Collected Thoughts

April 2012
April 1, 2012

For many years I’ve been fond of George Orwell’s little verse:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago,
To sit upon my garden wall
And watch my walnuts grow.

I don’t think that’s true but it’s a pleasant thought all the same.

Occasionally I engage in a comparable reverie and when I do I tell myself I could have been steadily happy reading nothing but 17th century English literature. I could have practically memorized all twenty-eight of John Dryden’s dramas. I could have gone to Aldwincle, where Dryden was born on August 9, 1631, and spent hours wandering in the graveyard. I could have investigated the quarrel between Dryden and Sir Robert Howard over the use of dramatic rhyme (Dryden was for it and Howard was not), and taken a stand on which I thought was more right. I might have looked into Dryden’s collaboration with William Davenant in producing a new version of The Tempest and minutely compared their work with Shakespeare’s. I might have consoled myself with an attempt to rival Davenant in “having so quick a fancy that nothing was proposed to him in which he could not suddenly produce a thought extremely pleasant and surprising” (Dryden’s assessment).

What would such happiness have made of me?

It’s impossible, at times, to escape the thought that the life you actually led was a farce and that if you could have a do-over (as Charles Barkley expresses it) you might do incomparably better. It seems you almost never think you would do worse.

There are lots of little changes one can be fairly certain about. For example, I should never have cared a whit what my graduate school professors thought of me. Had I been able to dismiss their opinions completely, I would have been a much better student of history. It was not that they were utter dolts (though some approached that category); it was just that they had nothing to teach me. But how could I have known that then? I should have known it but at the same time it was impossible for me to know it. If I were to make a list of the things I should have known but that I couldn’t have known it would fill many volumes.

So I did not wander interminably in the groves of 17th century literature. Damn! But then, so what? I can now at least dream about doing it, and through the dream do an actual bit of wandering. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for with respect to our personal pasts.

•••••

I see that the Gallup Poll has found that Mississippi is the most religious state and that the state where I live, Vermont, is the least religious. The poll is based on statements people make about themselves. Such statements strike me as the most unreliable data one could collect. What’s the evidence that self-descriptions are accurate?

A condition I’ve discovered is that most people who profess, in the abstract, to be strongly religious spend almost no time thinking about religious truth. I guess you could attribute that to knowing the truth perfectly and, therefore, not having to think about it. But if so it’s a habit that doesn’t fit with other vital identifications. If someone is a strong baseball fan, he certainly pays attention to what’s going on in baseball -- the issues, the developments and so forth.

I think I’ve noted here before the phenomenon of contentless Christianity, that is a vehement profession of faith accompanied by virtually no interest in the doctrines of the faith. Maybe it’s just a manifestation of authoritarianism, the same sort of attitude that can be observed in people who say they’re taking a pill their doctor prescribed, and when asked what it’s for, they say they don’t know. “The doctor said it would be good for me.”

Might it be that believers don’t need to know anything about the doctrines? That’s just for the clergymen?

I have never been able to sort out what religion actually is. It’s a topic written about incessantly but almost none of the people who write about it bother to say what it is. I guess its mysterious nature gives it its potency.

Anyway, here I am in Vermont where Gallup says we don’t have much of it. I don’t know whether we should be sad or glad.


April 2, 2012

I just read a column in Consortium News by Phil Rockstroh about having grown up in the South and trying to remain friends with people caught up in malignant rage based on denial of what’s actually been happening in the country. It’s very hard to have a sensible conversation with these people, Mr. Rockstroh says.

He’s right about that, but I don’t think he’s completely right about the reason his old friends have descended to that condition. He says that white males, especially in the South, have been propagandized into siding with so-called free market power structures which treat them like tissue paper to be used and thrown away.

It’s true that plutocrats are trying to propagandize everybody in order to use them (I know, the previous word is a grammar problem, but I don’t care right here), but that doesn’t explain why plutocratic efforts work more effectively on some people than they do on others. The question in this case is why white Southern males are more susceptible to the rationalizations of wealthy PR agents than are any other group. When you pose the question this way, it becomes harder to answer.

I can’t be sure, myself, but I think I do know that any adequate answer will be composed of numerous parts.

One part, obviously, is that propagandists for the rich direct their appeals to sentiments that are known to drive white Southerners. The Southern strategy, as devised by the Republican party during the Nixon administration, hasn’t been applied in the political context alone. And what are those sentiments? Primary among them is the delusional myth that a real man doesn’t need a social structure in order to flourish. He can do it on his own, regardless of the environment. It’s an absurd idea, but among those who don’t often analyze ideas, it can be persuasive.

Another element of the answer is a cankered resentment based on the truth that the general culture has portrayed white Southern men as ignorant louts (leave aside, for the moment, whether that portrayal is valid). No one other than a genuine ironist likes to be seen as a stupid clod. It makes one want to lash out. It’s hard to exaggerate the desire in the South to hit back against Northern smart alecks, particularly if they happened to have attended prestigious universities. I know this is true because I’m a Southerner (at least by upbringing) myself.

And here’s a third part, which hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged. White Southern men are terrified by the possibility their opponents may be right. Southern self-confidence is not at all what it’s purported to be. Until a Southerner is driven to go berserk, he tends to be one of the most tentative creatures alive.

I offer these three parts not to suggest that they approach adequacy but just to hint that the answer is very complex. Mr. Rockstroh is right to say that if you try to have a conversation with a Tea Partier don’t expect it to go easily. There’s more unraveling there than you’re likely to have either time or stamina for.

•••••

Here’s what Chris Hedges says in an article for truthout published today:

If the National Defense Authorization Act is not reversed it will plunge us into
despotism, leaving us without a voice, trapped in eddies of fear and terror,
unsure of what small comment, what small action, could be misinterpreted to
push us out of our jobs or send us to jail.

I’ll admit that Hedges has got so emotionally involved in the conviction that the great network of security agencies in the United States is transforming the nation into a tyranny that he may, at times, exaggerate. On the other hand, he has been a good and truthful journalist for a long time. I know of no one who has written more factually about the reality of war than he has. He is a person worth listening to.

If you let your mind play with the truth that there are now 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies that work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, and ask yourself how many fevered brains may be employed by those organizations, it’s not hard to imagine situations in which overwrought and unbalanced security employees will circulate rumors about innocent persons in ways to damage their lives significantly.

If you argue that none of the employees of these agencies are unbalanced, then you are childishly naive.

I think the people of the United States are foolish not to be more concerned about the danger from over-reaction by security agencies. You don’t have to go all the way with Chris Hedges to see this as a serious problem.


April 4, 2012

County-by-county maps posted on NPR’s health blog this morning reminded me that every time I go to a Walmart store my mind becomes infested with hideously incorrect thoughts.

What the maps showed, without ever pointing it out, is that the percentage of fast-food restaurants and the incidence of premature death track very closely with voting patterns. One of the posts to the thread following the maps -- from Brian Laughlin -- noted “NPR removed my comment because people didn’t like the observation that the unhealthiest areas are also the areas that vote Republican.” What the earlier posting said I don’t know but this one managed to meet NPR’s standards.

Social class is a somewhat taboo subject in the United States because most of us have signed on to the correct thought that America stands for equality, even though it’s obviously not true. The markers of social class are various, but over time educational level (defining “education” in a traditional way) has become the dominant indicator.

Now, back to my incorrect thoughts. In Walmart, unless you avert your gaze from the faces of your fellow shoppers, you have to notice that most of them -- here, what can I say without being incorrect and snobbish? -- are members of what used to be called the lower classes and they probably don’t spend much time trying to analyze social, or political, or literary conditions. I know, you could say the latter is true of virtually all Americans. All I’m noting -- though it is incorrect -- is that there’s a different look on the faces in Walmart than there is on the faces in a Whole Foods store.

Now, this is where my incorrectness moves into high gear. Is our putative commitment to equality working well for the average Walmart shopper? Does tossing him, or her, into a maelstrom of phony equality help in leading a healthy, dignified life? I ask this question honestly. I don’t know the answer. But I am willing to consider that the answer might be, no.

Could it be that a tritely understood ideal of equality is working to isolate people into groups where they have very limited opportunities to learn about health, sensible social policy, and the interaction between the two?

The old ideal of “noblesse oblige” has been definitively dumped. It’s bad, bad, bad. We all know that. Yet, might it once have provided a modicum of education that has now been lost?

It’s often argued that a life of guns, simplistic religion, no newspapers, ground beef and gravy is just as good as any other life, and no one should dare say it’s not. Maybe that’s right. Defining what’s good is a complicated matter. But when a mode of life leads to a high rate of premature death is it wrong to question it?

Maybe my incorrect thoughts in a Walmart store come from ancient habits of mind that ought to be, once and for all, flushed out of human culture. If they do, they’ll go away with people like me, and Walmart culture -- if such a thing is permitted to be imagined -- will define the existence of 98% of humans. I suppose that will constitute life going on, and who has mind enough to rate it?

This is merely a confession that I do have incorrect thoughts, and that I did go in a Walmart store yesterday.

•••••

Fletcher Wortman has written a book titled Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. One of its passages says this:

The truth is that you cannot prove anything one way or the other. Everything is
possible. We live in a world not of certainty but of endless incalculable risk. The
music of the spheres is chaos.

For some reason many of my conversations lately have been taken up with what we can know for sure, and as I’ve considered the issues brought to me, I’ve come, more and more, to agree with what Mr. Wortman says. I see myself, increasingly, as a person who knows almost nothing. I often recall a passage from G.B. Grundy’s Fifty Years at Oxford, where an ancient professor was quoted as saying something to the effect that we can’t teach the boys much in the three years they are here, but what we do try to teach them is how to know when someone is talking rot.

Wortman was addressing the truth that people who allow themselves to be dominated by obsessive thoughts can’t be proven wrong. It could be the case that if one doesn’t, after switching off a light, turn around three times, the world will come to an end. The question is whether such a possibility should be allowed to become a certainty in one’s patterns of belief. What does it do to the quality of life -- that is, until the world does come to an end?

The relation between what’s considered an obsession and what’s considered faith or loyalty is poorly understood. The closeness between the two is seldom acknowledged. You might say that faiths, or group loyalties, are simply obsessions which obtain among large numbers of people. These assertions are often no more probable than the likelihood that turning around three times after switching off a light is necessary to keep the world going. But when lots of people hold them, they take on a kind of authority. They become not only socially acceptable but in some cases socially demanded.

It’s not effective to claim, as the old Oxford professor probably would have done, that the people who profess popular but unsupported beliefs are talking rot. Maybe they’re not. But they clearly aren’t talking certainties either.

What we might learn from obsessive-compulsive personalities is that it’s best to acknowledge possibilities and then move forward to decide what to do about them.

If someone tells me, for example, as some have told me, that if I don’t read the Bible in a certain frame of mind I will indubitably spend eternity in torment, I can agree that may be true but then point out that there are other people telling me other things about the causes and existence of eternal torment. I can plead that I have no other option than to try, as best I can, to sort out the probabilities among these dire warnings. Most people, even the most fervent, will accept that plea, and thereby I can avoid not disagreement but, at least, anger and bitterness.

I really don’t mind disagreement.

We need better ways to deal with people who are certain, particularly when we are not. And thinking about how to converse with obsessive people may be a good way to learn.


April 5, 2012

I listened to Glenn Greenwald’s 23-minute interview with Rachel Maddow about her new book, Drift. The curious thing about this publication is that it has received more sustained criticism from anti-war voices than it has from the supporters of the warfare state. The reason is that she is quite soft on the latter.

She is worried about a drift towards perpetual war because the direct human cost of it is being born by a tiny portion of the public -- by soldiers, that is -- and because she thinks that when the U.S. military does something, they do it in our name, though they don’t do it necessarily for us. If something is done in our name, she argues, we ought to know what it is and approve of it.

She has relatively little criticism of the executive branch of government for resorting easily to war. It’s what president’s do, she implies, sort of like cats chase birds. Since the executive can use force with little hassle, that’s what executives will do. It’s the easiest course for them. Her position is we should create more hassle before we jump into wars. But she doesn’t offer suggestions about who’s going to provide it. She implies she would like to see Congress exert greater caution about war-making. Yet in almost the same breath she suggests war is easier for, and more popular with, members of Congress than it is for the executive. As for the people, she says, outright, that they can always be counted on to give way to pro-war propaganda.

It’s almost as though the theme of her book is that we’re going in the wrong direction but nobody can do anything about it.

Greenwald tried to get her to discuss whether our aggressions are the cause of anti-American actions. But she resolutely refused. She can’t get inside the head of anti-American people, she said. Many of the anti-American arguments she has heard have been “incoherent.” But she failed to mention a single one.

I confess, I’ve been surprised to see her as wishy-washy as she’s been. Clearly she has done a service by pointing to a troubling development. But she’s hesitant to take on those who are pushing the development. Perhaps it’s inherent in her title that nobody is responsible for the drift; it’s just happening.

•••••

The human race has many strange habits but the one I find most perplexing is an almost complete lack of curiosity about the nature of systems and texts that are said to be vital to human well-being.

I grew up in a Bible-obsessed region, and one of the first quasi-adult questions I took up was why people had little interest in how the Bible was put together or where it came from. If something is the most important force in life, I would ask myself, doesn’t it make sense to learn as much as you can about its reality? Yet whenever I mentioned issues about the Bible’s origins, I got nothing but blank stares. “The Bible comes from God” was about as far as anyone would go in describing the Bible’s nature. That seemed to be a sufficient answer to all questions.

“But how do we know it comes from God?” I would ask. “It just does” was the invariable answer. Nobody I knew seemed the least bit interested in how a vast accumulation of words had been pulled together and then transmitted across more than two thousand years.

Occasionally somebody would suggest that God shepherded the whole process, from the time when the original words found a home in a human brain to when you could go into almost any bookstore and buy a copy of the Bible in English. When I would ask how we knew that, I got the same blank stare, and sometimes people would say, “That’s how it had to be.”

The actual story of the putting together and transmission of the Bible is fascinating, but it is also so complex that if a bright young man or woman persisted, over the course of a lifetime, to try to spell the whole thing out, he or she would not approach the end. The truth is that thousands of scholars have worked on the project and it is not near to completion. It seems to me that the nature of the task is such that it’s impossible to finish it.

What is it that holds people back from grasping the difficulties? If it were something they cared nothing about, I could understand it. But many people argue that the Bible is central to their lives.

These thoughts have been reactivated by my reading of Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It?
It’s an interesting book, though not quite as readable as I had been led to believe. I doubt that most Bible-believers could make their way through it. Still, one thing that might give them pause is Pelikan’s contention -- which makes perfect sense -- that most parts of the Bible existed for decades and even centuries as oral traditions, before a word was ever put into writing. If that’s the case, then the people who gave us a written Biblical text were more recorders than they were authors. They simply took down what had been said and passed along by legions of story-tellers.

Where did the stories originate? Who shaped them? Were they argued about? Were they influenced by political situations? Did they help some people and hurt others? What vested interests were involved? These are all questions which pertain to times before there was anything like a written Bible. And they’re all swathed in historical mystery.

I have gradually become a champion of the idea that we don’t know many things we think we know. And I wish someone could explain to me why we want to say we do. Where’s the benefit in it? It’s not hard to hypothesize possibilities of benefit, but the examination of such hypotheses really doesn’t get much attention. As I said, we’re curious creatures.


April 6, 2012

Glenn Greenwald concludes his most recent posting on the M.E.K. mess with this statement:

I know it’s easy to forget, given recent American history, but U.S. government
officials -- whether current or former -- are no more entitled to commit felonies
and violate U.S. statutes than any other citizens are.

Greenwald is right -- in theory. In reality, though, the United States is a country where great numbers of people are immune to penalties for law-breaking by reason of their status. Foremost among these, of course, are thousands of people who can claim some connection, however remote, to the security establishment. Nothing they do is subject to the law because they can go into court and claim that no charges against them, including murder, kidnapping, and torture, can be investigated because to look into such charges would reveal “state secrets.” Maintaining state secrets is seen by the courts as more important than preventing the most egregious of crimes. What’s worse, if you care anything about even-handed enforcement of law, is that the American people, by a sizable majority, agree that the law should not apply to people who are working against the “enemies” of the United States.

It would be bad enough if spies and spooks were the only people outside the regulation of law. But hordes of others also meet the exemption. Here, for example, is a paragraph from Matt Taibbi’s report yesterday, in Rolling Stone, about the cavalier procedures being applied by the New York City police force in various areas of the city:

When I read this "Clean Halls" story I immediately thought of the various
robosigning scandals. If even one law enforcement official had been able to take
just one stroll through, say, the credit card collections office of a Chase or a Ban
of America at any time in the last decade, he would have seen rows of cubicles
full of entry-level employees whose entire job was to sit around all day long, right
out in the open, forging court documents. Whole departments attended to this
job for years and years and somehow nobody with a badge ever got a whiff of it.

Forging court documents is clearly against the law. If an ordinary citizen forged a court document in order to gain an advantage in a legal procedure he, or she, would be subject to severe penalties, including time in prison. But when bankers who operate banks that are too big to fail do it, law enforcement people simply look the other way. Big bankers are, effectively, outside the law and have been for some time.

Generally speaking, having a lot of money, makes one exempt from law enforcement unless the rich person defrauds someone equally rich, or, commits such a stupidly gross and vulgar act that the mainstream media reap some sensationalism from reporting on it.

If the American people want this two-tiered system of law enforcement, they can certainly have it. Actually they have it right now. There is, though, one feature of the system that the people have not much taken into account. When we create a category of persons who don’t have to obey the law, we also powerfully affect the nature of ambition in the nation. Joining the category of exempt persons becomes the primary definition of success. What could possibly be more successful than being able to do whatever one wants and not have to worry about any legal consequences? All the sharp people want to get in on it. As the goal becomes more reachable, more and more people manage to escape the peon status of having to obey the law. And as their number swells society comes to resemble a jungle, where the powerful eat the less powerful.

One might argue that society has always been that way, and I suppose there’s some validity in the position. But in history there have been degrees. I think it’s true that in the current United States, the blatancy of lawbreaking by privileged persons is growing, and may even be approaching a national acme. No one can say how long this swelling can continue until it bursts and poisons every element of society. Who knows? Maybe it can continue for decades. But at some point it will become too rank to be supported. A society where any veil of legitimacy has been ripped to shreds really will be nothing but dog eat dog.

If you think you’re such a big dog you can eat anybody else, I suppose that’s okay. But if you have aspirations towards a less melodramatic mode of existence, you might want to consider joining with others of similar taste to try to extend the reach of the law even into the precincts of those who have clearly risen above us.


April 7, 2012

As some of you know (and others may not), I’ve decided that since we’re uncertain about the meaning of “existence,” the question of God’s existence isn’t interesting. On the other hand, what we think of God is one of the most fascinating topics I can imagine. Consequently, I’m happy to see notice of a new book by Robert A. Burk, Alexander Bickel Professor of Law at Yale, titled In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict.

Burk makes the fairly obvious point -- which has managed to be ignored by most of humanity -- that even if God is the creator of the universe and, therefore, all powerful, it doesn’t mean you have to like him. It’s possible to conclude that he’s a confused and sometimes malignant entity.

Burk thinks the Hebrew Scriptures are provocative because they raise the question of God’s authority over humanity. His book deals with Biblical instances in which humans come to doubt God’s actions. Consider, for example, the famous story of God’s directive to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. I’ve never thought it put God in a good light, and neither have lots of other people. Even though God relented at the last minute and spared both Abraham’s feelings and Isaac’s life, it still doesn’t justify the cruel trick. Burk makes the observation, which I have not seen before, that after this incident God and Abraham never again spoke to one another. That suggests lingering resentment, which appears perfectly reasonable. I wouldn’t be in a good mood if someone had done that to me.

Seeing this analysis prompted me to read the 22nd chapter of Genesis again to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. But it was just as I remembered. God tells Abraham that because he was willing to kill Isaac, God will cause Abraham’s descendants to multiply mightily, and that these descendants shall bless all the nations of the earth. And why? Because Abraham was willing to kill his son to show that he feared God. What a reason! Only if you’ll do something truly despicable for me will I shower my gifts on you.

In any case, I’m glad to see people poking into the concept of God and asking all the questions we can think of about it. When people can say simplistically that they know all that humans need to know about God, then they often get it in their heads that they have the right to impose that knowledge on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, using whatever methods they may decide are necessary. We have seen how this works in history, and it’s not pretty.

If anything is important, God included, then it’s important to decide as fully and carefully as we can what we think of it.


April 8, 2012

I watched a clip of Mitt Romney at a campaign event with Paul Ryan in Wisconsin last Monday, April 2nd. They were both condemning President Obama for his hostility towards religion, and vowing, feelingly, to protect freedom of religion in America.

Virtually everything they said was a lie. Obama has not, in any way, attacked religion as they said he did.

From a certain perspective, it’s all right to lie if you do it in support of something you believe to be right. I can imagine situations where I would agree with that. But I don’t agree with it when it comes to conducting a political campaign and trying to denigrate an opponent.

I have no idea what Mitt Romney’s position on lying is. I don’t even know if he recognizes when something he says is false. I do know he is willing to use falsehood in any situation in which he thinks it will offer him even a slight advantage. Maybe somebody tells him what to say, and he doesn’t bother to ask whether it’s true or not. He comes across as having an extremely peculiar mind.

The issue in this campaign is not whether Romney lies regularly. That’s established. The issue is what the voters think about it. Does it bother them? Do they see it as clever? Do they like to hear lies which flatter their own desires?

I can’t compare the people of the United States in their willingness to accept lying with the people of other nations. Maybe falsehood is a political asset everywhere, to about the same degree. I do know the American people’s willingness to drink in lies strikes me as astounding. Or perhaps it’s not really astounding, just a peculiar taste.

Political wisdom -- if your brain will entertain that oxymoron -- seems to have concluded that lying, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. The only question is whether you can make it stick. If you can, then you would be a fool not to use it. This is likely the reason for Romney’s bizarre relation to the truth. His problem is merely that he’s less than apt in predicting when he can and when he can’t pin a falsehood on someone he’s trying to outdo. And since he’s unable to gage the stickiness of a particular lie , he just lies all the time -- in hope, I suppose.


April 9, 2012

What most Americans fail to understand about tyranny is that it doesn’t operate -- at least not directly -- against those who express no dissent. Since most citizens don’t pay enough attention to government behavior even to think about dissent, they go along happily thinking they live in a free country. After all, the government doesn’t harass them.

If, however, you decided to make a documentary film about conditions in Iraq during the U.S. occupation -- a perfectly legal thing to -- your status changes rapidly. Ask Laura Poitras what happened to her. She has never been charged by the government with committing any crime. Yet she has been stopped, interrogated, and had her property seized many times when she returned to the United States from trips abroad. Nobody explains to her why the government does this; they just do it. I’m sure no one in government will admit she has been treated this way because she made films that depicted U.S. occupational forces in less than a flattering light. But what other reason could there be?

Well, you might say, they haven’t thrown her in prison, they haven’t tortured her, they haven’t killed her. True. And if you were to say such a thing it would indicate you’re okay with tyranny up to a certain level. The trouble is that when that level becomes habitual, accepted, just the ordinary thing, stepping beyond it becomes easier for the government.

If Laura Poitras were the only person being treated this way, you might say it’s just the result of a bureaucratic snit and not a planned program of intimidation. But over an eighteen month period in 2010 and 2011, more than three thousand U.S. citizens received similar treatment, that is, their computers, or phones, or other electronic devices were seized, when they were returning to the country. Sometimes the government gives these things back; sometimes they don’t. If they don’t return them there’s no explanation of why not. The basic stance of the government is that they don’t have to explain anything they do if they claim they’re working on security.

The most serious flaw in our democracy is that most national politicians feel no responsibility for anything that won’t cost them votes. If the government is engaged in serious abuses which fly under the radar of public attention, politicians don’t care about them. Right now, office holders figure they’re not going to lose a significant number of votes for ignoring or supporting obnoxious governmental practices which are tagged as security matters. Consequently, they fail to work for the liberties of the people. In fact, the great majority of politicians care nothing about them. There are exceptions, of course, a small number, but the number is not large enough to generate significant force.

I wish the number would grow but I’m pretty sure it won’t unless a security agency does something so filthy and gross that journalists can make a sensation of it. Then politicians will discover there’s a problem and that something must be done. But since they have minute attention spans, they’ll probably forget about it before anything is accomplished.

•••••

I seem to be emerging from a slight bout of sickness, probably one of those 24-48 hour viruses which arrive and depart so mysteriously. Though they are short-lived they can be quite intense. In my case they send my mind along paths it might not otherwise take. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them epiphanies but they are awakenings of sorts.

Yesterday, lying in bed and thinking I might not get out again, I was struck by the insight that peace and frenzy constitute the fundamental division of human life. I don’t know why it took an illness to get that through to me. I’ve been reading about the Apollonian and the Dionysian all my adult life. But not till I connected the Dionysian fully with being lost in frenzy did I grasp the strength of the two attractions. It may be that frenzy and its nature have been forced on my attention lately by events in my personal life.

Here I should confess that I may be too biased to comment. Though I can perceive frenzy as a desire to escape the self, and though at times I get thoroughly tired of myself, in reality I don’t ever reach the point of wanting to get out. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I haven’t experienced the desire to be someone other than who I am. It’s not that I can’t recognize my faults, which are many. But they are mine.

Having confessed, I can now proceed to argue that peace and frenzy are out of balance in modern America. Have you noticed how many television commercials depict frenzy as the essence of life, and as the only way possible to have fun? Why is it fun to be in a room where everyone is behaving like a drunken teenager? But this is only a minor manifestation of what I’m trying to get at. For some reason, we like to depict ourselves as people always on the go, so caught up in what we are doing we can’t give thought to what it means to be doing it. The problem with always being on the go is that someone else is always having to get out of your way.  If you’re always on the go, you’re bound to run over people now and then. But in America, that’s okay. Running over people, glorified always as competition, is widely viewed as the national motif. You could charge me with being contradictory in defining frenzy as getting out of the self and then saying it results in running over people. Isn’t running over people the essence of selfishness? I don’t think so. It’s precisely when we have lost control of the true self that we do so many things which hurt others.

Competition is good when it takes place in a game. But people who think life is a game are insane. There’s nothing wrong with games to add spice to living, but when games make up the whole of life, everybody gets a stomach ache.

America is not a peaceful nation because it finds its meaning in playing games. Winning is the reason for existing. Maybe it’s too much to call that callow, but I’m sure it would be healthy for us to take some steps in the opposite direction, towards peace.


April 10, 2012

E.O. Wilson is out with a new book: The Social Conquest of Earth. Like several of his earlier works, it’s proving to be controversial.

A truth about humans appears to be that whatever they study intensely they come -- in some sense -- to admire. And what Wilson has studied most fervently is ants. He suggests that ants offer humans a model for how to live. He doesn’t seem much concerned with the likelihood that if we take up that model we’ll move towards being ants.

There are many things we do that ants don’t do. They don’t write novels. They don’t compose music. They’re not concerned with anything that involves aesthetic quality. They are, of course, superbly suited to continue living. But the price of that superiority is that they’ll always be ants, no different from the ants that preceded them by millennia. They’re replaying their script over and again without ever being conscious that’s what they’re doing. From a certain point of view I guess that’s admirable.

The curious thing about Wilson, though, is he’s critical when humans behave that way. He speaks of religion, for example, as an archaic trap kept alive by “purveyors of theological narcissism.” It’s not a bad insight but it’s not one an ant would have.

One of the big -- and perhaps unanswerable -- questions is whether we should find our meaning in nature or struggle to get outside it. It’s such a complex issue it’s impossible to take all factors into account as we try to answer. We like to argue about it though.

Nature is fascinating, but recognizing that it is doesn’t strike me as conclusive evidence that we should admire it. Of course, as soon as one uses the word “should” he’s in the soup. All I can really say is that, given who I am, and where I stand, and what I like, I don’t admire it a great deal. I’d prefer that we try to think up something better for managing our affairs. I’ll admit that from a certain perspective that’s a mistake, yet, I don’t care because that’s not my perspective. About all one can do is choose his perspectives (and some say we can’t even do that).

We should remember, though, that we can learn from people whose sense of things will never be our own. Wilson is surely a person from whom we can learn. He deserves my respect even though, at the moment, I don’t think he deserves to be my guide.

•••••

Henry Giroux is promoting a concept that is only beginning to be talked about but which I think will have considerable staying power. He argues that the United States has become a suicidal society. His position is based on the stance that for the past three decades the American public has been reared on a neoliberal dystopian vision. It has four main components:

  • There are no alternatives to a market-driven society.
  • Economic growth should not be constrained by social costs.
  • War is a permanent condition of society.
  • Democracy and capitalism are virtually synonymous.

With these components in control it is inevitable that a majority of the people will be reduced to lives of drudgery and oppression.

He makes a lot of sense to me. The rules that the rich and the Republicans are trying to put in place are bound to destroy the hopes of most people. To find any brightness in them you have to transform yourself into an obsessive money-grubber. But what if you don’t want to be a money-grubber? What if there are other things you would like to do? The answer you get from the Republicans is you have no right to be anything other than a money-grubber. It’s the law of the universe. Society should not be allowed to provide you with an opportunity for anything else.

How do they know? They don’t have to say how they know. They just get money and use its power to force their doctrine on you.

We don’t know if people can summon enough gumption to rise up against this recent right-wing doctrine. The first thing they will have to do is face the system for what it is, an attempt by people who worship the power of money to dominate everyone else. If one reaches the point of asking, “Wait a minute; why do I have subscribe to this?” he or she is then on a track to do something about it. But if most continue to delude themselves that they can achieve the ultimate joys of life by getting rich, almost all of them of them will be doomed.  In the first place only a small minority can be rich, and in the second, riches are not guaranteed to produce joy.

These are obvious truths but they are truths many people seem unable to embrace. It’s hard to find ways to help them, particular when one is opposed vociferously by the money machine. Yet there are signs of breakthrough and they make me glad there are persons like Giroux, who despite being denigrated as “far out” find the courage to go about their work, day after day.


April 11, 2012

I managed to make it through Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? despite its beginning to wear on me a third of the way into it. I wasn’t sure why it taxed my patience and I probably spent too much energy wondering why when I might have been simply getting the good of the reading. After all, Pelikan, up until his death in 2006, was regarded as the finest scholar writing in English on Biblical and Christian history. And I have generally had a strong interest in those subjects.

Having now had a bit of time to reflect, I’m inching toward a conclusion. Pelikan strikes me as having been too coy in trying to keep a foot in two camps which don’t lie easily together. He wanted to appear as a thorough scholar, who employed the strongest critical and historical skills in unearthing the past. But he also wanted to stand as a devout Christian who accepted the authority of Scripture without investigating the basis of that claim. The most revealing sentence in his book came just two pages from the end, where he announced, “The historical or literary or philological desire to comprehend what it says has been and is vastly less important than the religious need to understand it in order to obey it.” In other words, we start with the requirement to obey Scripture and we investigate its origins and translations and transmissions mainly so we can obey it rightly. But why? Why do we start there?

I suppose the answer from his perspective comes in another brief sentence: “As the hand or the eye amounts to nothing by itself but must belong to a body to perform its function, so it is with the ‘members’ of the church.” This is said in a context in which it might be read simply as the New Testament position, yet there’s a definite element of preachment in his manner of reporting on the primacy of the body of Christ as compared to the individual believer. Pelikan appears to start first as a member of that body and to proceed from there.  His text is replete with instances of ambiguity as to whether he’s explaining the meaning of Biblical passages or asserting their truth.

Why do I find that annoying? The answer for me is pretty clear. I don’t like piety. It strikes me always as an attempt to gain advantage and assert superiority by allying oneself with forces  too grand, and too profound for one’s companions to comprehend. In its basic form it’s simply the charge that other discussants are too shallow to grasp the points one is making. Or, to put it in the vernacular, it’s snotty.

My guess is that Mr. Pelikan generally exhibited a gracious manner and had no conscious intention of insulting anyone. Still, he thought very well of himself -- which is perfectly all right. It’s just that I would prefer he declare his superiority outright rather than smoothing it in through piety. Maybe that’s just my eccentricity and not a valid criticism. But I don’t think so. If you examine the connotations of piety throughout literature you’ll discover it has irritated more persons than just me.

I’m mildly surprised that expression of religious opinion continues to be accorded the immunity it generally receives. There are quarters in which religion is criticized, sometimes sharply. But for the most part when one bases an argument on religious conviction there is an absence of critical or questioning response. Political opinions are not treated that way, nor are opinions about education, or social behavior, or use of language. But as soon as a stance is tinged with religion the expectation is that it need not defend itself in any other way. Writers like Pelikan take advantage of that privilege, perhaps without even being aware that they do.

On the question of whether one can mix devotional proclamation with scholarly investigation, I’ll admit it’s a tricky issue. If it’s going to be done, it’s done better when a writer is sharply honest about which is being brought forward. Evidence is one thing. Knowledge which arrives from someplace beyond evidence is another. Setting aside, for the moment, the philosophical truth that one’s response to evidence is always emotionally charged, we can attempt to distinguish between reporting and professing. I would have enjoyed Whose Bible Is It? more if Pelikan had worked harder at that distinction.


April 12, 2012

I found a web site called Philosophy Bites, which offers short interviews with supposed philosophers, meaning, mainly, professors of philosophy. This morning I listened to a conversation on the meaning of life with John Cottingham, an emeritus professor from the University of Reading, who published a book of that title in 2002.

I can’t say Mr. Cottingham left me feeling life has much meaning.

His main point seems to be that human existence is fragile. It’s dependent on contingency. We need to find some way to come to terms with that condition. My problem is, I don’t know what “come to terms” means with respect to the truth that we don’t have the power to make our plans work out. Does it mean simply to accept the truth? But what if you do accept it?

Cottingham says it’s a mistake to expect to find belief before you set out along some path of activity or mental discipline. If you are going to discover belief it will come somewhere along the path. He’s an advocate of “guided self-discovery” which is his term for psychoanalysis in its basic form, relieved of the more arcane aspects of Freudianism. He also thinks that guided self-discovery and religion can support one another. His stance has a very Anglican tone to it.

He doesn’t seem to agree with Albert Camus that we can find happiness in the practice of always trying, always failing, as Camus suggested Sisyphus might have. Yet I can’t quite see how that’s significantly different from Cottingham’s suggestion that “looking outward” towards something we can’t know or define -- which strikes me as little more than a cultured depiction of God -- will strengthen our ability to live in the face of certain absurdity, contingency, futility.

Mr. Cottingham, in short, is very English, with all the benefits and deficiencies that term implies.

•••••

I’ve seen a lot of comment in various threads to the effect that there’s nothing to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I don’t agree. Though Obama has been, and continues to be, severely disappointing to people who prefer intelligent, even-handed government to what we have now, it seems to be the case that Romney would be bad in all the ways Obama is bad, and add to them.

I can give the no-difference critics a certain amount of credit by admitting I don’t think the contrast between life with Romney and life with Obama would be as great as many suppose. Though political rhetoric paints them as being starkly opposed, in basic outlook they’re fairly similar. They like the system which has allowed them both to consider themselves successful and they like the company of advisors so mired in corrupt operations they can’t imagine genuine alternatives. It’s not hard to think of Timothy Geithner working just as smoothly with Romney as  he does with Obama. If there is such a thing as competence in a president, Obama may be slightly superior, but not by much.

The reason to favor Obama over Romney lies not in who they, in themselves, are but in the people each would bring into government. It’s easy to forget that a president -- any president -- is primarily a lead figure in a vast network. Positions are bestowed and rewards are given on the basis of internal relations within the network. Though Obama’s network is no great shakes, it does have some honest, fair-minded people in it. Romney’s network, essentially the Republican Party, is composed of the nastiest, greediest, most ruthless persons in the nation. It is they who would be making day-by-day decisions affecting thousands of lives were Romney to be in the White House. A lot more people would be hurt by a Romney administration than by a continued Obama administration, even though those hurt by the latter run into the thousands.

The sad truth at the moment is that the American people are incapable of selecting a truly decent political leader. They, themselves, are caught up in too much ignorance, bigotry, resentment, suspicion, fear and hatred to pick someone who has managed fully to escape those conditions. When we look at the president we see an image of ourselves -- gussied up, of course. When we look at Obama we see ourselves as we are on one of our slightly better days. When we look at Romney we see ourselves are we are most of the time -- oblivious, unaware, indifferent to fairness, focused on grabbing as much as we can.

It would be pleasant if we had better choices. There are those who argue we’ll never recognize the need for better choices until we drink the dregs at the bottom. They have short memories. We tried that with George Bush. Though we did wake up enough to perceive, vaguely, how badly we had chosen, we didn’t stay awake long enough to learn much from it. Would Romney be worse than Bush? No one can say because no one can know for sure exactly what Romney would do. The range of possibility runs from mildly creepy to truly horrendous.

I think it’s better to stay with the less than glorious we have now and try to peck away at its faults as we go along.


April 15, 2012

I hate modern politics most for what it does to language. It specializes in ripping words out of context in order to make statements into something they’re not. It’s a curious and especially stinky form of lying.

I heard Hilary Rosen’s now famous statement when she first made it. It was nothing of the sort it has been made into. She was talking about Mitt Romney’s claim that he consults his wife in order to understand the economic problems women face. Ms. Rosen merely said that wasn’t a convincing ploy because Mrs. Romney has never worked in her life. She used “work” in the way it’s often used to mean “employment.” That was clear. For an honest person there could be no doubt about it. All she was saying was that Mrs. Romney is not a good person to rely on to explain the problems experienced by women who have to earn a salary and look after a family.

One might disagree, but there was nothing scandalous in what Rosen said. It was certainly a plausible point. It was not a slam at Mrs. Romney’s character. So why all the hoopla?

There were three reasons:

  • Republicans inserted a meaning for the word “work,” different from the one Ms. Rosen clearly used, in order to create a political furor.

  • The media took it up because they scented sensationalism, which is the only thing they care about.

  • The Democrats responded in their typical craven manner, littering the broadcast waves with apologies. Spinelessness on the part of Democrats is the primary reason we should doubt their ability to conduct sensible government.

Will the issue matter in any way? It will matter in just one way. It will add another drop to the wave of language degradation our political process feeds on. We need to remember the old hippy chant: you are what you eat.

•••••

Mitt Romney’s speech to the National Rifle Association reminds me of a truth that’s not repeated often enough. The NRA is a pack of gun freaks. Nothing they stand for has any place in a decent civil society.

Why can’t we face the actuality of what guns are? They are instruments for killing. That’s all they are. People who want to possess them dream of killing something. Being a killer is a significant element of their personal identification. I have a certain sympathy for that feeling in persons less than sixteen years old. I can even accord it a place in the fantasy life of most people, a kind of guilty melodramatic pleasure. But when it persists as a reality into later years it’s a sign of arrested development. The fifty year old man who genuinely wants to kill things is like a fish that can’t swim.

I realize we have great numbers of these stunted specimens among us. I have no desire to wage a big political campaign against them. I think we have better things to do with our political energies. But just for the sake of clarity and honesty we should keep in mind what they are.

•••••

A news story that a couple bid $100,000 at an auction to be able to spend the day with Tim Teebow reminds me that the president and his employees keep sending me messages claiming that I might get to have dinner with him if I’ll just send some money to his campaign. I think the chances of going to dinner with Mr. Obama are very small. But that’s not my point.

Doesn’t it strike you as fairly egomaniacal for them to assume that I’m eager to have dinner with the president? Just think of all the unpleasantness that would have to precede it. Besides, what would the experience actually be? Obama would regard me as just some dweeb who was fortunate enough to enter his presence. I don’t think the idea of having a genuine conversation with me could enter his brain. He would be doing it solely as a campaign stunt. For me it would be simply a humiliation. What makes them think I want to humiliate myself?

The notion lingers that national leaders attain god-like properties. To be in the same room with them is to be irradiated. It’s a version of the notion, still alive in England in the early 18th century, that the king’s touch could cure illnesses. But for me the only physical manifestation of my touching Obama, under the conditions that would be bound to accompany it, would be a stomach ache.

I don’t need a stomach ache. Truth is, I’d just as soon not have one.

This is not to say that if I should meet Obama through some bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances which permitted us to speak person to person I couldn’t enjoy a conversation with him. I doubt that I would, but it’s certainly possible. But in the worlds he and I occupy, that can’t happen.

His campaign team needs to rethink what he could do actually to win my support. Dinner with him is not a lure.

Page 2 >


©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page         Word and Image of Vermont Home
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover