Collected Thoughts

April 2012
April 16, 2012

Yesterday I wrote harshly of gun advocates, and today I feel compelled to confess I didn't write harshly enough.

•••••

I can’t recall ever having arisen in the morning and saying to myself, “Oh boy! I’m a white person.”

Nor have I said, “I’ve just got to do something for white people today.”

Nor have I thought, “I have to be careful always to vote as a white person.”

Evidently, among persons of my complexion, I’m peculiar.

•••••

I am very happy that I am not a member of the Florida legislature.

•••••

Ben-Ami Scharfstein suggests that the prime characteristic of philosophers is that they find a common-sense approach to reality to be intolerable. Whenever I encounter the term “common sense” I’m perplexed. It appears to mean all sorts of things. Most often I see it used as a synonym for “stupidity” by people who don’t know they’re using it that way. On the whole, though, to be commonsensical is generally thought to be a good thing, especially by persons who have no definition in mind for it. I asked a man once, who was praising another man for having common sense, what it was. “Oh, you know,” he answered, “Just good common sense.”

I think it’s the case -- though I can’t be sure even of this -- that I am not heavily endowed with common sense. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have none at all, but I don’t think I have much. I’m not going to claim, though, that that makes me a philosopher.

•••••

I notice pundits continually pointing out that the tax rates supported by Republican champions in the past would be considered wildly socialistic by current Republicans. This is done, evidently, to try to convince the existing GOP that it has become extreme. Why people should think it would have that effect, I can’t imagine.

•••••

I noticed that the National Review has fired John Derbyshire for a supposedly racist column he wrote -- not for the National Review -- titled “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” It was his advice to white parents about what they should tell their children concerning fairly large groups of black people.

Was it nasty? To some degree. Should he have been fired for writing it? I don’t think so. Firing people for saying in print what tens of millions of people say in conversation strikes me as bad policy. It pushes nastiness underground, where it festers more rankly than it would if it were in the open.

Silencing nastiness allows people who support it to say that it doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s what the National Review had in mind in firing Derbyshire.


April 17, 2012

George Berkeley (1685-1753) famously believed that matter did not exist. He said that if it did then there would be no way to prove that God was not made of matter. And Berkeley didn’t like the idea of a matter-made God. But why not?

Most people think that God constructed matter and that he retains some sort of relation to it. He orders it to his own liking. It was the instrument he chose for creation. But when you think about it, it’s not hard to see Berkeley’s point. Matter by its very nature is limiting, and why should God allow himself to be limited in his own creation? That would come close to undermining the concept of God, and that, I think, was Berkeley’s objection. He didn’t want a limited God. Besides, God had no need of matter. He could work amply through perceptions.

Dr. Johnson, when asked about Berkeley’s notion, refuted it by kicking a rock down the road. This has been considered clever down the ages but it didn’t actually have any philosophical force. It appealed, as we say, to common sense.

We can’t say Berkeley is wrong. Nor can I see why we should wish to. Whether there is matter, or not, makes little difference to us. If matter is an illusion, it’s an illusion that has become our very old friend and has, thereby, taken on a sort of reality.

These thoughts came to my mind because last night on House, there was a patient who was bleeding from his eyes. That was interesting in itself, but even more interesting was that his girlfriend was a doll, which he had custom made in a desirable image for seven thousand dollars. (I, myself, thought he should have got something better for that much, but, then, I’ve never shopped in the life-like doll market).

Most of the doctors he encountered wanted to persuade him to give up his existing girlfriend for something they considered more real (House, of course, didn’t care), but though he was tempted, in the end he remained faithful. We last see him sitting on the sofa, watching TV, and holding hands with his true love.

You could doubtless find psychologists who would say that he can never pull off the relationship. But they are obsessed with matter. The matter of his girlfriend is different from the matter of girls who eat, and defecate, and so forth. The psychologists would also likely say he can’t get the response from her he needs. But how do they know? God need not be limited by the response that comes from one form of matter as contrasted with another, does he? And if matter actually does not exist, then it’s silly to think the response from one illusion about it has to be different from that coming from another illusion.

I wonder what Bishop Berkeley would say about all this. As for myself, my opinions about it  are so weak they’re not worth repeating.

•••••

Tonight, here on Liberty Street, we’ll have a meeting of the Johnson Society of Vermont. Our topic will be a term I have coined: “groupism,”meaning not just membership in a group, but also indicating the drawing of a significant element of one’s identity from that membership.

I confess that my feelings about groupism are not overly positive, though I recognize that it has a very long history, has been the source of great devotion, and at the moment continues to drive the world.

I suspect that among our members my feelings will be more negative than anyone else’s, though I could be wrong about that.

We won’t sort out all the aspects of groupism. Even to approach the halfway mark would require at least a year of continuous discussion. But I do hope we can define at least a few ways in which reducing its hold on us might make us stronger and kinder people.

The group in the modern world which troubles me most is the nation. That’s because nations demand of their members a huge number of sacrifices and, at times, even the sacrifice of life itself. Furthermore, nations have the power to back up their demands. If the administrative arm of the nation, which we call government, decides, for whatever reason, and even for reasons that need not be announced, that your life should be extinguished, you will have a hard time staying alive. The idea of any group exercising that degree of authority troubles me. It’s an authority that used to be claimed for God alone -- although I’ll admit that many groups have asserted that they function as God’s servants -- or assassins, if you will.

Every group claims some sort of authority, or else it wouldn’t be a group. I think it’s that authority which needs to be examined carefully. We’ll see how careful we can be tonight.


April 18, 2012

I see that Atrios of Eschaton is constructing a list of the ten worst “wankers” of the decade. By the use of the vulgar term he means to indicate the journalist/commentators who are the most self-indulgent and therefore stupidest voices of the media. He is teasing us by putting out the names bit by bit, but he’s getting close to the end by naming Joe Klein as the 3rd runner up.

With only three names left, the volume of guessing about who they will be is swelling rapidly. There’s a near-consensus that one of them has to be Tom Friedman; in fact, most take it as almost a certainty that he will head the list. Actually I see I’m behind the times. Andrew Sullivan and Fred Hiatt have just been announced as Numbers 2 and 1 runners-up. So, I guess that clenches it for Friedman. He will be crowned in less than an hour.

The big mystery, of course, is the absence of David Brooks. Could there be some sort of sneaky thing going on whereby Brooks will win and Friedman will be proclaimed wanker emeritus?

The one entry among the top ten I disagree with is Diane Sawyer at Number 7. It’s not that I’m an admirer of Ms. Sawyer, but I don’t think she has said enough of anything -- stupid, smart or in-between -- to be a serious contestant. Atrios put her there for only one incident, her interview with the Dixie Chicks after they suggested they weren’t especially proud of George Bush. It was fatuous, I’ll admit, but I don’t think it was enough.

List-making is a great American pastime, and I suppose this one is innocent enough. My guess is that all the people on it are proud of being there, with, perhaps, the exception of Diane Sawyer. She may not get the spirit of the whole thing.

Somebody should give the top ten a banquet so they can mingle together and discover what they have in common. Diane Sawyer would probably come, while professing not to know what it was all about.

•••••

We had a good discussion last night at the Johnson Society. I found I was not as far removed by my negativism towards “groupism” as I had supposed. One of our members expressed our collective agreement best by saying that it’s healthy to free oneself from group identity but that most of us will never be able to do it completely. I suspect he’s right, though I retain my hopes.

Probably our most active discussion focused on E.M.Forster’s famous declaration: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”  People made up hypothetical situations and asked the others how they would respond to it.

Someone asked me if I had been friends with Richard Speck and the FBI came to ask me what I knew of his whereabouts, what I would do. I had a hard time imagining being friends with Richard, but I had to admit if that were the case, I would probably have responded uncharacteristically, and instead of telling the FBI that I had nothing to say to them, I would have let on what I knew about Richard’s location. The details always determine one’s interaction with abstract propositions. That why I don’t regard hypotheses about supposed moral difficulties as being very useful.

We talked a bit about the phrase, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” and agreed that if it were followed religiously it would be likely to stunt one’s adult development.

“We concluded that local devotions, expressed by such sayings as, “I’m a Tar Heel born and a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead,” were mostly innocuous, but that if they held one back from making critical political judgments they could become a bother.

All in all, we were in a fair degree of accord with one another, which was pleasant. I like to argue, it’s true -- sometimes I enjoy it immoderately -- but there are times when I enjoy just being part of the group.


April 19, 2012

I was wrong to have hope for an intriguing outcome.There were no surprises in the choice of wanker of the decade. As most expected, it went to Tom Friedman. He is the Ur-wanker, extending beyond all rivals.

I’ve been asking myself what the mental attribute is that most identifies such standing. It’s not what you might think at first, not overt stupidity, not malice, not indignation over insults to one’s class, not even pomposity, though that comes closer than most. It may even be attended by a form of idealism.

The first clue is that the award has to go to an industrious person of mediocre mind. Industry is required because if the candidate were not busy, busy, busy, he wouldn’t attract enough notice to qualify. It helps if one has written a number of books which exude an aura of deep thought but which, upon examination, turn out to be simply a stew of current prejudices. Friedman’s infatuation with “globalism” is a perfect engine for such products.

The principal conceit of persons in that category is belief in some middling ground of wisdom defined by solid people. These are persons, as we say, with their feet on the ground and their heads out of the clouds. They are not given to flights of imagination because they have no imagination. They base their prognostications solely on experience. They tend to be fairly sure that human nature is immutable, and they are firmly convinced that the only attribute deserving trust and respect is having clambered into a position of authority, usually accompanied by piles of money. The best world for them -- as, admittedly, it is for most of us -- is one which incessantly flatters persons like themselves.

Washington, D.C. is a great cauldron of such persons and consequently it is where the burgeoning wanker -- if he’s an American -- goes most often to imbibe the wisdom of the ages. His religion is faith that the solid people are always right, and when they are proved to be wrong, his faith remains unimpaired. They will be right next time, despite minor stumbles of the past. That these stumbles often involve the extinction of hundreds of thousands of persons is of little consequence. Most of them, after all, were not solid people. Scarcely anyone remembers their names. Their obituaries did not appear in the New York Times.

To be able to talk and dine with the solid people - or as some miscreants have named them, “the very important people” -- is the essence of life. And if one talks with them and dines with them enough, he is on the way to becoming one of them. At that point, if he can then appear frequently on television and have his words published in outlets of the mainstream media, wankerism -- keeping in mind the special definition which goes with the award -- is within his grasp.

•••••

I got up in the middle of the night to read that George Santayana concluded that life is confused, hideous and useless (a somewhat droopy conviction, although the first attribute is certainly correct).

Santayana, who as you’ll recall was born in 1863 and died in 1952, never felt that he belonged where he lived; he belonged somewhere else. I suspect that’s a feeling most of us have had at times, though perhaps not as intensely as Santayana did. I know that sometimes when I’m sitting on my front porch, idly watching the traffic go by, the question comes to me, “What in the world are you doing here?”

I’ve never been a great student of Santayana’s, though I’ve generally had affectionate feelings toward him. Why the latter I’m not sure.

Perhaps the most interesting thing of his I’ve read has to do with our envisioning the ultimate:

In the Gospels, for instance, we sometimes find the kingdom of heaven illustrated by principles drawn from observation of this world rather than from an ideal conception of justice; as when we hear that to him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Such characterizations appeal to our sense of fact. They remind us that the God we are seeking is present and active, that he is the living God; they are doubtless necessary if we are to keep religion from passing into a mere idealism and God into the vanishing point of our thought and endeavour. For we naturally seek to express his awful actuality, his unchallengeable power, no less than his holiness and his beauty 

It’s an idea I’ve encountered, in a variety of forms, in many places. And I’ve never quite understood it. Why is it that we should seek an “awful actuality” rather than something that might appear to be better? I think I understand the arguments against utopias, the dangers in lusting for them, for example. I tend to agree with them -- the arguments, that is. But that has not changed my recognition that time works, and therefore that a thing which is actual can, with the passage of years, become less actual. Given that actuality evolves why should we not attempt to steer it, to the degree we are able?

Of course, the general idea is that God does not evolve. I guess that’s the reason he appeals to many people and troubles me quite a bit.


April 20, 2012

The American use of drone aircraft to kill people in a number of nations around the world has recently got more attention than it did for a while. In just the past two days, I have read articles by Greg Miller, Jefferson Morely, Chris Floyd, Michael Hastings, and Glenn Greenwald. They all tell about the same story.

The Obama administration seems to have become addicted to these devices and a subculture has built up around their use, including inside language, such as “bug splat” to refer to people slaughtered by drones. I read that when Rahm Emmanuel was chief of staff at the White House, the first question he asked in the morning was, “Who did we get today?”

Now David Petraeus at the CIA has asked for permission to conduct “signature” strikes. What are they? It means bombing the kind of groups where the CIA thinks members of al-Qaeda might be mingling, a wedding, for example. It’s a policy, as one reporter said, of killing the known innocent in order, maybe, to get one or two of the suspected guilty.

The most interesting thing about the drone policy is that it arouses little interest and less controversy among the majority of U.S. citizens. There are a small number of Americans who find it horrendous -- and exceedingly counterproductive -- but they are so few government officials don’t need to worry about them.

One of the most persistent and widespread myths circulating in the United States is that the government is ruthless and corrupt but that virtually all ordinary citizens are honest and fair-minded. I have thought for decades that was nonsense, but nothing more convinces me I was right than the public response -- or you might say non-response -- to the epidemic of drone killings being carried out by our government in at least a half-dozen countries in the Middle East and Asia.

It also appears to be the case, by the way, that a number of police departments inside the United States are showing interest in using drones to conduct their business. Once something becomes prestigious, lots of people want to get in on it.

•••••

The Hunger Games surprised me. That’s because I had read nothing about Suzanne Collins’s novel before I went to see the movie. The latter is far more an exercise in social commentary and less a blow’em up adventure than I had expected.

Dystopian societies have been for a long time a topic for Hollywood treatment. I recall that when I saw Terry Gilliam’s Brazil back in 1985, it left me with a chilly sensation in my spine. The Hunger Games produced close to the same effect. In the latter case the response was enhanced by having virtually every element of social sickness depicted in the film linked to developments occurring in the United States right now. It’s just that in their current manifestations they haven’t reached the state of near-perfection the movie version gives us.

A popular lust for murderous entertainment, rapaciously vulgar television shows, the sacrifice of the young for social glory, nauseatingly saccharine patriotism, the repression of the majority by the one percent, ghastly ways of making money, and decadent wallowing in luxury are the features highlighted in the film.

I’m not interested in writing a full-scale review today. Besides, you can easily get hundreds of reviews laying out the movie’s plot, and you have probably already read a number of them. So I’ll just say I thought the film was much better made than I anticipated, the acting was quite good, the lead actress Jennifer Lawrence deserves the praise she has received, and the depiction of the depraved society really was depraved in its own brilliant, if somewhat over-the-top, way.

I’m glad there will be sequels, and I’ll go see them when they arrive.


April 21, 2012

Amazon yesterday sent me notice of a book that will tell me what I can know about the Rapture “for certain.” It turns out that Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice “have assembled a team of longtime Bible prophecy experts” who will give us the latest word on all things Raptural (I know this isn’t a proper adjective, but I have a fondness for it).

Mr. Ice is the executive director of the “Pre-Trib Research Center” at Liberty University. He and like-minded colleagues have discovered through careful scanning of Scripture that the Rapture will occur before the Great Tribulation takes hold (Hence “pre-trib”). I’m not fully up on these things but I have been able to find out that there is a disagreement among certain theologians about whether the Rapture will precede or come after the Tribulation, that is, the time of great troubles which has to take place before all this earthly business is wound up.

In any case, the book that Mr. Ice and Mr. LaHaye have put together, in addition to letting us know what’s certain, will also explain the remaining uncertainties in a way to show us that “God knows what He is doing.” Reading this was a big relief to me, because, just think: if God didn’t know what he’s doing, things would get completely messed up.

I suppose it’s probably the case that even people who aren’t conversant with the details of the Rapture feel some assurance that God knows what he’s doing, his being God and all (at least in their minds). Still, it’s always comforting to have an extra bit of evidence.

The Popular Handbook on the Rapture will be released on May 1st; I hope the event doesn’t happen before then.

•••••

That we live in a nation that’s declining, with respect to the conditions we have customarily associated with national health, seems clear to me. All the thrashing about in an attempt to maintain dominant military power is a sign of desperation, not of confidence. And it’s leading to weakness so far as a wholesome national life is concerned. The surrendering of former ideals which we have said actually define the nation, such things as the rule of law and right of every citizen to defend himself against charges in an impartial court of law, because we are fearful and too confused to know what else to do other than acquiesce in a tiny minority’s indifference to fairness, are strong evidence of decay. They are signs that a majority of the people have given up and given in.

Is this a thing to be regretted, or not? I confess, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it probably will lead in the near future to greater injustice within our borders. On the other, the United States has obviously become so swathed in hubris that there needs to be a turn around lest a continued growth in physical power produces even more suffering and misery for the world than we are destined already to inflict.

My hope is that the depredations of callous power in the hands of the rich and those obsessed with the maintenance of the surveillance state, leading to a decline in the quality of life for the majority of citizens, will become inescapably evident more quickly than anyone expects at the moment. It’s as though the American people need to have their faces rubbed in it. Still, I don’t guess I’m yet quite willing to see a complete takeover of government by the Republicans in order to accelerate the lesson.

My problem is, I don’t have a good sense of the people’s internal resources. When they can’t fool themselves any longer, or keep on stomaching the odious, supposedly patriotic propaganda sloshed over them, will they decide to assert themselves or will they simply crumple in despair? I wish I had a strong inkling, but I don’t.

Some who are caught up in democratic idealism argue we have to put our faith in the people. But I don’t even know what that means. It’s hard to conclude on the basis of “faith” that, all of a sudden, large numbers of people will start to activate their minds, will reach out towards intellectual integrity. One needs evidence for that kind of assumption, not faith. I see tiny sparks of evidence now, but not a flame.

I suppose the immediate future mainly comes down to whether people chose to live modestly, fairly and decently alongside other people who are living in a similar manner, or whether they stick with the adolescent illusion that vast wealth can transform their lives not only for the better but transcendentally, and that each one of them has the chance to hit it big. The truth, of course, is that people will go on living in some fashion regardless of the so-called grandeur of the nation. They’ll eat, and engage in romance, and try to have some fun. But if they don’t take hold of public well-being with greater firmness, life could get to be considerably more grimy in the coming decades than it has been for sometime.


April 23, 2012

The seventh section of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, titled “Something for the industrious” makes a very strong point about the weakness of historical investigation. I, myself, have thought, from even the time before I began reading Nietzsche seriously, that the professional manifestations of social science and history have shied away from looking at the questions we most need answered. Lately, there have been tentative moves in the right direction but for the most part they have been made by journalists who, at best, raise provocative questions without much digging into evidence that could help us approach answers.

If I were going to make a blanket title for these neglected issues I’d suggest: “Why is it that people believe what they believe and how are their actions affected by their beliefs?”

Professionalism, of course, requires results in order to get on with its main business of bestowing rewards. That’s the reason why Nietzsche’s term, “something for the industrious” is so apt. Not only is the evidence applicable to the most serious questions hard to come by, but weighing it requires subtle thought, so that neither acquiring the evidence nor assessing it fits well with the rush-rush of an ambitious person’s career. The sad truth is you are unlikely to acquire a full professorship by asking the important questions.

What are some of these? Nietzsche’s list is pretty good.

So far, all that has given color to existence still lacks a history. Where could you
find a history of love, of avarice, of envy, of conscience, of pious respect for tradition,
or of cruelty? Even a comparative history of law or at least of punishment is so far
lacking completely. Has anyone made a study of the different ways of dividing up
the day or of the consequences of a regular schedule of work, festivals, and the rest?
What is known of the moral effects of different foods? Is there any philosophy of
nutrition? .... Has anyone collected men’s experiences of living together -- in
monasteries, for example? Has the dialectic of marriage and friendship ever been
explicated? Have the manners of scholars, of businessmen, artists, or artisans been
studied and thought about? There is so much in them to think about.

I’ll admit that in the 130 years since these thoughts were offered to the world there have been a few halting efforts in the directions suggested. Yet the main thrust of scholarship still veers away from addressing the issues that might help us decide more intelligently how to live. For example, why do we not have full-scale historical studies about why the United States remains the most punitively minded nation among those that are considered to be economically developed? Why does the unhampered possession and use of guns continue as a major political issue in the U.S.? Why have the curricula of American colleges and universities turned so sharply towards job preparation and away from reflections on human meaning? Why is television programming increasingly a vulgar mess? (this applies to the whole world, of course, and not just to the United States). What accounts for the growing resentment towards science and social analysis among large sectors of the American public? Why do Americans demand larger and less efficient cars and trucks than most other people do? How is it that the American people provide the largest market for mind-altering drugs in the world? What is the condition of friendship in America today and why do so many think they don’t have time for it? Why have Americans concluded that they need to schedule most of the time of infants and toddlers? Why are Americans more favorable towards the collection of vast wealth in a few hands than most other developed countries are? Why do we not look seriously at how money is used by persons who have accumulated far more than they can spend on personal luxury? The list is virtually endless, and anyone can compile his own set of issues that appear significant and yet get only slight attention?

It’s not that these questions are not raised, or that opinions about them are not offered. It’s rather that they are not worked on very hard, and that they do not form the agenda of the prestigious professions.

Do our privileged classes avoid them only because they are hard and complicated? Or might there be other reasons, reasons the established order is reluctant to face?


April 24, 2012

In Section 31 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche suggested a future possibility that now seems almost to have come to pass. He says the esteem for politics might undergo a total change, that someday people might find it so common, so vulgar that it would be classified as “prostitution of the spirit.”

Are we there yet? It seems to me we are quite close. The way a current political career requires slavering after support money is only the most obvious feature of political vulgarity. The worst feature is the manner in which virtually all political actors will suppress their own values and ideals -- if indeed they have any -- in order to give the appearance of catering to the lowest impulses of their potential supporters. Mitt Romney’s campaign has given us the fullest demonstration yet of that practice. If that’s not prostitution of the spirit, then nothing is.

•••••

I find my tolerance for the falsehood of advertising to be on the decrease. The ads for drugs which run constantly on the early evening political talk shows are particularly disgusting. Maybe they have been designed to fit with the content of the programs.

Consequently, I enjoyed reading Lewis Lapham’s lead essay for the spring edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, titled “Word Order.” In it he points out that the purpose of advertising is to nurture foolish thoughts, and he quotes Toni Morrison from her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where she spoke of modern commercial language as “dumb, predatory, sentimental.”  I was glad to see “sentimental” included in the trio. The attempt by advertisers to appeal to soppy emotions may be the most nauseating thing about them.

Advertising leads the modern assault on language, with political discourse being not far behind (but then, I guess we should recognize that political discourse is advertising, and nothing else).

Lapham also quotes South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, commenting on the nature of government propaganda during the days of apartheid. It was like the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking in the wooden orifice to produce the wooden sing-song praises to the big bang-bang and the fluttering flag.” I doubt I’ll be able to get the “wooden tongue” image out of my mind as I observe the rest of the U.S. campaign season.

The politicians have strong faith that the people will never awake to the vileness of the speech being spewed at them. And I can’t be sure they’re wrong. But it seems at least plausible to hope that the verbal diarrhea of both commerce and politics will become so stomach-churning  most will no longer be able to ingest it.

•••••

I read a short comment about Steve Doocy of Fox News and how he seems deliberately to have misquoted President Obama’s remarks about silver spoons. I haven’t seen much of Doocy, but I’ve seen enough to know he falls into a category that I have resisted thinking of as real but which is gradually forcing itself upon me. I’m speaking of persons whose minds are so immersed in bigoted propaganda that they can’t function as thinking entities. They say what they do as a result of the currents they have submerged themselves in. No active brainwork goes into their utterances.

Liberals generally make a mistake by showing indignation towards such voices. It’s not a good way to counter what they say (liberals are far too much addicted to indignation generally).

If a person’s mind is on autopilot, he moves outside the realm of responsibility. There’s no sense in arguing with him nor is there any sense in getting angry. He should be regarded as a cat chasing birds; he can do no other.

I admit that we should be careful in placing anyone in the realm beyond responsibility. We shouldn’t put people there just because we disagree with them. But when they’re identical to recordings, it’s useless to try to engage them or even to respond to them with any emotion. They’re like potholes. We don’t like them but it makes no sense to curse them.

Doocy is such a person, as is Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. But there are people with whom I usually disagree strongly that I wouldn’t place over the line, Bill O’Reilly, for example, or Bill Kristol, or Charles Krauthammer (though about the latter, I’m unsure).

The criterion distinguishing between in and out is whether it’s conceivable that a person could engage in conversation. I think I probably could converse with O’Reilly, though it would be frustrating. But with Doocy, the attempt would just be a joke. It might be amusing but it wouldn’t be conversational.

We spend too much time worrying about these outside-responsibility brains. They’re not worth any effort. The only sensible response is indifference. The only thing to be said about Doocy is: he’s Doocy.


April 25, 2012

For more than a year now I’ve had a sentence from the 58th Section of The Gay Science posted on my closet door: “Only as creators can we destroy.”  This morning, working my way through the entire book, I read the sentence in context and came away with a somewhat different sense of it than I’ve had in mind.

I had got in the habit of thinking that only as creators do we have the right to destroy anything. That may well be true but that’s not actually what Nietzsche was saying. Rather he was proclaiming possibility. Only by making something new can we destroy something old. Furthermore, the main way we make things is to name them.

I’ve been applying that principle myself without associating it with Nietzsche -- at least not consciously. For example, about two years ago I stopped using the word “execution” to refer to the state’s taking a helpless person into a room and killing him. “Execution” carries with it a sense of thoughtfulness and legitimacy. And that sense is what I want to destroy. So I have to create a new name. In creation, it’s good to resort to basics and simplicity. So what could be better than simple “kill” or “state killing?” That, after all, is what we’re talking about. I’ve noticed by the way that others are increasingly using the same locution. I’m not so sunk in egomania as to think I’ve brought the change about. But in joining with others in adhering to it, I give it strength and thereby hasten destruction.

Once one has the principle in mind -- create in order to destroy -- many options arise.

We can speak of “war” not as defending the nation but as killing children.

We can write about “justice” -- as the word is principally employed in journalism -- not as righting wrongs but as revenge.

“Banking” can become not a means of earning money but a method for duping people (here I’m referring to what has come to be called “investment” banking.

We can describe “colleges” as what they have become, not places of education but systems designed to shape people to be plugged into the economic machine.

If we’ll think about how we name things, and use words to strengthen our perception of them, we can, gradually, begin to undercut the things we wish to see disappear from society. History teaches us it works. I think that’s what Nietzsche had in mind.

•••••

Yesterday I read James McPherson’s Antietam: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War, as preparation for going to Randolph tonight for the fourth session of our discussion series. It’s a useful book, summarizing how the events of 1862, leading to the battle on September 17th, set the stage for an outcome that was bound to be immensely significant, however it turned out.

The book is part of a series called “Crossroads of Freedom,” and as the general editor David Hackett Fischer explains in a beginning note, the purpose of the collection is to promote the idea of contingency as the shaper of history. The argument is that things didn’t have to turn out as they did. Contingency, you see, is the absence of necessity. Fischer says contingency restores “a lost element of narrative tension to historical writing.” I find that notion a little troubling, as though all the things that happened to humanity constituted a way for us to write exciting books about them now. It’s a kind of professional megalomania: humans struggle and suffer so that historians can gain a wider readership. I’m being unfair to Fischer, of course. He doesn’t really mean that. But sometimes the significance of what someone says lies not in what he means.

I have over the past several decades been a fairly active student of the Civil War. I have a reasonable grasp of the major events and of the principal characters. But as I’ve learned more I’ve come to realize more sharply that what one knows about something doesn’t control what he thinks of it -- or at least it shouldn’t.

I’m afraid that scholars of the Civil War find themselves being pushed -- mostly in unconscious ways -- to find positive significance in the events they spend their professional lives unearthing. How else can we explain the title of this series: “Crossroads of Freedom.” But is that always a good development? I’ve come to think not.

Most scholars of the Civil War acknowledge its horror and the hideous suffering that accompanied it. McPherson is particularly good in pointing out the ghastly details of what happened near the town of Sharpsburg, in Maryland, a hundred and fifty years ago. He offers us an extensive set of contemporary commentary. Yet, somehow, even that graphic description gets woven back into a muted thesis that the outcome justified the events. But how do we know? What measuring stick gives us the right to say that?

If there is some kind of computation, or weighing, which supports the judgment of worth, shouldn’t it be in the forefront of the account? Shouldn’t it be spelled out? Historians tend to be proud that they aren’t philosophers. I think it’s a misplaced pride.

And if we return to the concept of contingency, doesn’t it, in itself, proclaim that we can’t know about the overall value of an outcome because we can’t compare it to other outcomes that might just as well have come to pass?

I think history is a much more complex object of contemplation than even the best of historians, like Jim McPherson, give it credit for being.


April 27, 2012

Most scholars, and others of intellectual bent, think that finding out what a book really says is the main purpose of reading it.

Really?

I wonder what causes them to think there is such a thing as what a book really says or means. All the evidence I can find points in an opposite direction. For the past fifty years, at least, hosts of scholars have been struggling to discover what the books of Friedrich Nietzsche really mean -- one prominent book is actually titled What Nietzsche Really Said -- and there is no more agreement about it now than when the quest started.

If you think Nietzsche is too eccentric and contradictory to offer a true test, then what about the Bible? How many hours, do you suppose, has been devoted to what it really means? I doubt there is any question farther away from a consensual answer.

Then there’s this: we have no definition of “real meaning.” How could it ever be determined that the real meaning had been reached? What would be the evidence that we were there?

I’m not arguing that there’s no value in reading a book which claims to tell us what some other book really said. Depending on how intelligently it’s presented, an effort of that kind can offer perspectives a reader might not have considered. But that’s what such books are -- perspectives. There’s nothing definitive about them. We tend to evaluate them on the basis of how closely they conform to our own sensibilities.

The hope to get at what someone really said rises from the most persistent error in education, the notion that the purpose of learning is to have a mind packed with as much information as possible. Most people are so alienated from the concept of thinking for themselves they can’t imagine that the purpose of learning is to assist one in thinking. Information that lies inert in the mind, like a reserve force that is never committed to the battle, is useless. 

Every time someone tries to convince me of the real meaning of a book, as for example when my Jehovah Witness friends visit, I ask them what reading is. At first of course, they don’t know what I mean by the question. The nature of reading is generally considered self-evident. But when I simply point out that reading can be nothing other than a merger of what comes off the page and what emerges from the mind of the reader to meet it, no one has ever disagreed with me. And even when I push forward and say that, therefore, no reading can be exactly the same as any other because no mind can be exactly the same as another mind, I haven’t got any disagreement.

Even so, within five minutes of that exchange, most of my conversational partners have reverted to the idea that a book holds within it a real meaning.  They are more or less forced to revert because the social mind is soaked in the notion of a God’s eye view. Even when people don’t believe in God, they tend to believe in a God’s eye view, and the principal feature of God’s eye is that it discerns reality.

So, since there is a God’s eye view of everything, there is a reality to everything, even the meaning of a book, and the scholar’s job is to tell us what that real meaning is. I wouldn’t worry about this delusion were it not that it works to promote passive acceptance and to undermine active thought. One can argue that there’s a social wisdom in passive acceptance, that we, collectively, benefit from minds which have been formed by the testimony of authorities -- religious, political, and scholarly -- and that the inevitable result of having everyone try to think for himself, or herself, is chaos. That argument is conservatism in a nutshell and I can’t go so far as to say there’s nothing in it. It can be wearying to endure the declarations of a horde of eccentrics.

Nevertheless, I don’t support conservatism, except with respect to certain manners. In a conservative world almost no one says anything interesting. Every word you hear, for days on end, are elements of cliché. People are merely parroting the things that “are said” and it occurs to almost no one that there might be other things to be said.  Persons who adhere to such a world can be pleasant and kind, so long as they’re addressing situations the culture says are deserving of kindness. But they can also be hideously cruel, if the form of cruelty has been covered over by a cultural blanket.

In the end, I go back to the boredom of it. There’s not much fun in a truly conservative world because there’s not much liveliness. The mind finds few opportunities to play. The truth is, I would like more fun in my life, even if at times it costs a bit in equanimity. Consequently, when someone tells me what a book really says I’m going to keep on thinking he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and tell him so if I can find a way to do it in a reasonably congenial manner.


April 28, 2012

I read Steve Benen’s latest list of Mitt Romney’s lies. It’s the 15th compilation of the Republican candidate’s falsehoods. Collectively they show that Romney lies incessantly, but I think they show something else even more interesting.

The GOP frontrunner doesn’t know what it means to lie. He has no active concept of truth or falsehood. Neither figures, in any way, in his mental operations. When he gets ready to make a statement, he asks himself only one question: “How will this affect my ambitions?”

You may be thinking this is a fantastic analysis, that no person could be as divorced from truth as I say Romney is. And you would be right if I were making this claim about every aspect of his life. No one can live in total falsehood. In telling someone how to get to the grocery store, Romney is probably about as truthful as most people. It’s when his goals for position invade his thoughts that truth and falsehood are dismissed. It may be fair to say that Romney doesn’t lie consciously. It’s just that the truth of a proposition doesn’t figure in his mind when he thinks about advancing his campaign. This area of his thought is set aside from ordinary mental activity.

Does this mean that when he was no longer a campaigner his thoughts would transition to a more healthy state? I can’t be sure, but I doubt it. The problem is no office-holder is ever completely outside campaign mode. Each is always wondering how what he says will affect his standing. So when one has an intellect like Romney’s anything said as president might well be decided in that truth/falsehood vacuum.

Maybe you’re thinking that truth doesn’t matter in politics anyway. Governing has always been based on making people believe things that aren’t real. That’s true. Yet the kind of radical falsehood Romney would be likely to employ would step beyond normal political lying. When George Bush lied, he was guilty of lying. When Romney lies, he’s innocent of it. In this case, guilt is far better than innocence.

When a man lies who is innocent of it because the truth never enters his mind, he is incapable, even in the most dire circumstances, of taking anything into account other than his own advantage. Romney may be one of those rare persons capable of slaughtering millions if he thought he could make up a story that would bring him out of the horror in a more secure position. I’m not saying I know he is; I’m just saying that there’s enough evidence in that direction to cause me to hope he never gets that degree of power.

•••••

The case of Michael Morton in Texas has received a good deal of attention. But it deserves to get more.

Morton served twenty-five years in prison for murdering his wife. It was recently proved that he didn’t do it. But the interesting thing about the case is that the prosecutorial team suppressed evidence that if it had been brought into court would almost surely have produced a non-guilty verdict.

The prosecutor, Ken Anderson, who is now a judge, says it was all just a mistake. He regrets the error, he says. And he probably does now that it has been brought to light. But there’s no evidence he regretted it over the past quarter-century. And it is very hard to believe he didn’t know about it.

A court of inquiry is now due to convene to examine the prosecutor’s behavior in the case. Needless to say, this will be a rare event. For the most part, false prosecutions, when they are discovered years later, are simply brushed aside.

I don’t know how public consciousness can be raised about prosecutorial misconduct in America. There have been dozens of cases reported and yet the basic system just rolls forward.

Most knowledgeable observers think that even if loss of the prosecutors’ law licenses were the maximum penalty in such cases, it would reduce reckless prosecutions markedly. That seems a small thing in the face of the horrible injustices prosecutors have repeatedly visited on innocent suspects. And, yet, it will be very hard to get even that degree of sanction for blatant misconduct.

That says something about us and our criminal justice system that’s not at all happy.


April 29, 2012

When I read over the piece I posted yesterday, about Mitt Romney and lying, I saw that I probably needed to explain more fully the state of mind I was attributing to him. I said, after all, that he was an innocent liar, and it would be understandable for someone to retort that no such thing exists. An innocent liar? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

I was trying to point out that there are various forms of innocence, and one of them is the state of being completely unaware. The human mind is capable of types of thought that aren’t often acknowledged, and that are almost never acknowledged in political discourse. One of them involves being so focused on one’s goals that no broader considerations can penetrate consciousness. I suspect this is a frame of mind that afflicts politicians more frequently than it does the general public. It’s one of the reasons we find politicians so peculiar. They don’t think like most of us do.

I’m not sure politicians use falsehood more often than do persons in other walks of life. But I do think politicians are more unaware of their own falseness than other people are. Running for public office is a heady business. It can function as a hallucinogen. It can wipe away all thoughts except thoughts of success. And, of course, it functions that way more strongly for some people than it does for others. I suspect it operates in that manner more totally for Mitt Romney than it has for any major politician we’ve seen for quite a while. When, for example, he charges that Barack Obama apologizes for America I don’t think the truthfulness or falseness of the proposition ever enters his mind. It’s a line he can use. It’s a line he thinks will bolster his campaign. That’s all it is, nothing more.

The question for voters is whether a person who can subordinate everything -- and I mean everything -- to what he wants is the sort of character we need in a president. It’s a quality which may be useful in someone who’s trying to devise a computer program. But it seems to me that presidents need to be able to take account of a variety of factors and weigh benefits and costs against one another. Most of all they need an undergirding sanity which holds them back from using the full power of their office, regardless of any secondary effects, to get what they’re after at the moment.

Romney’s behavior as a candidate causes me to doubt he has that brand of sanity. His manner of simply brushing the truth aside, as a thing of no consequence, tells me that in a crisis he would be likely to concentrate on the wrong things, or leave out essential things. I don’t think we should take the kind of chance his psyche offers us. The vacancy that comes over his face when he is asked certain sorts of questions only strengthens my suspicions.

•••••

In the New York Review “Blog,” Tim Parks suggests that the reason readers have differing responses to books lies in the conversations that took place in their families. He cites the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio in arguing that family conversations establish various modes of praise and criticism, out of which a dominant theme or issue will emerge. If the theme you got from your family engages the subject matter of a book, you’ll find it interesting; if not, you’re unlikely to see the point.

I’m not so sure about this. I’ve been trying to think what was praised or criticized in my family and the truth is I can’t remember much. It seems to be the case that many families have ongoing discussions about right and wrong and it may well be that these determine what their members will find significant in later life. But I suspect that many families are like mine, in which there is little moral concern expressed about anything. I suppose I received from my upbringing the notion that it was somewhat bad to be mean to people but beyond that I can’t recall much talk about moral issues, or much characterization of good or bad people. Of course, this may just be the result of a bad memory on my part. Yet I do recall a great deal of talk about what was good to eat, and what we would like to have if more money had been available, which it never was.

I’m having a hard time extracting a dominant theme from the conversation in my family when I was a child. It’s even more difficult to imagine an issue from that setting which has shaped my intellectual tastes as an adult. Maybe that’s why I was slow in developing tastes. I’ve been a very late learner.

I certainly don’t want to deny that experiences in early youth influence later life. I’m sure they do. On the other hand, I’m leery of the idea that the child determines the adult. What about the possibility that as we proceed through life each experience, each lesson, contributes to the self that moves on from that time? Is that an insane notion? I know about the bent twig, and all that, but it seems to me unnecessarily constricting to believe that one’s life is pretty well set by the time he’s five years old. I like to entertain the possibility that a book I wouldn’t much like tomorrow I might like very well ten years from now. That concept opens a lot more books to me, and I would like to look into as many as I can.


April 30, 2012

Section 203 of The Gay Science is the best description of a modern American Republican I have seen: “Usually he has no thoughts in his head, but in exceptional cases he has nasty thoughts.”

•••••

Yesterday on Philosophy Bits I listened to an interview with David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy from Australia, on “the singularity.” This is a term which seems to have originated in science fiction. It signifies the point at which machines will become more intelligent than humans, and, because they are much faster than we are, will produce ever more intelligent machines at an increasing rate. Obviously, then, it will be a takeoff point to an unimaginable future.

Chalmers says some knowledgeable people think it is likely to be reached by 2040. He, himself, says he would be surprised if it didn’t happen by the end of this century. But from a philosophical point of view it doesn’t matter if it comes a few decades earlier or later. The interesting thought is that it’s coming. That sets us to thinking about what it might mean.

The obvious answer is that nobody knows, but we can speculate about the various paths that might be taken once the singularity has occurred. The big question is whether machines will continue to be friendly to humans or will take off on their own with no concern about the fate of humanity. If the latter were to occur, than creatures like us would have little chance of survival, that is unless the machines developed a historical bent and decided to keep us around as living atavisms.

In the beginning the machines, still under some influence from their inventors, might do things like cure cancer and solve the energy problem. That sounds good. But then they might conclude that such problems wouldn’t exist if there were no humans to suffer from them. Logic then could suggest eliminating the source.

Another thing that surely will occur, early on, is some degree of amalgamation. It’s already occurring to a small degree. Humans, if they wish to survive, would be wise to hurry that along. If the machines were combined with human elements they would probably be less likely simply to follow a completely separate course. The idea of their having their own purposes requires some sort of machine consciousness. Since we don’t actually know what consciousness is in ourselves it’s very hard to think about how machines might develop it.

In any case, all this suggests the ending of humanity as we’ve come to think of it and the transition to something different. People who have no idea what’s going on in laboratories around the world will say that’s just nonsense but, then, that’s what ignorant people always say about anything new.

There has been, culturally, for more than a century, a sense that humanity is approaching a kind of dead end. This has been described as an overwhelming nihilism or as the advent of the hollow men. As we look at conditions in the world now, it’s hard not to find something of substance in that view. I have hoped a revolution in thinking could take place before technological innovations whirl us away to a world in which we lose the little control we have now. If stronger thinking were to come about, we might achieve a better position from which to guide technology. But whether we guide it or not, it’s going to keep on exploding.

I can’t decide, for sure, whether I want to observe the singularity or pass on before it comes along. It’s that kind of thing. In the end, I suppose curiosity would get the best of any reservation.

•••••

I noticed that Maureen Dowd says the Catholic Church is run by “crepuscular, medieval men.” I’ve always thought the word “crepuscular” is fascinating because the sound of it outruns its meaning. To say that something is like the twilight doesn’t necessarily make it bad, or creepy. But when you call something “crepuscular,” the connotations, driven by the sound, take over. You would never use the word to convey a compliment.

Every now and then, I try to imagine being inside the mind of man who is a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. I suppose it’s only fair to suppose there’s variety among these princes of the organization. But there has to be some similarity too. And it’s with respect to the latter where my imagination fails me. I seem to have no ability to conjecture about what’s going on inside their heads. I would feel so bizarre doing what they do (and dressing as they dress) that I probably couldn’t get my thoughts directed to anything else.

I have heard people say that the Church, in its wholeness, rises above them. And that may be the case. But it still leaves the puzzle of who, and what, they are.

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