Collected Thoughts

May 2012
May 1, 2012

From my survey of newspapers and web postings, I estimate that about 15% of the American public does not glory in the killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s only honest to confess I place myself among that number. President Obama and his minions care nothing for us since they know we will give him our votes because the Republican alternative is worse than he is. That’s just political reality.

Personal stance on killing is perhaps the most interesting phenomenon in America now. It seems fairly clear that killing other human beings is more popular among Americans than it is among the residents of countries considered similar to us. When I have visited some of those countries, I have been asked on several occasions why Americans are so ready to select killing as a means of solving problems, and I have had to admit that I have no definitive answer. I suspect American religiosity has something to do with it, but exactly how that works is a terrible tangle.

There appears to be a movement either to abolish or severely to restrict the use of the death penalty in the United States. But that’s mainly because it’s an expensive process, because it is selectively applied, and because it inevitably results in killing innocent people. One sees relatively few arguments opposing it because it’s inherently odious.

A comic feature of debates over various forms of killing -- in war, in criminal justice proceedings, as revenge, and so forth -- is that people invariably try to introduce a social rationale for their stance. This is almost entirely nonsense and, besides, it never explains why one takes the position he does. The true reason one supports killing is that he likes the thought of doing away with certain persons, or categories of persons. He enjoys imagining the actual obliteration. One is opposed to killing because when he imagines the moment of taking life away he is disgusted. The debate turns on differing imaginations. That’s it.

I have explained this to various people and almost always they get mad at me. Their response strikes me as strong evidence that I’m right.

I don’t know what can change people’s imagination about killing. I once thought that if they could be forced to observe it close up they would be likely to turn against it. But more and more I see that’s naive. For some it might increase their desire.

I suspect -- but this could be just wishful thinking -- that over time, the desire to kill people (bad people, of course) will lessen, even in America. The generation rising toward maturity appears to  be more likely to oppose killing than their parents or grandparents were. At the moment, though, we can’t be sure if this is just a passing thing.

I tell myself I enjoy the company of persons who dislike killing more than I like being with those who relish it. I think that’s true, but even there I’m not perfectly sure. Bloodthirstiness is a curious and confusing condition.


I missed last Sunday’s 60 Minutes, where Leslie Stahl interviewed Jose Rodriguez, whose book Hard Measures is creating quite a stir. So, to catch up, I just watched a web clip of the first part of the conversation.

Mr. Rodriguez was the CIA’s covert operations office who oversaw the interrogation of several al Qaeda captives in 2002, and who subsequently destroyed tapes showing what was done to these men, destroyed them despite explicit court orders to the CIA directing that no evidence of that sort be expunged.

I have read several comments on the interview which argued that Rodriguez obviously revealed himself as a psychopath. Not being clear what a psychopath is, I find myself unable to testify on that point. But the interview, nevertheless, was revealing. It gave us a pretty good profile of the psychological type likely to rise to the top in the “dark side” of CIA operations (the dark side remark is not my charge; during the interview Rodriguez said explicitly, “We are the dark side.”).

The thing that impressed me first was Rodriguez’s immaturity of mind. He views the world in black/white terms, and he sees himself as a good guy hero riding in to use whatever measures are necessary to stand up for the good side. In other words, he has not a scintilla of self-critical capacity. He has no breadth of perception. He can’t even begin to imagine side effects.
Maybe that’s what some people want in a CIA dark-side operative. Maybe subtlety is considered a bad quality in doing what Rodriguez does. If that’s the stance then they had the right man.

The second major quality is that in his own mind Rodriguez creates the truth by saying what he says. Once it’s out of his mouth it’s as though the Lord had engraved it on an adamantine plate. The FBI said that Rodriguez’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” produced no useful information that ordinary question-asking had not already produced. The things said by the prisoner being tortured simply sent U.S. officials on wild goose chases around the world, wasting millions of dollars. That’s not true claimed Rodriguez, and once he said it, I doubt there is any evidence that could ever be adduced to qualify it in his mind. He didn’t give the impression of being a man much concerned with the weighing of evidence.

As I say, there are doubtless government supervisors who prize men like Rodriguez. He’s exactly what we need in tough situations they will conclude. That’s one judgment. But I think it ought to be complemented by the recognition that there is no disaster, no matter how dire, that Rodriguez wouldn’t launch if he got it in his head that he was doing something heroic. He’s obsessed with being a hero. If you think the world is exactly like the environment depicted on the TV series 24, then I guess Rodriguez is your choice. But if you suspect the world has complexities 24 never plumbed, then you might be wise to check out somebody else.

May 2, 2012

I see that Michael Sandel is out with a new book: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. His argument is that during the era of “market triumphalism,” the time ushered in by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we moved from being a market economy to being a market society. What does that mean? It means virtually everything is for sale.

In Sandel’s view, this is not a good situation. Not only does the commodification of everything sharpen the sting of inequality, but putting a price on the good things of life can -- and usually does -- corrupt them. Perhaps we’re not yet to the point where people can openly buy and sell children, or votes, but we appear to be moving in that direction.

What’s the cure? Here’s where I think Sandel fails to dig deep enough. He wants us to reason together, in public about the social goods we prize. Our political system, at the moment is not allowing us to do that. As he says, “Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with the big questions that people care about.”

Do people care about big questions? What are they, then? And where do we find the people who care about them? Obviously, there are persons who try to think seriously about life’s meaning, and how we should use our efforts and resources, and what should matter most. Yet I doubt they begin to approach a majority. A much larger number are like children at a fair, feeding their nickels into a machine where an automated arm pretends to pick up prizes and dump them onto a ramp leading outside. But most of the time, the arm drops the toy before it gets over the escape ramp. And even on those few occasions when the toy emerges, it turns out to be cheap junk. In either case, all the kid’s nickels are gone.

When people reason together in public, what they reason about is how to drop the nickels, or which machine to drop them in.

I’ll admit that in America there are numbers of groups and institutions who are saying, “Get away from those machines. Spend your nickels on something you’ll really enjoy.” But generally they’re overwhelmed by the guys with money who own the machines and who scream, incessantly, “Next time! Next time!”

Thinkers of Sandel’s persuasion keep saying, “Put your faith in the people. When they really get to talking, they’ll teach each other about what counts.” That strikes me as almost as bloated an illusion as the belief you’ll finally hit it big with the machines. People are made by the environment which envelops them. And there is little in our general environment to nudge the general population towards the values Sandel would consider good.

Talking with friends at lunch yesterday about Sandel’s book, I found myself saying, in effect,
“We need to get out of the dominant social environment, and find ourselves a perch from which we can watch it but avoid letting it catch us up or sweep us away.”

I’m afraid the only way to get out is to step away from the public religion’s professed faith in democracy. The wisdom of the people, as a whole, is not going to save us. I don’t discount how hard reaching that decision is. I was once as strong a believer in the public faith as anyone. But the time has come to disenthrall myself.

I’m not going to stop voting; elections can make some difference. I’m not going to move to a sod hut in the far northern regions of Canada and try to merge with nature. Outwardly, I probably won’t be much different from what I have been. But in my mind I’m going to attempt to wash away the sentimental tripe designed to keep me dropping my nickels. I’m not going to support our troops. I’m not going to believe in a national political party as the solution to our difficulties. I’m not going to think that putting the right man in the White House will change everything. I’m not going to take solace in the notion that Americans may make some mistakes but that, in the end, they always come through. I’m not going to believe in any kind of nationalistic destiny. I’m not ever going to tell myself that all the people want this or that, or stand for this that. I’m not going to love market capitalism. I’m going to hope to have enough courage not to worry about what the herd thinks of me (which, of course, is a kind of arrogance because they don’t think of me at all; but still I’m going to hope).

I am going to try to find new friends and, more important, try to be loyal to the ones I have. And I’ll keep wishing that some of the seemingly small efforts people are launching will strike sparks.

Books like What Money Can’t Buy are interesting, and they may do moderate good. But they don’t go down far enough. They don’t reach for the roots of public corruption and the people’s indifference. They want, too much, to hold onto comforting illusions. We have to give those up if there’s to be a chance of erecting a healthy public arena -- assuming that such a project is not itself a gigantic delusion.

May 3, 2012

In Truthout, Henry Giroux posts incredibly prolix and abstract denunciations of the warfare state (see “Violence USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life” from yesterday). Most of what he says is as true as abstractions can get but it’s a truth that’s unlikely to have much effect. I don’t like criticizing him because he’s on the right side and there aren’t enough there. Still he’s flailing in a way that won’t much weaken the thing he wants to bring down.

The left has been carrying on in this manner for goodness knows how long and the result is pitiful.

When someone wants intensely to do something good but never seems quite to manage it, the reason is usually a bad idea. In this case, the bad idea is the notion that the warfare state is driven by evil. We need to get over the concept of evil people. It’s not useful in any way.

It’s true that the results of the warfare state are evil. It causes misery for millions. But it’s senseless to imply that the people who promote it are evil. They aren’t minions of Satan (mainly because there is no Satan). Rather, they are juvenile, confused, and silly. Think of David Petraeus strutting around in his little uniform (which I guess he’s not allowed to wear anymore). Is he evil? No. Is he ridiculous? Obviously.

What’s the best thing for people who are ridiculous? Mainly, it’s laughter. They want desperately to be viewed as serious. And the cure for them is to demonstrate that their concepts of seriousness are absurd.

There probably is some good in showing the results of what they wreak. I’ve got nothing against that. If photographs can be had of what happens when a drone missile hits a rural village, they ought to be publicized. But the healthy treatment for those who use the drones is to highlight the quality of their minds.

Indignation of the sort that Henry Giroux and others of his school apply so liberally is not a tenth as effective as a teaspoon of sly humor. 

Our reformers need to study more carefully about the right weapons to be used.


Later today I'll get on an airplane to fly to Los Angeles, where Shirley and I will be until May 19th. I seem to have developed a bifurcated sentiment about traveling. No matter how much I want to go to my destination, I still dislike leaving where I am. And the latter feeling is strengthened if I’m leaving home.

I don’t know if other people are like this, but wherever I am, I feel myself taking a kind of possession of it. So when I have to leave, I sense that something which belongs to me is being taken away. And even when I know I can return to it, the sensation of loss remains palpable. One of my problems with frequent travel is that it stains me with a vague perception that I’ve lost numerous places I now have to grieve for.  England contains so many spots I cherish and, yet, that I may never be able to get to again, that I get down in the dumps just thinking about them. I don’t know how many more places of that character I want to add to my psyche. Los Angeles doesn’t fit in that category yet because I’ll probably go back to it again after this trip.

When plane travel is involved my emotions get even darker. I really dislike the ordeal the TSA has in store for me, and not just because I think it’s senseless but because I’m pretty sure it’s deliberately designed to turn the American people into sheep. Why else would someone pick your pen up out of basket, stare at you threateningly and ask you what it is? Plane travel gets ever more like a scene from a science fiction dystopia.

Still, I really do want to go to Los Angeles to visit my daughter and her husband. So I have to face down my dread. Once I’m there it may take me only 24 hours or so to shake off the feeling of humiliation travel dumped on me. Then, I’ll have a good time. I’m taking my computer with me, and if the TSA doesn’t steal it, I’ll send you notices of the delights California has reserved for me.

May 4, 2012

We made it to Los Angeles late last night after a long and fairly unpleasant day. I ask myself if I’m being silly to despise airport world as much as I do. After musing over and weighing the evidence, I conclude that I’m not. Airport world manifests virtually everything that’s disgusting about the modern life. It bespeaks economic privilege as the meaning of existence. It proclaims the right of authority to do anything to people without a note of explanation. It works to destroy human meaning. If I believed in Satan, I would be forced to say the language employed in airports comes straight from the Satanic headquarters. In short, airport world gives me the creeps.

Standing on an access ramp in Newark waiting for luggage to be brought up from under the plane, I heard someone say he had read a survey which rated Newark as the worst airport in America, and maybe in the world. Then at the baggage carousel in Los Angeles I heard someone else say that LAX (as it’s called in airport world) has been evaluated as the second worst airport in the United States. From the worst to the second worst for me yesterday: I guess you could say that’s progress of a sort.


This morning in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, the world had been transformed. The sun was shining; the temperature was 70 degrees. At the Gelato Coffee Shop on Hillhurst Avenue, I paid too much for a cup of coffee -- $3.00 -- but the atmosphere was pleasant and scones, also overpriced, were tasty. Then, over to Vermont Avenue, and down past the bookstore and the little theatre. There’s a restaurant there with “Barre” stenciled on the window. I asked Shirley if she thought I would get free food if I went in and told them I was from Montpelier. She said they would think I was insane. So, I didn’t go in. Thus are great enterprises squelched by propriety.

Back on Hillhurst, in Albertson’s, I noticed that the milk cartons and other packaging are identical to the ones in Shaw’s at home. Might Albertson’s and Shaw’s be part of the same monstrous financial empire? I could probably find out by going to Google, but if I discovered a connection it would be discouraging. So I’m not going to check it out.

In the Los Angeles Times this morning, Ron Brownstein has a column titled “All or Nothing Politics,” in which he compares wheeler-dealer politicking of the Lyndon Johnson era with the scorched earth campaigns of today. He implied, mildly, that the former mode was better. My trouble with Brownstein, although he’s a careful and generally truthful reporter, is that virtually everything he does is mild. I’m not saying mildness can’t be a virtue, at times, but it can also mute the distinction between sensible, well-intentioned policies and blatant bigotry and viciousness. With Brownstein it’s as though, if Group A wants this, and Group B wants that, all that really needs to be discussed is how each is faring in getting its goal. There’s too much of David Broder in him, though I don’t mean to imply that he’s as impeccably evenhanded between God and the Devil as Broder was.

I’d like to see more reporters, Brownstein included, make distinctions between policies that are worthy to be elements of compromise and those that aren’t. And if I were told that would be taking a stand, I wouldn’t feel crushed.

I’ll be in California until the 19th, and as has been my habit when I’m traveling, I’ll probably be telling you more of what I see, day by day, than I do when I’m at home. I’ll admit that gradually, in my mind, there has grown up the notion that Vermont is real world, and most other places I go are fantasy world.

I love to visit fantasy world, and the things I see there are always driving me to exclamation.

May 7, 2012

What’s wrong with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? He doesn’t want to cooperate with his own trial at Guantanamo. He seems to think it’s not a real trial, just a showy preliminary to his certain killing by the United States. What could have given him that idea? Was it merely that he was tortured for weeks on end, and subjected to waterboarding 192 times? Could it be that his not being allowed to talk to his own lawyer has convinced him that there’s no intention to provide him with a genuine defense? He doesn’t seem to grasp the sanctity of the U.S. judicial process. There are so many unreasonable people in the world that we Americans are having a hard time convincing all of them that all we really care about are truth and justice. Judge James Pohl has his hands full making that case to the world.


This morning we -- that is Shirley and I -- took a long walk to the west, several blocks past Vermont Avenue, and then south to Sunset Boulevard where, having turned back east, we discovered the gigantic blue Scientology complex, surrounding the Scientology Church, bordered on the east side by L. Ron Hubbard Avenue. What a sight!

When I say blue, by the way, I mean really blue.

I stood on Sunset Boulevard for a long time and asked myself what might be happening on the other sides of the hundreds of windows I saw. And I realized I had no idea.

Tomorrow, if my intention holds, I’m going back to Sunset Boulevard with my camera to take photographs of the great Scientology pile. Then I’ll work up a little “Out and About” item and post it for your delectation.

May 9, 2012

Yesterday we ventured into the heart of Hollywood, and at the Chinese Theatre saw Jesus Henry Christ.

It’s impossible to estimate how many movies and novels have been built around the theme of a man so obsessed with his career that he can’t imagine anything else in life until he discovers his life is falling apart because he has neglected the things that really count. But just because the theme is hackneyed doesn’t mean the movie has to be. And in this case we have something quite fresh and ultimately endearing.

I noticed on Rotten Tomatoes that only 51% of viewers liked the film. That’s a good sign for a movie like this because it indicates that it’s not broad enough in its humor to engage the whole of the great American public. But nothing that’s actually sharp can do that in any case. This film has some genuinely funny scenes, better than anything you’ll ever see on Jay Leno. I don’t want to be snide about this because there are times when I enjoy broad humor, and even times when I like Jay Leno. But I do think it’s engaging, at times, to see someone trying for something different.

The distinctive feature in Jesus Henry Christ is a ten year old boy genius who was produced by his mother’s acquisition of a sperm donation from a bright guy. The donor is nowhere near as intelligent as the result of the donation but, still, bright enough, to make the product believable.

The boy actually is a kind of Christ figure in that he sees and speaks the truth with no concern for the truth’s being hated by most people, and, in particular, by school administrators. On his first day of school, in kindergarten, he is suspended for showing he knows what’s going on. The good part of Henry’s Christ-like being, though, is that he’s also likable enough to escape any kind of serious crucifixion. Think of it. Supposing we had had Jesus without the crucifixion. We might have been spared tons of droopy theology.

I doubt that Jesus Henry Christ will ever rise above the 51% approval rating, and critics will doubtless have many snobby things to say about it. But my advice is to go see it if you get a chance.


There’s a quite good bookstore on Vermont Avenue, not quite a mile from my daughter’s apartment. I’ve visited Skylight Books almost every day I’ve been here. But it presents me with a moral problem.

Like most independent bookstores, Skylight Books has to sell its books at retail prices. And I have the feeling I can’t afford to pay that much. Consider these books for example:

Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of the Apocalypse (a paperback book for $19.95)

Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche (hardback, $26.95)

Robert Pippin, ed., Introductions to Nietzsche (hardback, $27.99)

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (hardback, $30.00)

If you consider just these four books, all of which I would like to have, the total retail price is
$104.89. If, however, I got them on Kindle, the price, collectively, would be $44.98. In other words, buying then from Skylight Books costs 233% as much as getting them electronically. Can I afford to pay more than twice as much?  I’d like to support independent stores. But twice as much?

I confess, I don’t know what to do. It’s situations like this that make me wish I were rich.

May 10, 2012

It turned out that the evening after I mused about the moral problem of buying books, I went to a reading by Ann Patchett at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Lately Ms. Patchett has been getting publicity not only for her success as a novelist but also for having set up a new bookstore in her home town of Nashville. It seems that prior to Ms.Patchett’s action, the former Athens of the West had descended to having no bookstore at all, a condition I consider fairly astounding.

Ms. Patchett delivered a good humored but passionate appeal for the community services provided by independent bookstores, using as an example the very reading we were attending that night. She reminded us that if we want institutions of that kind to be available we have to be willing to pay five or ten dollars more per purchase at a bookstore than we would if we made it from Amazon. She also noted that if anybody came to Parnassus Books in Nashville to look at a book and then bought it from Amazon, he would be killed. I think that was a joke.

In the spirit of the evening, and to support Vroman’s, my wife bought a copy of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, and got her to sign it, which she did in a firm, clear hand. Though the event was supposed to be a promotion for the paperback edition of the book, and though Patchett did read a short section from it, her remarks concentrated more on bookstores, and on her general habits of writing, than on this particular novel, her eighth.

It was a pleasant evening. Ann Patchett is an accomplished, witty speaker, and clearly she sought to entertain as well as inform. And she succeeded. Even so, I went away still uncertain about where and how to buy my books. I have a suspicion that if I went to the Parnassus Bookstore, I wouldn’t find many of the volumes I would be interested in seeing. I fear that the days of bookstores with truly expansive inventories are over. Even Vroman’s, which is huge by normal bookstore standards, has limited offerings in areas serious readers want to explore. That’s not to say that local bookstores aren’t healthful social institutions. They certainly are. But the convenience of being able to get a book I can’t find in a bookstore by looking for it on the internet means that a considerable portion of my book buying will continue to be done that way, even if it causes me a pang of guilt. As a result of hearing Ms.Patchett, I’ll likely make a stronger effort to buy more off the shelves of real bookstores than I would have otherwise. If other readers can make similar shifts, bookstores should have increased chances of survival. But they’re unlikely ever to be widely available to the general public or to constitute a major feature of American commerce. The basic problem is not the method people use to acquire books, but, rather, why they read books as infrequently as they do.


Mr. Obama’s announcement about same-sex marriage has raised for me again the question of why people should be so vehemently opposed to it.

I can’t see that it hurts anyone. It’s true, of course, that it constitutes a social change but most people seem to be fairly well convinced that, over time, social change is inevitable. People alter the way they think about all sorts of things. Judgment, you would think, should be based on the issue of harmfulness or benefit and not simply on change or difference.

I understand that many continue to find the thought of sexual activity between persons of the same sex unpalatable. But no one is expected to engage in it if he, or she, doesn’t like it. Nor is anyone required to observe it. Surely we’re all aware that there are many things done in private that someone might regard with disfavor. And if we have an ounce of self-consciousness we have to recognize that there are things we do that someone else might view as bizarre. That’s no reason to make laws against everything that offends us. To do that would be to create a social hellhole. Again, the standard has to be harm.

I have heard some say that once a practice becomes accepted, persons who would never have thought of it might be lured into new ways. But so what? That’s true of the use of cell phones. And if you’re really concerned with harm you can make a stronger case against electronic gadgets than you can against same-sex romance.

The entire furor is absurd.  But then I guess I have to admit it’s a sign of what the human race is. Thinking of what we are makes it hard, at times, to avoid discouragement.

May 11, 2012

Here’s a prediction: the story about Mitt Romney’s cutting off the hair of a classmate at his prep school will have more staying power than it seems, at first glance, to deserve. The reason, of course, is not the hurt foolish boys caused almost fifty years ago but, rather, how Romney has responded to the report.

He doesn’t remember the incident. Really?

This is either a lie (the most likely explanation) or Romney is brain-dead. No normal person forgets an event of that sort which happened when he was fifteen years old. And this is a fact the media will not be able to dismiss. It’s just too tempting. Also, it has the dog-on-the-car-roof deliciousness.

Evidence that this will be the case has already appeared. Both Richard Cohen and Ruth Marcus have articles on the story in this morning’s Washington Post, and both emphasize the sleazy nature of Romney’s so-called apology. To whom is he apologizing? The boy who was victimized by the school bullies is now dead. Romney can scarcely be apologizing to him. He seems to think the way to handle untoward incidents from long ago is to throw out vague apologies to the universe. And this practice only adds to the public sense that he’s possessed of a weird psyche.

The perception grows that Romney can’t imagine the emotions of other people. That’s not likely to be good for his campaign.


At the University of Southern California Bookstore last night I found a rack of small books put out by the Oxford University Press under the general title “A Very Short Introduction.” There are more than two hundred of these diminutive books, in paperback with French flap covers, measuring about 4X7 inches. Some are on curious topics, such as “Risk” or “Witchcraft,” but most deal with the sort of subjects you would expect, major writers, thinkers, and professional practices. They are attractive little volumes, and I suspect that’s their main appeal. The contents are often less than enthralling.

Certainly, it was the format which led me to buy the very short introduction to Nietzsche, by Michael Tanner, though it was egregiously overpriced at $11.95. It turned out, however, in this case, that the book’s contents are fairly useful. The primary value of a book of this kind is to give one a framework in which to place more detailed learning. You can’t learn much from the book itself but you can employ it as an organizing device.

Tanner’s main thesis about Nietzsche is that he has been astoundingly misrepresented. This, I think, is undoubtedly true. Tanner cites a phrase from Ecce Homo where Nietzsche says, “Do not, above all, confound me with what I am not.” to show how ironic pleas of this nature are. Probably no one has been more confounded with what he is not than Nietzsche has been.

The passage I found most agreeable in the early portion of Tanner’s text deals with the basic conclusion Nietzsche reached about the course of Western history:

His underlying view is that if we don’t make a drastically new start we are doomed,
since we are living in the wreckage of two thousand and more years of fundamentally
mistaken ideas about almost everything that matters .... offers carte blanche to people
who fancy the idea of a clean break with their whole cultural inheritance. Nietzsche
was under no illusions about the impossibility of such a schism.

This manages to combine two ideas which generally are seen as being strongly separate:

  • That we really do need to take a new turning.

  • That thinking you can completely remove yourself from your past is silly.

I hope it’s not confounding Nietzsche with what he is not to see him as wanting to work towards a genuine individualism, but one which incorporates the past rather than dismissing it. His ideal of a heroic individualism constructed through dramatic artistry has to be based on understanding the past, on tracing your cultural genealogy. If you wanted to get seriously simplistic, you might say you can’t know what you want to be until you know what you are.

This process is far more complex than a tiny book like Tanner’s can sketch. And without the complexity the idea becomes trite. Still, this modest outline is all right as a beginning.

May 12, 2012

Last night I went to the Vista Theatre, just off Hillhurst Avenue to see The Avengers. I mention the movie theatre because it had a definite effect on my viewing. It is a large, old-fashioned movie house which reminded me of the experiences of my youth, and which, in a way, called back my comic book reading days.

Many people don’t like comic book movies. I have even heard some criticize them for being unrealistic. It’s a bit hard to understand knocking something for achieving its purpose. To put people in a world different from the one they inhabit is the reason comics are written and why films are made from them. They are forms of imaginative release. Why we need imaginative release is an immense topic I can’t lay out here. I’ll just say I think it’s fairly obvious we do.

The Avengers succeeds moderately well as escapist melodrama. It gives us a set of characters who have a background of human angst, so there is just enough realism to provide a tie lacking in pure comic book figures like Superman or Wonder Woman. In other words, we can identify to some extent with their feelings. Yet by the time they show up as Avengers they have escaped reality pretty well by surging past the limitations of ordinary human physicality. They can do things most of us would be ill-advised to try.

The plot of the current film is fairly simple. Loki, an Asgardian (don’t ask me where Asgardia is) has enlisted the help of the leader of the Chitauri in an attempt to take over the world. His goal, he says, is to free the humans of freedom, which they really don’t want and are unsuited for. He has managed to get through a portal (there are lots of portals in science fiction movies) opened by a machine called the Tessernet and has started wreaking havoc on earth, prior to summoning the Chitauri soldiers. Nick Fry, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., knows that ordinary earthly defenders are helpless against him, so he calls together the Avengers, who though they are difficult to work with, do have certain abilities Nick needs. Thus Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and the Black Window, with later assistance from Thor and Hawkeye, assemble to dart wise cracks at each other while they slaughter more Chitauri than you can count, in ways you can’t imagine. In the end, they kill them all. They can’t kill Loki, because he seems to be immortal in some fashion, so they send him back to Asgardia with his brother (by adoption) Thor, and shut up the portal. That’s it; there is no more plot.

Subtle plot, though, isn’t the point of comic books. There needs to be just enough of a story to set the super heroes in action, so that then, in some crazed manner, we can identify with them.

In this tale I think I feel more akin to Iron Man than to anyone else. It may be because he has the assistance of Pepper Potts, barefooted in denim shorts, but it could also be that he makes such sardonic remarks that most people think he cares about no one but himself. Yet there are times I envy all of them, even Captain America, although I think I would have a hard time wearing his suit without feeling ridiculous.

Comic books, in their thrust to create a modern mythology, will never come up to Homer. Aphrodite is simply more sexy than the Black Widow, and always will be. And in a battle between Achilles and Thor, it seems clear to me the Greek warrior would win, hands down. Still, it’s admirable that comic books even make the attempt. Who else is trying?

Go see The Avengers -- like everybody else. Even if you’re a person who hates comic book movies, and even if you turn out to hate this one, you will benefit from it in ways that will never be apparent to your conscious mind. You will be enriched far below the surface, and some of that wealth will be likely to worm its way into your so-called real life, even if you never know it’s happening.

May 18, 2012

If you check this site regularly you know I’ve been on a brief holiday from posting. That’s because I’ve been on an actual holiday here in California, and even more because during the first part of the week Shirley and I left Los Angeles and drove up to the Monterey area, where we stayed at a motel right across from the Asilomar Conference Center. It was at Asilomar that Goddard College held week-long meetings for students in the Adult Degree Program back in the late 1970s. I taught in several of those sessions and as a consequence was able to enjoy the amenities of the conference center, now a part of the California park system. It’s a wonderful place to relax, walk along seaside, watch lounging seals and other marine life. It was good to experience all that again.

I’m almost tempted to slide into an extensive travelogue, describing the many beauties of Monterey Bay. But you can read about them on so many web sites, my efforts would be worse than redundant. So I’ll spare you regular tourist talk. Instead, I’ll descend into thoughts about holiday places compared to home places.

Whenever I go to a place I like, I find myself asking if I would flourish by living there. California is a place I like quite a lot but I suspect it would not be permanently sustaining for me. That, of course, is a somewhat foolish statement because California comprises so many places that you would have to be peculiar, or wedded to a single place elsewhere, not to be able to find somewhere you could live happily. Still, regions do have cultures, and though California has a great array of different modes, there does seem to be, sheltering all of them, something you could call a California way of being.

I don’t know how to describe it, but I do think I can say it is clearly different from the New England way of being, or the Southern way of being, the two moods I have experienced most fully. I should note, right from the start, that these are not phenomena which can be placed in a ranked order. Anybody who said the California way is worse -- or better -- than the New England way, would be exhibiting a severely constricted mind.

On the other hand, you can say that for oneself, one mode is more likely than another to help work towards becoming the creature one wishes to be. Figuring out who that is involves great complexities, independent of taking place into account. Even so, place ultimately does manage to play into self-construction. You can do it better in some places than you can in others.

The thing about the California culture that might get in my way is that money is immensely evident here. It is a thing to be displayed, to be proud of, to be used as a primary measuring stick. In that form of calculation there is no way I can come out other than poorly. I’m not so naive as to think that money counts for nothing. Obviously one needs a certain amount of it to live decently. But beyond that amount, I don’t care much about it. And I am always aware that acquiring money requires an expenditure of life, so that if you spend more of life on it than you need to, you probably have not made a healthy bargain.

Just because you’re in a place where people are spending more of life on money than they need to doesn’t mean that you have to join in the excess. But it probably does mean you will be more oppressed by money-getting than you would be elsewhere. My problem is I don’t want to be oppressed by anything. That may seem excessive in itself. 

Please don’t take me to be saying that in California money is everything. Clearly it is not. But it is omnipresent in a way that one seldom observes in Vermont. That may mean no more than that Vermonters are more sneaky about money than Californians are. I can’t say for sure about that. But I can say that not having money always highlighted makes it easier for me to walk comfortably down the street.

The truth is that you don’t want your vacation places to be identical to your home place. Vacation is for fantasy, and California is the perfect fantasy land. If I were to become a Californian, where then could I go to get the fantasy I require from time to time?

May 22, 2012

I am back in Vermont. I got here very late on Saturday night. I thought I would write on Sunday, and on Monday, but I didn’t.

After I have been away for a week or more I find that returning requires reorientation. I have to remind myself where everything is -- my pens and pencils, my boxes, my books. And I have to rearrange them slightly, in accordance with what I learned when I was away. This takes more time than I ever think it is going to take.

Flying all the way across the country on an airplane remains for me an event of moment. I feel a kind of obligation to capture it in words. Yet this I never do. What did it mean that I watched both My Week With Marilyn and The Descendants on the flight from Los Angeles to Newark? I don’t want to review these movies, other than to say I enjoyed them both. But what did it mean that I watched them? I suspect the one about Marilyn Monroe will stick with me longer. Saying that, however, doesn’t tell me what it meant that I took it in.

In re-sorting, I find things which had gone out of my memory. The most notable thing this time was a self-made notebook  -- with a blue cover and 8”X4” pages -- in which I had put a piece of writing I called simply “Education Defined.” I don’t remember when I did it. It had to be more than eight years ago, when I started this web site. If it had been later it would have found its way onto this site. It consists of a three page preface and 42 short passages which I called “Statements in Search of a Definition of Education.”

As I thumbed through it I saw that it was not bad. In fact, it’s the sort of thing that if it had been written by a more notable person it would have been viewed as valuable, even important. But since it was written by me, it has virtually no significance at all. You may think this is a statement of regret, even bitterness. But it’s not. I take a perverse pleasure in having produced items of that character.

I’m not going to re-type the whole thing here. That would be more laborious than anything I’m up for right now. But I’ll give you a few of the statements. The first one was simply:
  • An educated person will have the right relationship with words -- a relationship concentrated on the truth.

I still believe that’s the case, though I’m not as sure about the meaning of truth as I thought I was when I made the remark.

The third one said:
  • An educated person grasps that one of society’s prime functions is to blur distinctions so that people can be led down paths to society’s goals but not necessarily to the goals of the person  being led.

That, I think, I believe more firmly now even than I did then. I have come to see society as less beneficent than I once did. I may not be fair in that respect, yet I suspect everyone will admit that society sometimes does things to people that are stomach churning, and does them for no good reason. It’s not that society is so much evil as that it’s blind.

The tenth one was a corollary of the third:
  • An educated person is aware that social approval of a body of doctrine does not certify its validity, and that one should not uncritically accept the learned professions’ assessment of themselves.

This was in keeping with my conviction that the prime goal of a profession is to insure the well-being of the professionals, and that no one else’s well-being approaches the intensity of that desire. I knew that then. I know it more strongly now.

Number sixteen tried to get at a prime truth of politics:
  • An educated person understands that arguments designed to arouse emotion are often not logically related to the points being made, and that skilled manipulators will often rely on emotion to carry a point that reason couldn’t touch.

Had I heard of Karl Rove when I wrote that? I’m not sure.

Number twenty-three may have been the most important of the lot:
  • Educated persons are desirous of knowing the various modes of consciousness from the past, whose residues often unconsciously shape their own thinking.

I know I wrote that before I was aware that one of Nietzsche’s prime arguments is that people who think they can cut themselves completely free from the past are fools.

Number twenty-eight was getting at the most common error I have found among people who view themselves as having a liberal disposition:
  • An educated person will, at the least, be suspicious of the right to be stupid, and will see the contradiction in the right to be wrong.

I have since come to understand that love of stupidity is a signal element of the American character.

These are five of forty-two. The remaining thirty-seven will doubtless recede into the obscurity reserved for the other buried documents stuck in niches around this house. And that’s okay. I’m glad to be home amongst them. They provide me a kind of companionship with my former self.

May 23, 2012

Last night at the Johnson Society we fell to discussing the wonders and threats of electronic communication. There was considerable expression about how magnificent it is, how easy it is to get information now when once it was laborious, how quickly we can send our thoughts to friends, and even to those who are not our friends.

I found myself in the unusual position of taking a skeptical line. When one does everything through an electronic device, I said, the device itself becomes the object of our attention. We become little more than links between it and other devices. Is that consistent with full humanity?

This morning I got up and happened to read in Section 329 of The Gay Science Nietzsche’s comment that “virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than anyone else.” If that was true in the 1880s, how much more true has it become now? What else is a private equity firm than a device for accumulating money faster than anyone has piled up before? What will be the next step along that path?

I certainly can’t claim to be a purist. I use electronic devices more often than most people of my generation do, and probably more often than even some young people do. But I never do it without a sense of danger. And always when I write words in a notebook with a pencil I feel more healthy than I do when typing on a keyboard. Is that just stupid nostalgia, or some sort of wisdom?

The definition of humanity is a time bound thing, I suppose. If Plato could appear among us now would he find anyone he considered to be fully human? And were we to be projected a thousand years into the future would we be ensconced in a great loneliness, able to find no one with whom we could speak?

We tell ourselves there have to be limits, that actions can’t continue to get ever faster. But why not? Why couldn’t it come to be that everything which takes place would seem to us, if we could experience it, as nothing but a blur? Not only do I think it could be; I expect it will be.

If speed is the great tempter, might it also be the great destroyer?

One might say, “But you’re just seeing things from your own perspective.” Exactly, because that’s the only perspective I’ve got. I can acquire some new perspectives, of course. I have already acquired a great many that I once didn’t have. Yet I doubt that I can get enough such that pure blur becomes, for me, an adequate portrayal of life. Already almost every beer commercial I see depicting people really having fun strikes me as a scene from hell.

I agree that the quest for ever faster doings cannot be stopped, or even reined in very much. But I sense that the time will come when I will have to jump off the train, and plop myself into a backwater which will be laughable for those who are keeping up. I’m not sure how quickly that time will come, but I seem to feel it not very far in the future. And I don’t find it a horrible thing to imagine. The world can go off spinning ever more rapidly without me. And I can watch it disappear with a not unbearable degree of resignation.

May 24, 2012

I finished the five session discussion on the Civil War last night at the Kimball Library in Randolph. Though I always enjoyed meeting with the group there, I confess I was glad to get the series behind me.

The Civil War has become for me a subject I feel a duty to know about, but one which, increasingly, makes me miserable. I have come to see it as one of the stupidest episodes in human history. The amount of misery it caused is incalculable. It’s all very well to speak of sacrifice for the nation, as long as you’re not lying on a blood-soaked field in the middle of the night, with your intestines ripped open, waiting to die. At that point, I suspect you would have a less than cheery view of the glory of sacrifice.

As I mentioned just a couple days ago, I’ve been rummaging through stacks of old papers and notebooks since I got home from California. I came on the text of a radio talk I made on January 1, 2004, in which I expressed a wish for the coming year. Here’s the beginning of it:

I’d like in the coming year to live in a nation where gloppy sentimental appeals to
patriotism have no power to paralyze the minds of the citizens or to lead them down
paths that they would never think of taking unless they were under the influence of
emotional brainwashing.

Guess what? I didn’t get my wish.

Yet here’s a funny thing, or at least one I didn’t expect. The persons with whom I discussed the Civil War in Randolph pretty much shared my view it. Not one of them, who expressed himself, or herself, thought the outcome of the war balanced the horrors it caused. They were willing to consider that it would have been better for the nation to divide than to have descended into the bloodshed that actually occurred. The glory of the Union did not, in their minds, match the wretchedness the war produced. They weren’t particularly sentimental about the Gettysburg Address.

Even the good of abolishing slavery didn’t make up for the slaughter, particularly when they began to discuss the hardship inflicted on the descendants of the slaves over the following century, which doubtless was intensified by the bitterness the war left behind it.

Their opinions on these things probably reflect a minority perspective. But I began to wonder how much of a minority it is. There’s no way to take the measure of such a thing. The truth is that most people in the country have no opinion about the Civil War, at all, because they never think of it. But among those who do, I wonder what percentage consider it a grandeur.

The media, for some reason, like to concentrate on Tea Party people and super-patriots who are ready to drop big bombs on Iran or anywhere else a government dares to displease American sensibilities. I begin to think that concentration is deluding us about the actual composition of the American people. I certainly hope that’s the case.

Might it be that before long the values I discovered among the group in Randolph over the past four months will break out forcefully into public discourse, and stop being written off by the savants on Sunday morning talk shows as merely NPR sensibility? I can’t be sure, but I would like, very much, for that to occur.

I don’t need any more dead soldiers to boost my spirits by the greatness of their sacrifice. I think I have an obligation to take care of my spirits by myself, or, at least, among those I know personally, and love.

May 26, 2012

Adam Phillips in his provocative book, On Balance, says that most of us are fundamentalists in some respect. That is, we have beliefs we will not surrender, and that in some cases we would be willing to kill or die for.

I have tried to escape this problem by arguing that though I have things I like intensely, and other things I dislike just as intensely, I don’t have beliefs about them. I have tried to have as few beliefs as possible. This is doubtless the thing that sets me off from my fellow citizens more than anything else. Most Americans appear to be very proud of their beliefs and therefore they must be proud of having them.

My difficulty with belief is that, as far as I can tell, it requires assent to some ultimate authority and I don’t know what that authority could be. In particular, I don’t grasp the mechanism by which someone could recognize it. How does one know that such and such is the ultimate authority? Furthermore, why does one desire such an authority?

I may, of course, just be fooling myself, and doing no more than substituting the words “like” and “dislike” for what are really beliefs. But then, as soon as I consider that possibility, I find myself asking, “What are real beliefs?” And, then, that leads on to “What is reality?”

It’s not that I want to drown myself in postmodern speculations about language and whether it is possible to say anything that makes sense. I like language, and I do want to say things that make sense. It’s just that when I can’t see that something makes sense, I have no desire to tell myself it does.

When somebody tells me that the Drawing Board is located on Main Street in Montpelier, that makes sense to me. When, by contrast, someone tells me that God requires me to believe such and such in order for me to be admitted to paradise, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Or, perhaps, I should say, I can’t conceive that he has any idea of what he is talking about.

Here’s another thing. I don’t like to believe stuff. It gets in the way of thinking.

When I was in Los Angeles recently I went to see a movie titled The Perfect Family, starring Kathleen Turner. It was about a woman who was so devoted to her churchly duties she was cut off from humane relations with the members of her family. At one point, she was asked what she was thinking about something she had done, and she responded, in deep frustration, "I don't have to think, I'm Catholic."

Evidently, the desire not to think is potent, almost overwhelmingly appealing at times. Is that the reason for belief?

In psychoanalytic explanation, beliefs occupy the element of mind that has come to be called the “superego.” And the superego, supposedly imposed on us by society, is always telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. And yet, much as we give into it, there is something in us that, eventually, comes to doubt it. In On Balance, Phillips refers to a recent survey in which a group of elderly people was asked if they had any regrets about their lives. A majority replied that they regretted having been so virtuous.

When I ask myself similar questions, I discover that I regret not having been bolder, even though I was at times accused by my companions of being too bold.   Boldness is not much liked by the superego.

The practical concern with belief is how one who tries to avoid belief can interact decently with believers. I have long since concluded it does no good to try to convince them their beliefs are erroneous. Besides, how would I know? The best I can do is attempt to explain why I can’t share their beliefs, and then hope they won’t hate me for my failure. The problem gets really acute when belief leads people to do things I seriously dislike, like blowing other people up with bombs and so forth.  The answer of people who believe something different is to blow those people up with bombs. We all know how that turns out. All of them blow up and blow up, and mangle and mangle, until weariness forces them to take a little respite. And, then, after they rest a while, they go back to blowing up again. You might say that’s the history of most nations in the world, including our own. That’s because nations have too many believers.

I guess you could say that if people want to believe, and then blow up people who believe something different, that’s their right. But who gives them that right? Most things come down to authority and personal responsibility. And we’re a long way from sorting them out.

May 27, 2012

Americans don’t care how many people their government kills with drones in the Middle East or Asia. That’s Glenn Greenwald’s message this morning in his column titled “The Authoritarian Mind.” If Greenwald’s right -- and I think he is -- it means that the United States is a nation of moral fools. Perhaps we’re no more that way than other nations are, or than we have ever been. But new conditions bring forth new consequences.

Because the United States has developed immense killing power that can be launched from safe positions within our own borders, the temptation to kill thoughtlessly has grown. Who’s to know, other than a few hyper-sensitive people like Greenwald? And what does he matter? After all, only a relatively few people read him and other like-minded reporters who point out the drone slaughter. They don’t sway many votes. So why should politicians care?

There is, however, one other new condition. The world is far more aware of what we are doing than we are. That means our reputation is being transformed in ways our insular media seldom mention. The result is that the American people don’t know how they stand in the world. They don’t imagine the level of contempt directed at them.

“Who cares?” a person from Kansas might retort, a person who never expects to go outside Kansas. “We’ve got plenty of guns, and plenty of bombs. They can’t hurt us.”

If it were possible to laugh from a watery grave, Osama bin Laden’s guffaws would be roiling the surface of the ocean. He continues to achieve the thing he set out to do, to transform the United States into a fear-ridden, self-punishing nation. Our fear, driven by the external hatred we continue to fuel, requires us to spend wastefully. Maintaining the security state demands ever more of our resources. And the more we waste, the more we are prompted to waste by the institutions who fatten on the wastage. It’s a spiral towards destruction.

There is no such thing as a militaristic state in which the general welfare is promoted. It’s incapable of using its treasure productively. The people continue not to know their own trajectory, and to warm themselves in their smugness. But it might be that times are coming that will cause even Americans to raise their heads and ask, “Wait a minute; how did this happen?”

May 28, 2012

A couple weeks ago, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Germany hosted a conference on U.S. journalism. Robert Parry of gave a talk on what he regarded as the corruption of the mainstream media since the beginning of the Reagan Administration.

Parry has had an interesting and revealing career. For the first part of it he worked as a respected reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek. But gradually, especially as he dug into the Iran-Contra scandal, he discovered that his bosses didn’t want to reveal the full truth about the behavior of the U.S. government. They encouraged him to scale back his investigations and, finally, simply forbade him to pursue certain issues. During the same period, he began to get pressure directly from the government to back off from reporting about what had been happening in Central America. An official from the Reagan administration told him that if he kept on writing about the wrong things they would “controversialize” him.

It’s a fascinating verb, one that should get more attention than it does. I suspect it describes the principal method the government uses to marginalize their critics.

It’s widely believed in America that if a person diverges too much from the official story -- that is the story put forward by the government and the mainstream media -- he or she has become a “radical,” and therefore that he can’t be trusted any longer to tell the truth. I don’t suppose it’s surprising the government should behave this way. It’s the nature of governments to do things they don’t want their own citizens to know about.

What is a bit surprising is how readily the public accepts the “official” assessment. Or at least it’s surprising until you begin to recognize how almost all organizations work. Every one I’ve ever know anything about has had both and inside and an outside story. The latter, of course, is what the organization wants the public to think. The former is what the insiders know they’re really supposed to be concerned with.

This is certainly true in higher education, an area I lived in for quite a few years. The outside story was that colleges and universities were dedicated to helping students develop well-informed and critical minds. This was supposed to be what education was. This is what university presidents declaimed about during ceremonies. But in day-by-day life within the university the inside story took over. And this story is about money, and position, and prestige and virtually nothing else. I never met a university president who personally gave a damn about education. There were a few who figured the faculty would take care of it, but most weren’t concerned with it in any way.

When a person joins an organization he pretty quickly has to decide whether he will be a servant of the inside or the outside story. I’d say the choice runs about 90-10 in favor of the inside propositions. That’s because that’s where the overt rewards are.

The man or woman who wants to stick with the outside story, the one which supports general well-being and social improvement, has a problem. In the beginning he’s nudged gently. But if he persists the persuasive techniques get ever more fierce. Finally, he is “controversialized.” That’s the step just before banishment.

I guess what’s really surprising -- and somewhat encouraging -- is the number who refuse to go along and instead, insist on revealing the inside story to the outside. 

Robert Parry is a signal example of that type, and consequently deserves our respect, even though he is widely dismissed as a controversial and untrustworthy figure. I’ve read him for several years now and I’ve never known him to tell a lie. On the other hand, noncontroversial people, those whose opinions are sought by the mainstream media, tell lies all the time. But because they aren’t controversial, they’re to be trusted.

It may be that this is simply the human story and that there’s nothing to be done about it. Maybe people who want to do something about it are childishly naive. Yet there’s something admirable about naive people -- of a certain stripe -- and we should ask ourselves, from time to time, what that is.

May 30, 2012

I had a conversation with a friend this morning who was discouraged that Mitt Romney, the man who will be the presidential nominee of one of our major parties, is responding affably to Donald Trump and his nonsense about the place of the president’s birth. My friend thinks that’s disgraceful. I agreed that it’s disgraceful but then I tried to console him by pointing out that it doesn’t mark anything new in American politics and, consequently, is no reason to feel worse about the political condition of the country than we felt already.

My friend thinks it would be a disaster if a man who behaves as Romney is behaving should become president. Again, I tried to be consoling by pointing out that though Romney’s rhetoric would be more disgusting than Obama’s, his behavior probably wouldn’t differ much from the behavior we’ve had from presidents over the past three decades. Behavior is determined not by the man but by the office and the place it occupies in the overall system of government. If Obama’s first term has taught us anything about about American government it surely should have taught us that. Right now Newsweek is running a story by Daniel Klaidman which explains how Obama was taught to become a killer by occupying the Oval Office. When he was campaigning he probably didn’t intend to be a killer. But then he became president.

Establishment figures say this is a matter of learning realities once you take on the responsibilities. And I guess it is in a way, if you accept that establishment self-glorifying delusions constitute reality.

Americans love the notion that a good man can come into the presidency and set things right. It’s an easy notion of reform. The problem is it has almost nothing to do with how things actually function.

The first element of childishness in that idea lies in forgetting what sort of person actually approaches the presidency. No one can become a “serious” candidate unless he has already bought into the concept that the “important” people are the only ones who know what’s going on. In order to make decisions, he or she has to consult these important people, and gradually they don’t just modify his thoughts, they transform the intellectual environment in which he exists. It becomes impossible for him to think outside that environment. He can’t imagine what thinking outside it would mean. When a person become president, the system ingests him.

We need to give up the delusion that we can make a better government simply by electing better people to head it. What we have to do is change the system for the better, and then leaders have a stronger chance of holding onto some of their original intentions. They have a better chance of thinking for themselves.

The second big mistake the American people make about government is refusal to acknowledge what a system is. They don’t get that a system is made up of thousands of people, each of them reinforcing the others in support of the current political wisdom, no matter how idiotic or vicious it may be. This is not to say that systems can’t change. Obviously, they do. But the mechanisms of change are different from what is popularly supposed. They are such things as defeat in war, complete economic collapse, or the infusion of thousands of new voices into the system by a movement from outside, a movement that has become so disgusted with the system its members will no longer buy the system’s rationales. Nothing taking place within a system will radically alter its modes of operation. No person who is essentially a man or woman of the system will be able to change its direction. And anybody who makes it to the presidency is bound to be a person of the system.

This is not to say that there are no differences within a system. But they are modest, and they become slighter, the higher up in the system one advances. The system insists that be the requirement for promotion. I would rather Obama be president than Romney, if for no other reason than that Obama’s rhetoric is more palatable. Yet both Obama and Romney are men of the system, and neither will seriously defy its wishes.

The American problem now is that we have developed -- or slipped into -- a fairly toxic system, one in which viciousness and violence are far too prevalent. No man on a white horse is going to drag us out of it.  There are elements within the country who think they can, but none of them is on the verge of becoming a majority movement. The only way for that to happen is for a movement -- or a politically viable idea -- to find a way to lure a sizable portion of the American electorate out of its current intellectual lethargy. Some people think that’s impossible and, therefore, that the country is on a long slide downhill.

They may be right. Still, we can’t be sure of their prescience and therefore it would be foolish to give up thinking about how we can make our country better. If we’re going to do it, we have to have a movement which makes one point before it makes any other. The only sensible measure of a country is the health and well-being of its people.

The current system doesn’t think that way. The measure it uses is the dominance of the country’s power structure. The system views the country’s grandeur as its ability to swagger in the world. It will say, of course, that this redounds to the benefit of the people. But that’s not true.  The people would be far better off if the power structure were not so aggressive, if the notion of America as “Number One” were not so prominent. This is what the American electorate needs to recognize.

To bring that understanding into the minds of people who have been used to deriving their self-esteem from their nation’s self-proclaimed status as the only truly big actor in the world will not be easy. But that’s the job. Without a new comprehension about what we want for ourselves, as human beings, we will face a growing underclass and burgeoning public squalor and corruption.

In the meantime, yes, I would rather have Obama than Romney. But that’s not saying much.

May 31, 2012

The New York Times this morning came out with an editorial criticizing Obama’s methodology for killing people. That tells me the issue has more political staying power than most have assumed. My first impulse was to be pleased. I have hoped that public discussion of the policy of targeted assassination around the world would bring the practice into disfavor. But as I try to consider the entire subject more broadly I realize I could be badly mistaken.

It’s tempting to forget how deeply the belief in heroic killing is ingrained in the American character. It is grounded in two even more indelible features. In any disagreement with persons outside our borders, we are always the good guys. We always have been and we always will be -- by definition. To be American is to be right. The second source is the persisting puritanical belief that when people are wrong, they should be punished. And the more wrong they are, the more harsh the punishment should be. When they are so wrong as to proclaim that the United States is attacking their most cherished values, and, furthermore, that they intend to do something about it, then they should be killed. That’s the only way to deal with them.

If you think, as I do, that these beliefs are about as wrongheaded as anything could be, then, in many people’s minds, you have stepped outside the American tradition and, presumably, have lost the right to engage in American debate. That’s the position the New York Times occupies in many regions of the United States. And if you agree with the New York Times, that’s the position you occupy as well. Consequently, if you announce your opinion, you at least temporarily strengthen the position you’re criticizing. But if you remain silent about it then the wrongheaded policy wafts forward, unaware that anyone could possibly see anything wrong with it. That’s exactly the condition I grew up in, where racial segregation was so free from disparagement that the adults I lived among were unaware that anyone saw anything wrong with it, that is, unless they were insane.

When you go against an established meme, it’s tricky business.

That the policy of administrative assassination violates many American laws is of no consequence to most Americans. Who’s going to enforce the law against the president? As Richard Nixon said, if the president does it then it becomes legal. So if the president wants to kill people, he must have good reasons, mustn’t he?

That killing people, particularly when they’re not doing anything hostile, makes a lot more enemies for the United States is of no concern either. We’ll just kill them too. That’s why we have a big military/security apparatus. That’s what we do; we kill our enemies. We don’t care how many there are, nor do we care how they became embittered against our country. Nobody has the right to dislike the United States or its policies.

This brand of thought, once it has settled in the brain, is very hard to modify. And we are naive if we underestimate how thoroughly it dominates the American power structure. Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting nature of power is often cited in America, but mainly so it can then be forgot about. 

I don’t want to be overly dismal about this. With effort, and intelligence, and much time, vicious systems can be shown for what they are. But I do want to say that modifying this particular arrogance will be a long haul. Right now it is an integral, basic element of the American ethos. Don’t expect to be cheered for trying to dig it out.

©John R. Turner

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