opinion to be challenged by avant-garde voices.
Instead we have some people who think of Rush Limbaugh as the essence of common sense and some who consider him a loutish loon. We have some state legislatures which would pass a bill requiring that photographic wand be inserted into a woman’s vagina before she chooses a legal medical procedure, and some where anyone proposing such a thing would become a pariah. We have groups who call loudly for dropping bombs on countries who want to defend themselves in certain ways, and others who say the bomb advocates are bloodthirsty freaks. There are some who wish to enact Christian theology into law and others who think Christianity is an outdated superstition. I could go on with examples all day, but probably these are enough to make my point.
I am not arguing that such fragmentation is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a condition we have not yet assimilated. We expect there to be a center when there is no center. Politicians still yelp about what all Americans want or what all American believe when there is nothing to fit such rhetoric.
The result is that when we meet someone who differs radically from ourselves we still tend to charge him with being so far out of the mainstream that he’s barely on the fringe. We would do better to face the truth that we’re all on the fringe now. If we did, we could drop the habit of calling others demented and turn our attention to defending our own position as best we can.
I confess that I have, at times, fallen to designating some opinions as nuts. But when I do, I violate my own understanding that there is no universal measuring stick which permits us discover what’s sane and what’s not. The issue is not whether a practice is sane; it is rather whether we find something likable or disgusting, and, also, whether we have coherent reasons for our preferences.
It’s a new world we’re entering, one in which there are likely to be fewer and fewer conventions. We’ve got a lot of work to do, figuring out how to live in it. Obviously, we need at least a few convictions held in common in order to have a functioning society of any sort. Maybe if we can accept being divided on most things without becoming enraged at one another, we can discover a minimal number of agreements, such as the need every human has for food and shelter, and the requirement of some kind of social infrastructure, like passable roads, and an electricity network, that will allow us to limp along in some fashion. If we try to force too much agreement on one another, we may end up with none at all.
March 11, 2012
I seem lately to be falling for series of novels. I have mentioned here over the past couple weeks Edwards St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels. I have now read three of the five. But even before I finish them, I am launched on a new set, the six Church of England novels by Susan Howatch.
In the Hardee County book sale room I found Absolute Truths, and shelled out fifty cents for it without knowing it was one of six by Ms. Howatch about the English Church in the 20th century. I once knew a bit about the Church of England in the 19th century. John Henry Newman was a great favorite of mine, so I tried to follow as closely as I could the Oxford Movement, his crisis of faith, his move to the Catholic Church, and the grand swirl of controversy following it. I also once proposed writing a doctoral dissertation about a collection of writings published in London in 1860, titled simply Essays and Reviews, which introduced the English public to the new biblical criticism which had grown up in Germany. It too was severely controversial. As you might imagine, most members of the University of Virginia history faculty did not look favorably on digging into past religious arguments which were regarded in Charlottesville as utterly inconsequential. So, you might say, I didn’t get enthusiastic support.
In any case, though I learned something about the 19th century church, I didn’t follow forward into the twentieth. About all I know concerning the Church of England in the later century comes from having attended services in a variety of churches when I’ve visited England, which taught me only that they were slightly more dignified versions of services I have experienced in this country (leaving aside services in Southern Baptist Churches, for which the adverb “slightly” would have to be amended).
Even though I’ve managed to get through only a half of Absolute Truths, Ms. Howatch has already informed me of a number of things I didn’t know previously, including the names of two notable CE 20th Century theologians, Austin Farrar and Reginald Somerset Ward. Each of the chapters in the novel is introduced by an epigraph from the writings of one or the other of them. In the dedication, Ms. Howatch offers special thanks to Alex Wedderspoon for his “great” sermon preached in Guildford Cathedral in 1987, on Chapter 8, Verse 28 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. This is Paul’s quite famous declaration: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
It has been my observation that most modern novels which touch on Christianity drift, in some way or another, into theodicy, that is, into justifying the ways of God to man. This, in my humble opinion, is a task which far exceeds human intellectual capacity but, nonetheless generates interesting arguments which can be used in shaping fictional characters.
All this is prelude to my observing that I don’t yet know quite what to make of Absolute Truths. The leading character, Bishop Charles Ashworth, who is also the narrator of the tale, seems clearly destined to be the hero. But he can also be seen as such a pathetic twit you could almost read the novel as comic satire. And I have to say that the hero in the background, Austin Farrar, can be seen in the same way, based on the epigraphs chosen for the chapters. Here, for example, is the lead-in to Chapter 12: “The pressure of immediate sufferings may unhinge, indeed, the balance of judgment. Our derangement may be wholly pardonable, but it must not be allowed to pass for sanity.” I suppose, in a way, that’s true, but it’s also insufferably priggish, so much so it comes close to undermining the verity being proclaimed.
I don’t however, think Ms. Howatch intends this book to be a satire, though she may have an uncontrollable satiric strain in her unconscious. She wants it to be a Christian parable -- at least I think she does. Whether she can carry it off, I’m uncertain.
Still the dialogue is sharp enough to cause me to want to continue reading, and, perhaps, to read the other novels as well. That’s the primary talent we demand from a novelist, regardless of her conscious intentions. I’ll keep on with her story and let you know how it goes.
March 13, 2012
When something’s rotten it shows up in the language.
In the article in the New York Times yesterday about the killings done by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, we were told that “the apparently unprovoked killings added to a feeling of siege here among Western personnel” Imagine that. One of our guys goes out and slaughters sixteen people, and then we become the people who feel we’re under siege. It didn’t seem to occur to the Times reporters that the people targeted for slaughter might feel a wee bit under siege themselves.
Later we learn that a cascading series of missteps “has left troops and trainers increasingly vulnerable to violence by Afghans seeking revenge.” Those poor troops and trainers! They’re the ones feeling vulnerable. No mention is made of the vulnerability of the people actually killed by the “missteps.”
The president appears and announces: “This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military ....” Wouldn’t you think that when one of your guys has just murdered little girls, and dragged their bodies out in the yard to set them on fire, it might be a time to lay off exclamations about what exceptional character your guys have in general? But then, of course, we have to remember that American exceptionalism has to be affirmed at every opportunity, especially when troops are involved, since they are one of the elements in the American pantheon that have to be worshipped without exception.
Yet, not all is lost. Brigadier General Carsten Jacobsen came galloping to the rescue, reminding us, “It looks like an isolated incident.” What a relief! If it’s isolated then it must be more or less okay. That is until you ask yourself what it’s isolated from. Is it isolated from the relatives of the dead people? Is it isolated from the village where it happened? Is it isolated from all the other isolated incidents that have occurred in Afghanistan lately resulting in dead residents of that beleaguered country?
What do you suppose the adjective “isolated” means in this case? What do you suppose it meant in the mind of General Jacobsen when he uttered it?
Might it be that verbal agility is one of the few talents that has somehow slipped outside American exceptionalism?
I realize that between now and November lots of people are going to feel obligated to continue commenting on the presidential race. As for myself, I can think of nothing more to say. What’s the use of trying to argue with people who think the president of the United States can control the price of oil on the world market? Or those who believe the president is a Muslim (and what if he were?)? We have reached the point when everything has been said. One can always point out the idiocy of various voices -- Rush Limbaugh, Cal Thomas, Charles Krauthammer and on and on -- but there’s little use in that. Their quality of mind is well-established for anyone who wishes to think about it. And for those who won’t think, there’s no sense in addressing them.
If one tries to assess the relative competency of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as president of the United States, why not go directly to Moe, Larry and Curly?
Maybe we have reached the point of political descent such that any attempt to describe it has become absurd.
March 14, 2012
Thomas Friedman makes yet one more attempt this morning to promote the “Grand Bargain.” This time it’s in a column titled “Capitalism 2012.” The economic development of the future will emerge, he says, from competition among various forms of capitalism. The American version is supposed to be marked by balance between government action and entrepreneurial energy. But right now the balance is out of whack because we don’t have grand bargains.
So far, so good. At first glance his argument appears quite sound. But, then, you get to the details. The most important bargain Friedman has in mind is a new budgetary scheme, which would be based on one dollar of increased taxes for every four dollars of cuts in entitlement and defense spending. He doesn’t say how the cuts would be distributed between defense and entitlements. You would think that would be an important element in his scheme. But when you turn to the ratio between cuts and increased revenue other questions arise. Why is that ratio four to one? Why not one to four? Who sets this ratio, by the way? And what makes it grand?
I haven’t heard much from Friedman on those questions. And this is typical of his proposals. They don’t go very far. I’m not sure he qualifies as a grand guru, though, obviously, that’s his aspiration.
Greg Smith, former high-level official with Goldman-Sachs, has explained why he has decided to leave the company. It really is a vampire squid wrapped around the face of America. This is a tremendous surprise, and it took Mr. Smith only twelve years to discover it.
Three days ago, I told you that I had started in on the “Church of England” series by Susan Howatch. Now I have actually completed reading Absolute Truths, the final novel in the series (I started backwards). You, of course, are curious to know if I intend to read the remaining five. I wish I could answer, but, at the moment, I’m not sure.
I can say I found Absolute Truths readable, and fairly interesting. But whether I can wade through five more fat books in which the characters engage incessantly in agonizing discussions about Christian theology, and how their sexual adventures relate to their clerical careers, is uncertain.
If you let yourself slide into a certain form of skepticism, you can wind up wondering whether these people are taking themselves more seriously than sanity permits. It’s doubtless true that I am insufficiently tuned in to the exigency of spiritual directors, religious mystics, and exorcists. When I activate my imagination fervently enough to view the world in a manner similar to theirs, I can get caught up in their hopes and anxieties. But maintaining that level of imaginative strain for 560 pages isn’t a smooth process for me. There come times when I find myself saying, almost against my will, “Oh my God! What a pack of twits.”
I need to remember though that I have happily read novels about people immersed in the throes of psychoanalysis. And what’s going on in Absolute Truths is primarily psychoanalysis interspersed with prayer and theological disquisition. I shouldn’t allow prejudice towards religious characters to affect my reading enjoyment, should I?
Ultimately, what’s important in fiction is whether the characters come alive, however trivial or unrealistic their concerns might be. The main character in Absolute Truths is Charles Ashworth, a retired bishop, recounting the final crisis in his ecclesiastical career. Is he alive for me? He’s certainly not as alive as Elizabeth Bennet or even Dorothea Brooke. But it’s not fair to make that sort of comparison. Is he alive at all, or simply a story-telling device? I’m too close to the reading right now to answer. How I do answer when I get a bit more distance will probably determine whether I push on with Ms. Howatch. Right now, I honestly cannot offer a prediction.
March 15, 2012
If you read carefully the major news outlets in the United States you’ll discover there are three groups of people in the world: the richest 1% of Americans, the American middle class, and everybody else, i.e., about 98% of the human race.
The Republican Party stands up for the 1%; the Democrats stand up, somewhat, for the American middle class, and nobody significant stands up for anybody else. Consequently, when the president, in his happy warrior guise, incinerates twenty children or so in a village in Yemen, and then gets the New York Times to report that they were terrorists, nobody in America other than a tiny minority -- and I mean really tiny -- gives a damn.
If you’re interested in how this works I suggest you read Jeremy Scahill’s account in the Nation of a mass killing in December 2009, in al Majala, a village in Yemen (Scahill is a member of the tiny minority).
There seems to be an assumption among American gurus that acts of this sort can go on forever with no negative consequences for Americans. I’m naive about these things, I admit, yet it keeps occurring to me that as the United States becomes ever more widely known -- outside its own borders, of course -- for acts of this nature, resentment will build up worldwide towards our country. There’s already a good deal of it, as the so-called Terror War makes evident. We’re already spending so much money to counter this resentment that we can’t pave our roads, or maintain an adequate educational system, or provide for the ill and the elderly. Wasting money is bad enough, but I worry that the resentment could cause even worse things. Yet if you want to persuade the New York Times, or the average American, to worry about matters of that order, good luck.
Curses! I appear to have been scooped. Just an hour after typing the item above I found that The Onion had posted a two-minute video asking the question: “Could the Use of Flying Death Robots Be Hurting America’s Reputation Worldwide?”
Still, I’m going to leave my comment. Perhaps it shows I was getting close.
On a related note, I just took a package to the Post Office and was warned solemnly that if it contained bombs or drugs there would be repercussions. I could only respond that since I hadn’t packed the box, I couldn’t be perfectly sure but that I strongly suspected no such items were involved.
I was then told that they had to open a certain percentage of the type packages I was sending. I asked who they were, but the clerk seemed not to know. She did suggest, however, that if I were to pay more postage there would be less danger of my package being opened.
“Damn!” I thought. It’s getting ever tougher for poor people who want to send bombs and drugs through the mail. Not only are they subject to ordinary repercussions, they are more likely to get caught than fat cats who can pay First Class or Priority rates. I guess we need to recollect it’s a rich man’s country, and that’s only as it ought to be.
I forgot to mention yesterday that Charles Ashworth, the hero of Absolute Truths, regarded St. Augustine and St. Athanasius as his exemplars. It was easier for me to understand the reason for Augustine than it was for Athanasius. It doesn’t seem the latter has had a good press lately. It may be that the consubstantiality of Christ with God is not as big a thing now as it was in the 4th Century. Athanasius defended consubstantiality fiercely against the assaults of the Arians who argued that Christ’s substance was similar to God’s but not fully consubstantial.
I was reminded recently that the Arian position on consubstantiality is still alive today in the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was given a substantial pamphlet on the Trinity just three weeks ago which purported to show conclusively, based on irrefutable evidence in the Bible, that Christ was neither consubstantial nor coterminous with God. Though I remain less than certain about the issue, I was reminded of how confused I used to get in church when the preacher would announce that God and Christ were of the same body and had both existed forever. I would sit there with my eight-year-old intellect and wonder what came before forever, which only goes to show how childish I was.
Anyway, the literary point I set out to make is that though Ashworth evolved considerably in his thinking over the course of Absolute Truths, his stance on Athanasius never wavered. That left me unsure whether his newfound openness was as flexible as it seemed on the surface. But since Absolute Truths was the final book in the series, I don’t guess I’ll ever find out.
March 16, 2012
It’s fairly obvious that most U.S. citizens believe that the security personnel of the federal government are serious, dedicated agents striving to protect them against evil fanatics who wish to harm the country for no good reason at all. Don’t we have dozens of television dramas showing us how this works?
So when a Justice Department official goes before a judge - as one did about a month ago -- and announces that a program related to the case in question could not be discussed in court because disclosing anything about it “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States,” I suppose most Americans accepted that as a reasonable argument.
This childish belief in the purity and efficacy of our super sleuths is the reason why civil rights and civil liberties are being systematically weakened in our country (you’ll notice that I am able to allude to the childish beliefs of Americans because I am not a politician; if I were I would not dare say such a thing).
If I were religiously democratic, this wouldn’t bother me in the least. The people are getting what they want -- no matter that they have been propagandized into their desires. If a majority of Americans are pleased -- as they clearly are -- when thousands of persons around the world are executed, or seized and thrown into prisons and tortured with no charges being brought against them, and no opportunity afforded to defend themselves before impartial judges, that’s the way democracy is supposed to work, isn’t it? The will of the people is being carried out.
I mention these obvious truths only to point out that a pure democracy based on whatever the government can induce the people, in their gullibility, to believe is not the form of government that was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, nor is it the form of government most American citizens said they wanted until a little over a decade ago, when the government launched its expansive campaign to cause people to fear something the government chose to label “terrorism.”
How quickly a people’s basic orientation can be modified is a complicated historical question. But I would be willing to bet that when the histories of the 20th and 21st centuries are compiled, the American people’s move from a government of checks and balances to a fear-driven radical democracy will be near the top of the list of major transformations.
Reading in Glittering Images, the first volume of Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, I came on this verse: “For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; and hid that shall not be known.” I’m chagrinned to report that when I first read it I did not know book, chapter and verse, but it took me only a minute, or so, to discover that it is Matthew 10:26.
At first, I wasn’t sure whether the promise is comforting, or not. For nothing to be covered that shall not be revealed means that there is no thought I’ve ever had that won’t, eventually, come into the light. It will be revealed. But to whom? All in all, I had just as soon that some of my thoughts will never be known to anyone other than myself. As soon as I say so, however, I also have to acknowledge that the conventional notion of God is not a fully pleasing concept for me.
Leaving aside the question of God’s existence, and what “existence” might possibly mean with respect to belief in God, I am curious about why people like the idea of him, or it. I know that God assures the prospect that everything will finally be straightened out. But at what cost? That’s the question that troubles me.
It’s weird that people will argue endlessly about the reality, or non-reality, of God (a question that doesn’t interest me much at all) but never seem to get round to the issue of whether God is a good idea. I would think that would be the very first query of theology. Why is it not taken up?
More and more I become convinced that people enjoy the notion of believing in God, and of being devoted to him, but have very little interest in God himself. When I pointed this out to my Jehovah’s Witnesses friends recently, I’m not sure they fully understood what I was talking about. I was trying to get across that religion, as it’s commonly professed, is not about the deity at all but rather about one’s own relationship to the deity. It’s more egotistical than it is devotional. It’s like wanting to be seen at court, regardless of what you think of the king.
In the end, people really are fixated on themselves. I’m not sure that’s all bad, as long as they will be honest about it.
March 17, 2012
My current sojourn in Bowling Green is approaching its end. I have been here three weeks now, and next week we’ll start our leisurely journey back to Vermont, with stops in Jacksonville Beach, Annapolis, and Long Island along the way.
I have promised never again to say anything critical of Bowling Green, so I hope it’s not breaking that vow to observe that three weeks seems to be a fairly natural limit to my endurance here, though I suppose if I were to stay longer I would find a way to continue in the land of the living.
A benefit of time spent in Bowling Green is that it allows one more easily to imagine how human beings persisted throughout most of human history. It’s possible here to lose all interest in and contact with anything occurring outside a radius of twenty-five miles. When you think about it, you see that the happenings within a space of about two thousand square miles should be enough to occupy one’s mind for three score years, or so. My trouble right now is that I know only about twenty-five people within that radius, so my supply of information is seriously deficient. Even so, I wonder whether if that number were multiplied by fifty it would give me a feeling of intellectual enrichment. Maybe. It’s hard to say.
I’ve heard quite a few people say they would like their lives to be more peaceful. I’ve tended to be suspicious of that statement. I’d like to bring everyone who has said it to me to Bowling Green, keep them here for three months, and then reexamine their stance on peacefulness. I can’t be sure it would be altered, but if I were betting, I’d wager it would.
Yesterday afternoon we went out in the yard and picked a bucket of oranges to be squeezed into juice overnight. I have to shake myself pretty hard to recall that there are people who have never picked a bucketful of oranges. I’m not sure how much of a deprivation that is, but I guess it’s worth noting. On the other hand, there are surely hundreds of people within my twenty-five mile radius who have not had the experience of walking into a bookstore and purchasing a book. Whether that’s more, or less, a loss than failure to pick oranges requires a God-like knowledge I can’t approach.
Within a quarter of a century, Bowling Green in its current guise will be swept into the dustbin of history. No one can say if that’s a thing to regret or celebrate. It’s an outcome to be judged only by a greater than God-like wisdom.
The epigraphs to the chapters in Absolute Truths came from the works of Austin Farrer (1904-1964). For Glittering Images, the first novel in her Church of England series, Susan Howatch chose as her epigraphist Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947), Bishop of Durham, 1920-1939. Mr. Henson is also the model for one of the characters in the first novel, Bishop Alexander Jardine. Both the historical and the fictional characters were highly controversial.
This may be more about a seemingly arcane subject than you want to hear, but I include the information to remind us how quickly famous figures of the past can descend into obscurity, and also to argue that though most of them are largely forgotten they are not necessarily uninteresting.
The passages Ms. Howatch chose from Bishop Henson’s writings reveal an acerbically practical personality. Such people are frequently irritating but have, nonetheless, a certain appeal. They are not to be emulated but they make stimulating drawing room companions. Here’s for example, is the epigraph to Chapter V:
Experience has made it certain that the clergyman’s wife must either throw in her lot unreservedly with her husband’s difficult and distinctive career, and reap her reward with a range and depth of personal influence which are unequalled in the case of any other married woman, or she must separate herself from his work and life with consequences ruinous both to his success and to her own credit, and, we must add, to the happiness of both.
“What a sanctimonious prig!” you may be exclaiming. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Yet, on the other hand, applied to the conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is he not telling the truth -- or at least a kind of truth?
I am coming more and more to think that there is something to be learned from persons one’s own judgment rejects. Ultimately, they are foolish, yes, but they are also in their cankered way, shrewd. This strikes me as particularly true of men prominent in the history of Christianity. I think it’s better to find out what they were up to than to reject them out of hand, even when, in the popular mind, they have become completely insignificant.
March 18, 2012
For me the most provocative development to appear over the past decade is the thread of comments which follow many essays and interviews published on the web. I’ve noted this before, but every time I let myself scan a cluster of comments I’m freshly astonished.
One could argue, of course, that these remarks don’t tell us anything about America because the average person would never bother to leap into this maelstrom of argumentation -- if you can call it that. Perhaps not. Yet there are certainly enough participants to tell us something about a strain of American life.
The subject has my attention now because I just happened to read an interview that Marlow Stern did with Susan Sarandon for The Daily Beast. It elicited an astounding torrent of abuse, despite Ms. Sarandon’s failure to say anything that could be considered unusual. Most of the questions concerned her current career, the films she has chosen to do, the opportunities available for actresses considered to be beyond the age for romantic leads, i.e., the sort of discussion you would expect. It was nothing other than ordinary Hollywood fluff. I didn’t see anything I could imagine getting angry about, but many of the voices which followed the interview were outraged.
One person who calls himself, or herself, “mtkayak” had this to say:
Susan's book reading tonight:
"Che: How I Murdered Thousands" "Pol Pot: How to Exterminate 3 Million" "Stalin: How I Killed 1000 a Day"
There was nothing about any of these figures in the interview, so where did that come? Does mtkayak watch for any notice of persons with whom he disagrees, and then jump in to slander them, regardless of the context? And if he does, why?
Another person called “Kay2012” noted: “Gosh, it's so very important to know what Susan thinks....really, who cares?” The response to that comment is so obvious there’s no sense in making it.
The names under which the commenters post their opinions are also curious. Seldom is an actual name employed. The first half-dozen on this thread were, “cregis, Colonel Sux, Davo, iAm The Real Galt, Kiksadi 50 and Chittagong.” Are these forms of wit which escape common comprehension, or what?
The underlying emotion expressed is consuming anger. It’s easy to get the impression that rage alone, independent of the remark or the person towards whom it’s directed, is the point of the exercise. I think, ultimately, that’s the main revelation we get from the advent of the thread. There are thousands of people in the United States who live in a state of perpetual rage and range over the internet searching for the slightest incentive to bring it forth.
It’s a bit scary, actually.
March 19, 2012
We will now be treated to torrents of explanation why Robert Bales behaved as he did recently in Afghanistan. Various stresses and difficulties will be listed. Much of this will be directed at discovering how responsible he was for what he did. But there will be virtually no discussion of what we mean by responsibility. That’s because essayists seldom dare inquire about the basic myths of their own society.
The American legal system is founded on the notion that some people are responsible for what they do, and other people are not responsible for their actions. If you do something bad, and you’re responsible, then justice demands that you be punished. If you do something equally bad but are not responsible, then the action taken against you might be quite unpleasant, but it will not be called punishment.
This is quite clear. What is not clear at all is how we define responsibility. That’s because we have no coherent definition for it. It’s a meaningless term which is nonetheless charged with great and spurious significance. True, we make up imposing thoughts. We say, for example, “He wasn’t in charge of himself.” We never bother to ask who the “he” was who somehow managed not to be in charge, nor do we wonder about what the “self” was which required to be controlled. We construct a sentence with two pronouns and have no idea what either of them signifies. But no matter. We can still proceed on our merry way.
If someone were to come and say, “Robert Bales is no more or no less responsible for what he did than any other human who ever walked the earth,” that person would be considered loopy. And he would be understood by virtually no one.
As for Robert Bales, we can be confident that after great expenditures of time, effort and money, something official will be done to him. And if it’s official, then we can all be content.
Chris Hedges is the best writer on modern war I have read. He can speak of it honestly because he has seen a lot of it, for years on end. He knows that the blather about heroism, patriotism, and grandeur of military men is verbal garbage.
His article today in TruthDig, titled “Murder Is Not an Anomaly in War,” is one more piece of truth-telling that ought to be forced on the attention of politicians who deal in war for the sake of political success. But of course it won’t be. They will keep on showing up at sentimental ceremonies, telling lies about never forgetting those who “sacrificed” their lives, and then going home to drink scotch. It’s hard sometimes to see them as the puppets they are, and not to recognize that they probably don’t have minds enough to start imagining their own hypocrisy.
March 20, 2012
Reading in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels has launched me into the world of spiritual direction in the Anglican Church. I have to add that I have no sure knowledge whether Ms. Howatch’s depiction of this process matches actual behavior among Anglican clergyman, in the past or currently. But I suspect that Howatch has looked into these activities carefully enough that there is similarity between the events in her stories and the way clergymen actually do seek help with their own psychological problems.
There is a widespread notion that when anyone takes on the work of helping others with their deepest emotional difficulties, then that person, himself or herself, needs a counselor to insure that the problems generated by the work are managed intelligently. After all, hearing incessantly about unsettled lives could put a strain on one’s thinking. When the person receiving the care is a clergyman then, of course, the complexities he has to work through assume a religious or spiritual dimension. Hence, the spiritual director.
If Ms. Howatch can be believed, spiritual direction runs along the same paths followed by classical psychoanalysis, the main difference being that since the spiritual director has what might be called “The Big Backup,” he can generally be more aggressive in pushing along the path than the psychoanalyst can be. That’s a good thing for a novelist, because if a story were being constructed from an ordinary analysis, the first chapter would have to go on for more than a thousand pages.
You might say that both spiritual direction and psychoanalysis are thoroughgoing examples of “fatherism,” i.e., the thesis that just about everything significant in life flows from how one thinks about and relates to the father -- whether natural, social, or spiritual. One has either to win a father’s approval or learn why there’s no need to get the approval if one is to avoid existence as a miserable wretch.
I have tended to be somewhat skeptical of this thesis. There are many relations in life, and the notion that virtually all of them are spin-offs from one’s interactions with a father strikes me as a bit overdrawn. I have even, at times, descended to the suspicion that since all psychological therapists are father-figures of sorts, there may be a professional temptation to elevate the immensity of fathers in general. That, of course, is such a discreditable idea, I should be ashamed to confess it, and that I’m not, may indicate the need for intervention of some kind. Who knows? These are mysterious issues.
The point I’m trying to wend my way towards so haltingly is that whenever I come on a tale of spiritual direction or psychoanalysis or comparable unearthings, each one contains so many elements common to the others they all seem to have been stitched by the same hand. I’m forced to wonder what this might mean. Is it that all human life is essentially identical? Might it be that all creative efforts are forced into the shape provided by the prevailing mythology? Or could it be the possibility, which appeals to me ever more brightly as I jog deeper into life, that it means nothing at all?
March 22, 2012
I had no thoughts yesterday because I was driving from Bowling Green to Jacksonville Beach. Our route was not rational, but somehow at the start I resolved not to go on I-4, no matter how far out of the way it took me. And so we were taken quite far out of the way -- all the way across the peninsula to I-95 before we turned north. At that point we were 115 miles south of Daytona Beach. All in all, my perversity only increased the drive from four to about five and a half hours, scarcely a disaster. And I managed -- almost -- to keep my mind blank the whole way.
The one thought that did wedge its way to consciousness had to do with the nature of contentless Christianity. Just before we got out of Bowling Green, Jehovah Witness ladies came, and left a Watchtower, which suggested that though many, many millions of people profess to be Christians, a great percentage of them aren’t. The Watchtower offered five tests to tell if you’re a real Christian, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. Still, the article did get me to wondering about the Christianity I had most heard about over the past month, and its characteristic of being almost completely devoid of theology. I tried, on occasion, to start conversations about the nature of the Trinity, and how one might achieve a balanced perspective on it (I have to admit, here, that a character in a novel I had been reading had definitely become unbalanced in his Trinitarian perspectives). All I got for my efforts were blank stares. I came away with the strong impression that though my companions were professedly devout Christians they didn’t give a damn about the Trinity -- or at least about the Trinitarian Doctrine. Why not? That was the question that came creeping surreptitiously into my mind as I drove through the flat pasture lands, eastward on Florida Route 60, towards Vero Beach. Try as I would to eject the question from my mind, and thus return to blissful blankness, it came sneaking back.
I’m not going to claim that I came to any successful resolution of it. The ancient explanation -- intellectual laziness -- is always suggesting itself to me. Maybe it’s the proper conclusion here. But I’m suspicious of anything that easy. I was on the verge of more subtle answers when a Ford 250 came roaring around me, apparently on a suicide mission. It erased all theological speculations from my mind as I turned toward attempts at physical survival.
Whether I’ll ever get back to notion of contentless Christianity I’m not sure. If I do, and I devise anything, I’ll let you know.
Today I move from car driving to airline travel. I’ll do my best not to think of a single thing, especially as I go through the security lines.
March 23, 2012
Yesterday. One more flight. One more set of petty humiliations. Once again wondering if they add up to what I think they do.
As I was getting through the security check line, a TSA agent comes hurrying up to say he has to check my hands. Looking very grave, he announces I can have them checked in a private room if I wish. There was no explanation about why he was checking my hands. While I’m wondering why he would even mention a private room, he repeats the statement, with a sort of hint-hint look to suggest that if I go into a private room I may never come out again.
I tell him I see no reason for a private room. He swabs two moist wipes over my palms and hurries off to put them in a machine. After a minute or two, he tells me I can move forward.
Nothing to it, you might say. Why would anyone even think twice about it? Why indeed? Millions of such acts, repeated every day in the United States. They couldn’t be having any effect could they? They’re not done for intimidation, are they? They’re not training exercises for the population, are they?
I got up this morning to read the paper and found this statement from Robert S. Litt, general counsel in the office of the Director of National Intelligence: “There is a genuine operational need to try to get us into a position where we can make the maximum use of the information the government already has to protect people.” This used to be called a “Total Information Awareness Program.” It means that many people who work in what’s called the security services of the United States think they need to know every single thing there is to be known about every person within the borders of the United States. After all, who knows what might be a clue? Who knows what patterns might be discovered?
For that matter, who knows what patterns might be created by people whose minds have been shaped to expect to find patterns everywhere? And if a pattern should seem to be emerging, isn’t it the duty of those charged with “security” to take all persons associated with those patterns into custody, in order to check them out adequately? And once they’re in custody can it ever be ascertained with perfect certainty that they’re not associated with something which might connect them to a threat? Isn’t it better to just keep them, to avoid any threat? And so we go.
I guess the people of the United States want this sort of thing. I don’t want it, but who am I?
March 26, 2012
I finished reading Glittering Images, the first novel in the Starbridge series, this morning, on the day we’re scheduled to, at long last, set off for Vermont. Maybe my readiness to get home made me less patient with its awkwardnesses than I should have been. Susan Howatch’s novels fall into the peculiar category of flawed, contrived stories which nevertheless have something fascinating about them. Maybe they try me because they’re full of what I regard as turgid Christian piety lacking religious force, and also because they’re packed with sex which conveys little sensuality. If they describe accurately the inner lives of Anglican clergy then they function as a warning --quite unintentionally I’m sure -- to take off running when you see that variety of religiosity coming at you. But you need to remember I would probably feel that way about any realistic portrayal of clerical life.
Absolute Truths, the sixth novel in the series, tells us about the third crisis in the life of Charles Ashworth and Glittering Images tells us about the first. In the final story, Charles has managed to elevate himself into a bishopric; in the first he is merely an up and coming thirty-seven year old priest, who has avoided most priest-like work by burying himself in scholarship. But whether at thirty-seven or sixty-five, Charles’s primary avocation is confusion. He is particularly inept at understanding himself, hence the need of crises to push him towards personal discoveries.
The first crisis involves Charles’s efforts to pluck a wife out of a bizarre situation in a bishop’s palace. I won’t tell you just how bizarre for fear of driving you away from Ms. Howatch’s story. And though I can’t say it’s grand novel, I’d still like you to read it. It has some provocative dialogue and a fascinating elucidation of psychological counseling with a religious veneer. Furthermore, I don’t guess we should blame a novelist too much for employing absurdly twisted human interactions.
I am left now, as I was after Absolute Truths, with the decision whether to forge even deeper into the series. And I’m just as uncertain now as I was then.
This afternoon, later, we’ll drive to Port Jefferson to catch the ferry to Bridgeport, Connecticut. From there, it’s about a four and a half hour drive to Montpelier. It was warm in Vermont while we were away but now the temperatures have declined to more seasonal levels. The low tonight will be about 16 degrees when we get home. Even so, I’ll be glad to get there.
March 29, 2012
I took time off from writing here in order to get home from Long Island, attend a Johnson Society meeting on the First Amendment, and then prepare for a session on the Civil War, especially on the battle of Shiloh, at the library in Randolph. I did the Randolph presentation last night. So now, today, I am relatively free.
I’ve been reading a bit about the MEK controversy. For those of you who haven’t got into it yet, let me say that MEK stands for Mujahedin-eKhalq, an organization based in Iraq which is on the U.S. Terrorist List. The curious thing about it is that though it’s on the list, and though the United States has very specific and quite draconian laws banning assistance, of the slightest nature, to organizations on the list, the MEK has benefitted from open and vigorous support by many well-known Americans, who have received substantial fees from the organization. Prominent among these Americans have been Tom Ridge, Frances Townsend, Rudolph Giuliani, Louis Freeh, Hugh Shelton, John Bolton, Michael Mukasey, Ed Rendell and Howard Dean.
The U.S. Treasury Department has, somewhat belatedly, opened an investigation into these activities.
Jeremy Goulka, a former Bush Justice Department lawyer and investigator for the RAND Corporation, has written extensively on the MEK. He says it’s a cult. It uses brainwashing, sleep deprivation and forced labor to keep its members in line. Men are segregated from women, celibacy is mandated, married members are forced to divorce, and to stay separate from their families and former friends. Everyone is required to confess his or her sexual thoughts in public sessions. The group wishes to overthrow the government of Iran and install itself as the ruler of the country. The latter is the supposed reason the Americans are backing it.
What is the actual reason for the American support, according to Goulka? It’s the same reason for most of the shenanigans in the high-rolling world of national security: money. Goulka is quite clear about it.
For people in the national/homeland security business, war with Iran would be a cash cow. They and their clients stand to benefit handsomely. Just stoking fears of war can get money flowing, from studies to retrofitting naval vessels. Bombing would be better, as even something as small as the Libyan war involved spending more than a billion dollars. But full-on war, that’s the mother lode. An invasion followed by an Iraq-style lingering occupation and reconstruction would open up hundreds of billions and possibly even trillions of taxpayer dollars for the grabbing.
My conclusion about all this is that the world is so rife with convoluted, money-making, weapons and security deals, backed up by high-powered propaganda campaigns, that a genuine democracy currently has no ability to regulate it. That’s because right now in America there is no such thing as genuine democracy. The people don’t know what to think because for the most part they don’t know what’s going on. They are astoundingly gullible when it comes to the pronouncements of public officials. They fall like gushing teenagers for any appeal to patriotic sentiments. They are not only willing, but eager, to believe any lie, no matter how fantastic, about their so-called enemies. They have allowed themselves to be scared out of their wits. They show few signs of gathering themselves into an intelligent force with the power to demand that government serve the public interest. They are low-lying fruit for the picking.
Under current conditions it’s ridiculous to call the United States a democracy. Whether something approaching a democratic republic can be restored in America is a question no one can answer. If I were forced to make a hardheaded wager I’d bet against it. But just because the odds are bad doesn’t mean we should give up working to get government out of the hands of lying deal-makers and back under the control of genuine informed debate. There is, after all, a segment of the American public who make a serious effort to grasp what’s going on. It may be as large as 15%, though I admit that’s an optimistic estimate. And there are some signs of restiveness among others who are just beginning to try to inform themselves. We can hope that number will grow.
On the specific issue of whether the Treasury Department investigation of the relationship between the MEK and American backers will go anywhere, I can say only that I very much doubt it.
March 30, 2012
I often think my fate is to be a person who knows almost nothing but is destined to live in the vale of knowing men.
How they know is a question I can’t answer. I’m especially perplexed by those who offer religious truth. The evidence they advance for their knowledge isn’t convincing. But that doesn’t bother them a whit. They stand by it as though it were rock solid. And they stand by it in the face of other religious knowers who know things opposed to what they know.
Religious knowers, though, are not the only kind. There are political knowers, and psychological knowers, and, even, literary knowers. I worked once with a professor who knew that for a student to take pleasure from a story was the worst kind of reading. I asked him how he knew and he told me I was being absurd to ask such a thing. Maybe he was right.
I encounter people who know that their take on a complicated theory is the right one, and that those who differ from them are wrong. I grant they may be correct but still I wonder how I can be sure. When I ask, they say, “Listen to me.” At times, though, I happen to listen to someone else who says they are wrong. And, then, I am back in the soup.
Occasionally I meet with people who offer convincing evidence but that seems to be mainly with respect to hard science. As for other subjects, rightness and wrongness constitute a mystery I can’t penetrate.
My inability has led me to a heretical thought. What if rightness and wrongness are not categories of judgment which can be applied to most objects of thought? Dr. Johnson, in his essay on Milton, declared that “when two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy.” He’s right about the difficulty, but I wonder if it might be eased by the arguers agreeing at the beginning that there can be no end because there is no yardstick that will settle the difference between them. Then they could just have fun arguing or, more accurately, discussing.
Yet if there can be no end, some might say, what’s the point? The only point I can think of is to explore the mind of the other, to see if I can, to some extent, understand thinking quite different from my own. I recognize some might say there’s no good in that, but how can I know unless I’ve tried?
If thoughts rise from desires, as I have heard some say, and if people have desires different from one another, then how can we expect that they will agree about rightness and wrongness? In our political debates we come on hordes who claim that they are champions of freedom. But when we examine the activities to which the concept freedom is applied, we discover that they are different from one another and often opposed. So we are left unsure what freedom is. Is it ridiculous to conclude it’s a different thing for every person?
Yes, but most will say we should wish to know the truth. I would agree, but then I begin to wonder if there are issues to which truth applies and others where it does not. The truth of whether chocolate ice cream is better, or worse, than vanilla ice cream comes often to my mind.
Might it be that desire with respect to knowing determines whether or not one is a knower? If one wishes to know desperately, then perhaps he becomes a knower. If, on the other hand, one likes the idea of going on forever without reaching an end, then maybe his knowing is always compromised.
I enjoy associating with knowers. They offer me lots of pleasure. Yet I recognize from somewhere fairly deep within what might be called my being that I am not going to join their ranks. Could that be called a form of knowing? I don’t know.
March 31, 2012
I see that Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, is out with a new book titled, The Republican Brain: Why They Deny Science -- and Reality. Its thesis, which I guess is evident from the title, is that people who become Republicans have brains which function differently from those who are not led to become Republicans. It’s not just a matter of greater or lesser knowledge. Rather the distinction arises from differing psychological orientations.
I suppose you might say that’s obvious. But it’s one thing to observe it and another to offer a scientific explanation for it. The latter is what Mooney attempts.
So far I’ve read only reviews of the new book so I’m not in a position to judge its persuasiveness. I did read The Republican War on Science, which I considered sound, and I recall writing at the time that I thought opposition to scientific research would be the Bush administration’s most lasting, and harmful, legacy.
The point I take from The Republican Brain at the moment is that it’s one more argument bolstering the idea that we cannot alleviate our political problems any time soon through conversations between the two main political forces in America. The thought processes of the two sides are so different that neither can offer effective or persuasive points to the other. There will simply be shouting rather than productive discussion. That many people can be found who say they are tired of the shouting is of little consequence. Those who are tired cannot persuade, or stop, those who wish to shout. And the latter will dominate the political process.
The inability of the Obama administration to grasp this truth has been its principal weakness.
The only sensible strategy in American politics now is to try to gather a majority and offer it a coherent policy. Reaching out to the other side won’t work because it will in no way mitigate the other side’s passionate opposition. If Mooney and others of his stance are correct, which I suspect they are, attempts to show respect to the other side will only undermine one’s own position. Besides, it’s dishonest. How can one respect a position he finds absurd? From the stance of a person who is convinced that scientific research is one of our strongest tools for solving social problems, the argument that science is bogus and that it’s better to believe what you want to believe, makes no sense at all. So why say that it does?
This is not to dismiss the possibility of negotiation. But useful negotiation is based on acceptance of fact and the recognition that sometimes it’s wisest to accept the lesser of two evils. There’s no use in proclaiming a phony coming together, or of descending to the false blather that all Americans want the same things.
Those who want effective government for the American nation ought to face the truth that any functional government has to live with, and manage, a fervent opposition which will employ any destructive measures it can devise. Incessant lying is just the beginning. Furthermore, those who want a healthy democratic government need to acknowledge that they will be detested by an opposition made up of at least a third, and perhaps 45%, of the American electorate.
This isn’t a happy picture but it’s one the fragmentation of the American mind has made accurate.
I was happy to see Rich Benjamin’s op/ed piece in the N.Y. Times yesterday titled “The Gated Community Mentality.” The more the public is aware that such a mentality is growing rapidly, the easier it will be to counteract its perversities.
Manufactured fear and the measures people are willing to take with respect to it may be the most destructive tendency in America today. It creates unreasonable hostility towards “the other” that influences behavior from neighborhood action to foreign policy. As the nation becomes more ethnically diverse, such fear is likely to be pumped well above its current level. It may not be possible to stop America from becoming a nastier place than it is now, but anything we can do to slow down the development will be for the good.
Residential communities huddled behind walls become inherently pathological. The people inside incessantly make up tales to stoke hatred towards those on the outside. Benjamin is right to describe these units as an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity.
Sociologists report, over and again, that as violent crime has declined in America, the fear of it has skyrocketed. How do we account for this? It has been the case throughout history that accepted “social prudence” has frequently been based on attitudes so filthy few dare to express them openly. Social prudence in America today floats on an ocean of resentment, indignation, and false self-image. Draining this toxic fluid out of the body politic can be a contribution to health, and pointing out the absurdity and pomposity of gated communities is not a bad way to start.
©John R. Turner
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