Collected Thoughts

June 2012
June 1, 2012

David Brooks, this morning, tells us that people are separating into more strongly differentiated groups with disparate values. This is happening within nations as well as between nations. The world was naive, after the Second World War, to think that we were moving towards unified attitudes.

I don’t know whether or not he’s right or even what sort of measure there might be to examine such a claim. But assuming for the moment he is and that for at least several decades we will be living among strongly segmented populations, what does that mean for the quality of life?

In America, the general idea has been that the more alike we were, the more most people adhered to so-called American values, the better off we would be. You can see that such a condition might lead to less conflict, and make government less bizarre. Yet I’m not sure it would create greater satisfaction. It’s not only that a unified population tends to be boring; it is also likely to be oppressive. I, myself, have always cringed when I hear politicians declaiming that all Americans believe such and such. If you don’t believe what all Americans believe, where does that leave you?

Modern communications clearly have made it possible for groups not based on geographical propinquity to form. In the past, if you were a lesbian vegetarian, you probably had a hard time finding many people who shared your tastes and so you tended to be quiet about them. But with the advent of the internet, it became easy not only to know that there were thousands of persons like yourself but also to be able to interact with them. A minority viewpoint didn’t have to condemn you to loneliness.

This is really a matter of shifting identities. If you are a socialist who lives in South Carolina, which of those facts matters most in saying who you are? In the past, the geographical identity tended to trump all others. I doubt that was a good thing. Strong geographical identities lead to more death and destruction than any other kind. That’s because great killing power still resides mainly with geographical units. Armies are not put together on the basis of aesthetic values.

All in all, I suspect it’s more healthy for people to see themselves as members of religious, political, or artistic groups than it is for them to think of themselves as Americans first, or Russians first, or whatever. Such perception might lead to greater squabbling but perhaps to less violent conflict. Not many people want to beat up somebody else, or throw him in prison, because he’s a post-modernist.

The primary governmental problem comes from our all being human beings, regardless of our views, and therefore all experiencing human difficulties. We all want to eat, to have a reasonably comfortable place to sleep, and to be able to access medical care when we’re sick. I don’t know that any so-called values are involved in this, or at least they shouldn’t be. Just because Republicans irritate me and want to create venues I would find stifling doesn’t mean I don’t want them to get treatment when they’re suffering physical ills.

If we could teach government to see all citizens simply as human beings, and let other groups deal with their tastes, attitudes, and notions of right and wrong, we might find more pleasure in our fragmentation than we do discomfort. Many of my friends think it’s terrible that some religionists believe in eternal damnation. I agree that such belief is icky, but as long as its adherents are willing to let me eat, sleep and be healthy, I’m not going to get terrifically upset about them. Furthermore, I want them to have access to the same human services I do.

I realize I’m oversimplifying here. It’s not easy to draw a line between human needs and human beliefs, and charge government with attending to one and staying out of the other. There are overlaps which are hard to separate. But if we could have it as a rule of thumb that we don’t use government to regulate group taste, I think we would find our differences far easier to bear.

June 2, 2012

In the little black notebook I keep on my desk to write down untoward thoughts I placed this entry a couple weeks ago:

In the cosmos as we now conceive it, every point can be a center, and from it there
can radiate many things. Make yourself the center of your universe and include
in it what you want, making sure you don’t pollute it.

I hope I didn’t have anything arrogant in mind when I wrote that. I was trying simply to sketch for myself a realistic picture. Obviously, each of us is the center of something, and to call it our own particular universe seems to me not out of order. No one of us is the only center, nor is there any way to claim that any of us -- or anything, for that matter -- is the most important center. It is the nature of the universe to contain an infinite number of centers. But at the same time each one of them defines something.

How we can take care that the universes which radiate out from us are not polluted is becoming for me an evermore insistent question.

Perhaps I’m being too abstract to make sense to anyone other than myself, but I think the point I’m reaching for is fairly simple. Each human being is the center of an array of relationships, experiences, thoughts, desires, aspirations, fears, abilities and weaknesses. And this array is pretty much who we are. So if we want to shape ourselves according to some plan, we need to see ourselves as centers and take account of what stretches out from us.

In our human relationships, for example, it strikes me that the most polluting factor is dishonesty. I’m not calling for a full confession of everything to everyone we know. That would be folly. Yet I do think it stains a universe if the relations within it are based on false promises and false expectations. If you say that someone is your friend, that means you will be available to him, or her, in difficult times. And if you’re not actually willing to make that commitment, you shouldn’t claim that friendship is present. People who speak of having hundreds of friends make me ill.

The same kind of thing is true of all the components of the world centered on the self. You shouldn’t tell yourself you believe things you don’t believe, nor should you claim to believe something when you don’t know what you’re talking about, when you have no definition for the words you use when you assert your belief. That’s not only the habit of an inept mind; it’s also polluting.

When it comes to aspirations, we need to get clear about what’s going out and what’s coming in. Far too many people have their aspirations imposed on them by influences outside themselves which preach continually about what they should be. They don’t have their grounding at the center but rather they give far too much attention to what’s happening in some remote region of their personal existence.

One could go on with examples forever. I don’t want to be exhaustive in that respect. I just want to make the simple argument that if we see ourselves as the center of something, and if we realize that something is pretty much the whole of our lives, we can be more confident that we have some ability to manage our own being, that it identifies a universe we can influence and keep clean and healthy to some extent.

I fear that many people feel lost about where they are, uncertain about what they can do, and, consequently, disconsolate about who they are. By contrast, if one is the center of a universe, however small and non-stupendous it might be, he’s got a lot to think about, a lot to be responsible for, and, ultimately, a lot to do.

June 3, 2012

In a mood of lassitude yesterday I watched a rerun from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I generally don’t like the series because the cases involve odious, perverted, emotionally deranged and insanely angry behavior. Furthermore, the simplistic morality exhibited by the cops who confront this behavior usually makes it hard to cheer them on. Occasionally, however, the programs approach reasonably interesting social issues.

The one I saw yesterday attempted to delve into the question of responsibility.

It was about murders committed by a young man who was born as the result of the rape of a Chinese woman by a sociopathic black man. The mother attempted to bring up her son in the Chinese community, but because of his mixed race he was mistreated by the other children and even by his own family. In a moment of weakness, his mother admitted there were times she disliked him for what he was.

During the course of the trial it was revealed that the defendant shared a genetic mutation with his father which pushes people towards virtually insane outbreaks of temper and violent reactions.

So the question was: can a person with such a genetic heritage and abusive childhood be held completely responsible for his acts?

The prosecutor, of course, argued that he can. Her position was that regardless of his unfortunate circumstances, which were readily admitted, he retained the ability to make choices. And he chose to do terrible things. So he has to be held accountable for them. The entire legal structure is based on that sense of accountability.

The assumption was that we’re obliged to defend the integrity of the legal system. But are we? What if, as Mr. Bumble proclaimed, the law is an ass?

The problem with the law is that once a person is declared responsible, then he’s treated as every other responsible person is. And why is that? Because the law is based on punishment rather than on the prevention of bad things. In fact, the bitter truth is that the law cares almost nothing about prevention. If it did, then it would take a much greater interest than it does in the actual causes of unfortunate occurrences. If you don’t know what’s really causing something, you’re not going to do a very good job of stopping it. The police and the prosecutorial system, as it’s currently constituted, cares very little about reducing criminal activity; the system is mainly designed to hurt the people who engage in it. When the system deals out punishment to criminals, then it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. And this it calls justice. So, Mr. Bumble was right.

In the fictional case described above, if the system were rational, it would say, yes, the defendant bears some responsibility. Whatever we decide, at the moment, he cannot simply be let go. On the other hand, the antecedent conditions of his life bear a lot of responsibility too. We can’t punish them but we can certainly take them into account, both with respect to how we decide this particular case, and how we think about preventing similar cases in the future. In other words, everything that led to the murders would be thought about, and all of it would affect how the defendant was treated.

The argument can be made that we don’t have the energy, or the means, to take everything into account. That’s probably true. But if we would acknowledge that it should be taken into account, then it would influence, at least to some degree, how things are handled. Prosecutors wouldn’t be out simply for victory, using any argument they can think of, to hold people responsible and punish them for their bad decisions. 

Unless you want to adopt the death penalty for virtually every misdeed, then punishment alone makes no sense. It doesn’t even make sense for the death penalty, because if that dire process were to be more widely used, anguish, hatred, and crime would increase.

You have to get a basic workable framework in mind before you can strive incrementally to repair it. The framework we have now for criminal justice is not reparable because it is what Mr. Bumble said it was. You can’t make an asinine system work. 

I’ve often wondered if the makers of the various Law and Order series were trying to get that point across. I’m still not sure.

June 13, 2012

When I left home a week ago to attend the high school graduation of a nephew in Pennsylvania, I took my laptop with me so I could make regular postings. But the truth of family is that when you’re in the midst of what’s considered ordinary behavior, you have little time for anything else. So, I made no postings. Maybe that’s just as well. It’s doubtless healthy occasionally to take time away from trying to figure out what’s going on the wider world and concentrate on what there’s going to be for supper.

Anyway, I got home yesterday afternoon after the long drive back from Annapolis and this morning, the wider world is trying to reclaim some attention.

I will say that being among people who don’t read about politics and government as steadily as I do gives me a better sense of why government officials behave as they do. They know that little will reach the attention of the general public and therefore they need to cater to those who do pay close attention to particular governmental actions. And the great percentage of persons in that category are concerned only with their personal gain and care nothing for the general welfare. This is the problem of so-called democracy in the modern world and I can’t see that anyone has a good answer for it.

My answer used to be that more people ought to pay attention. But I am unhappily coming to grasp that hoping for that development is juvenile. People can’t be persuaded to pay attention, so the idea of a generally just society will exist mainly in rhetoric; it won’t exist in actuality. I can’t say for sure that the amount of mistreatment and injustice in the world is on the rise but I don’t see that it’s declining either. Maybe we’ve got it as good as humanity can manage. If we have, it’s not close to a reasonable standard -- at least from my point of view.

One of the things I had hoped was that when people are being slaughtered for no good reason, and that when one’s own tax dollars are being used to fund the slaughter, then that, at least, would draw some attention. Up until recently, the killing of people by the U.S. government for ostensible reasons that can’t stand scrutiny could get virtually no attention. But over the past couple months, reports about this variety of government behavior have begun to creep into publications that might be seen as having some mainstream status. When this happens, I find my false hopes being revived, even though I tell myself I’m responding foolishly.

This morning, for example, I read Bruce Ackerman’s essay in the New York Times titled “Protect, Don’t Prosecute, Patriotic Leakers,” which contained this interesting paragraph:

But thanks to sustained investigative journalism, Americans have now learned
how the president is exercising his asserted authority to kill his fellow citizens,
alerting the country to the dangerous constitutional precedent he is creating.
These news reports should provoke the Justice Department to reconsider its
wrongheaded decision to conceal its memo from outside scrutiny. Instead, Mr.
Holder is threatening to imprison leakers for the crime of alerting their fellow
citizens to a life-or-death constitutional problem.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project released a report today showing that majorities in 18 of the 20 countries surveyed disapprove of the U.S. drone policy. Some of the results are surprising. For example, in our ally Japan, 75% of the people disapprove, and in Greece, 90% disapprove.
It’s hard to know whether information of this sort makes any difference to most U.S. citizens. My guess is it doesn’t. Still, I think it’s good overall for the information to be reported in places where a considerable portion of the people will have a chance to see it. Maybe, over time, it could change some thinking.

You see, I keep on hoping, even though I know I’m probably fatuous. But, then, I tell myself that nobody can predict the future, and that though hope for more careful attention is normally naive, every now and then the innocent are proved right. Little accidents, a photograph taken at a critical moment, a statement that somehow goes viral, a lie that’s too monstrous to be ignored, can catch the public’s attention, at least for a little bit. And then the information that’s been largely ignored can be shoved to the fore.

I remain glad there are some people who will try to tell the truth despite the futility of the telling.

June 15, 2012

Every society has what can be called a conventional narrative which seeks to screen out much -- and sometimes most -- of what’s happening in the world. Some societies are tighter screeners than others, and my own society, the United States, is fairly high on the list. The curious thing about American screening is that it’s carried out not by outright legal censorship but rather through the creation of an atmosphere in which it becomes non-respectable to know about certain things. Thus a tight, prettified narrative can be maintained without the odium of prohibiting freedom of speech.

That system works well here because America is made up mostly of persons who are terrified by the thought of not being considered respectable. I count myself in that number.

For years, actually during most of my maturity, I went along getting my information from the respectable sources, that is the leading newspapers and the network news channels. I thought that if I knew what Tom Brokaw was telling me I was aware of most of what was really important about world developments. It wasn’t until the falseness of that respectable stream became so blatant that it couldn’t be ignored any longer that I began to look around for other sources. It was then I began to find non-respectable voices who were trying to tell the truth.

I recall coming on a small news item about twenty years ago which reported that the American most respected outside the borders of the United States was Noam Chomsky. “How can that be?” I asked myself. Most Americans have never heard of Noam Chomsky, and among those who have a majority consider him non-respectable. As that query came to me I realized that I, too, considered him non-respectable. But why? I had read scarcely anything that he had written. Once started down that course, I couldn’t turn away from the truth that I considered him non-respectable because the conventional narrative told me that he was.

It would be dramatic to confess that an epiphany about Noam Chomsky turned me onto another path. But it wasn’t just that. Truth is, thinking about Chomsky had a relatively small impact. The main thing was that the story I was getting from the conventional narrative didn’t make any sense. Doubtless I was prepared for that realization by decades of reading history in which I discovered that virtually every society since human polity began told itself lies in order to justify its depredations. Why should my own society, the United States, be any different?

Another factor in redirecting me -- perhaps the most potent of all -- was that I set up this web site and began to try to express opinions about what I saw going on around me. I suppose other persons are different from myself, but once started on the web site, one thing about me became disturbingly clear: I don’t know what I think about anything until I try to write about it. Without writing, my thoughts about social developments are so vague, so full of holes, so incoherent, they’re worthless. In the absence of trying to express myself on paper, I can be nothing other than a creature of the conventional narrative. I suppose that if I had the benefit of steady, vigorous, and challenging conversation, I might arrive at some ideas that make sense. But much as I would like it, I don’t have conversation of that nature on a regular, frequent basis. Perhaps the saddest thing about modern society is that companionship through letter writing has died. We tell ourselves that e-mail and its derivatives such as Facebook and Twitter make up for the loss. But I don’t think that’s true.

In any case, quite a few influences came together to convince me that spokesmen of the conventional narrative aren’t trustworthy. You may have to rely on them if you want to be respectable, but you can’t rely on them if you want the truth.

I began to attend to such voices as Chris Hedges, Andrew Bacevich, Tom Engelhardt, Adele Stan, Glenn Greenwald, Robert Parry, Greg Palast, Matt Taibbi, Josh Marshall, Steve Benen, and, yes, Noam Chomsky. I tried to read them critically, and consistently I found them more respectful of facts than Brian Williams, or Diane Sawyer, or David Gregory is. And so I saw I had to decide whether I wanted to know what’s going on or whether I wanted to be respectable. I don’t know that I’ve completely decided yet. But I have to say, respectability has started to lose much of its allure for me.

June 17, 2012

I read Tom Friedman’s column in the New York Times this morning about how the “Arab Spring” will wither unless it is accompanied by “education for employment.” It is more or less the same column he writes continuously, pointing out that unless people get smart they will be dumb. It did, however, have this statement: “I read the other day that a U.S. drone had killed ‘the No. 2 man’ in Al Qaeda. I am sure the world is a better place.” I was going to comment on it but, then, in the thread, I found this response from a person who designates himself, “cgehner” from Seattle: “Mr. Friedman blithely states ‘..a U.S. drone had killed the No. 2 man in Al Qaeda. I am sure the world is a better place.’ What an abjectly ignorant and stupid statement.” Cgehner seems to have summed it up.

To be fair, we should note that Friedman uses the comment to introduce the thought that killing people may be all to the good but that it won’t accomplish the transformation of the Middle East and southern Asia into a paradise where people are concentrated on getting jobs and buying apartments.

Reading Friedman reminds me that a while back I gave into pressure and subscribed to the Times digital edition for what will eventually be $15 a month but which at the beginning is cheaper. As soon as I did it, irony took over, and I began to find less and less in the Times that I thought was worth reading. Certainly, it makes little sense to pay to read Tom Friedman, since he always says what he said before. The important thing about him, though, is that he’s a pretty good representative of the paper itself. It has grown tired and, consequently, tiresome. As I scan through it this morning, I find little to capture my imagination. Of course, one could say that’s because my imagination itself has become tepid. And there may be some truth to that. Still, I wonder what even the most vigorous mind can make of the array of “news” the Times supplies us.

There’s an article about the trend to hire photographers to film the birth of babies. Another tells us that C.E.O. pay is rising. One on sports informs us that being a catcher in the major leagues is both hard and important. There’s description of palaces in Poland. Maureen Dowd lets us know we’re living in a moral dystopia, this based on the activities of Jerry Sandusky. And with respect to the presidential campaign we learn that Sheldon Adelson is going to contribute millions of dollars to try to insure that the next president won’t interfere with Adelson’s making even more money than he has already.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. I suppose it is moderately informative. But there’s a sameness to it that rolls on day after day and that causes one to wonder whether taking it in does much to develop understanding.

I think I remember Thoreau’s saying that he could write the newspaper headlines ten years hence and be largely correct.

I’m not implying that I’m going to cancel my subscription. The Times is clearly more entertaining than the network news. But if one reads only The New York Times, which I fear quite a few people do, he or she will scarcely be able to think intelligently about the world our children and grandchildren are going to face. And though Times readers will probably vote more reasonably than those directed by Karl Rove, the coming difficulties of a depleted and over-crowded world are unlikely to be addressed seriously by them.

I think I’ve been spending too much time on the “news.” Exactly how to correct myself I’m not sure. Good books are one possibility. But opening my eyes more widely, and listening more intently, to the things that occur right in front of me are probably better.

June 18, 2012

Mitt Romey will decide about things when he gets down to it. He’ll take a look at them and then he’ll make the right decision. We can be sure he’ll do the correct thing because he has been a businessman, and businessmen know what’s to be done. Politicians, by contrast, don’t.

This, as far as I can tell, is virtually the entire message of the Romney campaign. He seems to have no plans to change it.

Chris Matthews on Hardball tonight said that Romney was so concerned with getting the Republican nomination he took the most right-wing position he could think of on every issue. He didn’t care what it was. Now he would like to appear more moderate but he doesn’t know how to pull it off without looking ridiculous.

Ridiculousness was precisely his mode yesterday, during his interview with Bob Schieffer. Romney was about as absurd as a man can be, and though he has been criticized for his unwillingness even to appear to answer Schieffer’s questions, most pundits don’t think he was seriously harmed by the performance.

It’s hard to understand behavior of this sort. Romney and his advisors must think there are enough people in the country who dislike Obama, just because of who he is, that they will elect the GOP candidate simply because he’s not Obama. He needs no other qualifications. He clearly doesn’t have any, but maybe that doesn’t matter. This is a strange race, and I suspect that as we move on towards the fall it will get even stranger.

My guess is that most citizens of the United States have no thoughts about what sort of federal government they would like to have. The political argument has been reduced so thoroughly to claims that one candidate, or another, can supply people with money that most genuine governmental functions have disappeared from public concern. This is not true of all Americans, of course. But I think it is true of a majority. Since the people who have thought about government know how they are going to vote, the campaigns are not interested in them. Candidates address their arguments to persons who have no concepts of what government can or cannot accomplish. Consequently, the political appeals, for the most part, are asinine. They involve promises so removed from reality no knowledgeable person takes them seriously.

We have reached such a state that commentators proclaim regularly that the worst political blunder a politician can make is to tell the truth. No one ever disagrees with the assertion which is now close to the status of a cliché.

I hear it said more and more frequently that it doesn’t matter who wins the presidential race. It’s a notion I once would have disagreed with vehemently. Now I’m not so sure. Though it’s fairly clear to me that Romney’s mind is a vacancy, I don’t have much sense of what might flow into it should he be projected into the White House. He doesn’t actually want to function as president; he just wants to have the office because it seems like a nice thing to have. Getting things is big with Romney. You might say that, for him, ownership is the purpose of life. If he were president, there’s no telling what he might want to get. I’d just as soon not find out, but I can’t claim to know.

It’s a sad thing to confess to myself but I’m almost to the point that my preference for president is determined by which of two men would irritate me less as he popped up over the next four years on TV and in the newspapers. I don’t find the sight of Obama bothersome, even though I don’t pay much attention to what he has to say anymore. He has a pleasant smile and now and then he exhibits a sense of humor. Romney, by contrast, is yucky no matter what he’s doing. He’s the sort of person who, if you saw him coming down the street, you would cut over to the next block to avoid passing close to him. So I’ll vote for Obama in hopes of making Romney disappear. Come to think of it, erasing someone from public notice may be the best reason to cast a vote in the current American political climate. It worked last time. Just think what it would have been to put up with daily pronunciamentos from John McCain since 2008.

June 19, 2012

Is there anything at the moment that can be called the American character? And if there is, is it a thing of which anyone should be proud?

These are complicated questions, and not ones that can be answered definitively, particularly not by anyone living in the midst of American culture. But they are nonetheless worth thinking about.

When I was younger, I thought of American character as best depicted by Gary Cooper in the movies. It was confident but repulsed by bombast; it was kindly but not emotional; it was laconically ironical. I don’t see many of those qualities in America today. Some us thought four years ago Barack Obama had them . Some of us hope, even now, that we were right, though our confidence has diminished. Generally, though, the Gary Cooper style has been driven out of fashion by frenetic media excitement.

Part of the change has come about by the discovery that the world is more complex, more confusing, than Gary Cooper’s characters seemed to think it was. Failure to know everything is offensive to the American personality, and often, in taking offense, we become obnoxious. George Bush is perhaps the best recent example of that propensity.

When Gary Cooper held sway, America appeared content to be what, and who, it was, without worrying about ruling the world. World rule, or the lust for world rule, is not conducive to a winning demeanor. Think of Dick Cheney, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and the Koch brothers and you’ll see what I mean.

As Charles Dickens so memorably pointed out in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, Americans like to be cocksure about everything. Self-doubt is not a part of their makeup, or, at least, not a part they’re willing to confess. Yet the passion for seeking the truth is a different thing from the passion caused by the belief that one has the truth. They are so different you might call them opposites. I don’t think the search for truth is a prominent element of the American character right now.

My travels outside the United States have taught me that people elsewhere talk less about morality than Americans do, and almost not at all about their own morality. In America, morality is democratic in the sense that it’s pretty well synonymous with mediocrity. This is why preaching about morality is almost always soaked in hypocrisy. The man who is telling you to be moral is telling you not to be distinctive, and this is normally done as a means of benefitting himself. Moral preachment has grown more prominent in the United States over the past three decades, and may well have wormed its way more deeply into the American character. If that has, indeed, happened, I wish it would turn around and worm its way out.

A development that may be underway worries me most. I was in the habit of thinking that Americans, if not the world’s most intelligent inhabitants, were nevertheless generous and good-hearted. But now there are signs the latter characteristics could be wilting. Part of the evidence is just ordinary bigotry, which has been with us all along. Yet there’s a feeling that something new is arising. I can’t be sure what it is but I’ve learned that when something really nasty comes into being we should look for indignation in the background. So what might it be that Americans have to be indignant about?

Over the past half-century we have been informed -- perhaps just because of better communications -- that the rest of the world doesn’t view American superiority as self-evident. How dare they? Doesn’t everyone recognize that the United States is the greatest nation that has ever existed, and that U.S. citizens, simply by being part of that greatness, have grandeur automatically deposited upon them? They don’t have to earn it; it’s theirs by birthright.

There may be nothing more irritating than discovering that something you thought you possessed simply by being who you are doesn’t actually belong to you unless you make an adequate effort to achieve it. Learning that is usually thought to be part of the process of growing up.

Perhaps the nation is going through a maturation, which at the moment manifests itself by adolescent tantrums, but which over time will lead to a different sense of self, one that can be sustained and built upon, and also one that will allow us to live more healthily and easily with the other people who reside in this tiny corner of the universe.

I’m not sure that nations can mature as individuals do. I’m not even sure they can have characters. Yet there has to be something that guides national behavior, regardless of what we call it. Whatever it is, I hope in the United States it will recalibrate its directional signals before it drives us into a wall.

June 20, 2012

The badness of the world is a matter of perspective. Some people see it as fine; others see it as hideous. And an individual may see it as horrible  one day and okay on another. Given my philosophic disposition, I have no intellectual right to say that the world is either good or bad. But I can certainly say what I like about it and what I don’t. Furthermore, I can say whether or not it’s moving in a direction I prefer. Lately the movement I’ve observed distresses me.

I was reminded of my discontent this morning by wading through Henry Giroux’s most recent column in Truthout, titled “Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie: The Education Deficit and the New Authoritarianism.” Mr. Giroux is a severely prolix writer, which is unfortunate because he often manages to come up with spritely and telling terms and phrases. If they were encased in more attractive -- or at least less exhaustive --verbiage, they would reach a wider audience and thereby give Giroux greater influence. And I would like for him to have greater influence because if he did he would push things in a direction I want to see them go.

Giroux’s argument today is that in America the plutocracy, by which he means bankers, hedge fund managers, mega-corporations, and the executive members of the financial service industries, have hijacked the educational system. He is not referring simply to the schools, but also to the media, the entertainment industry, political discourse and anything else which might be seen as informing the public about how social mechanisms work. The system has been rigged to promote beliefs -- Giroux calls them “permanent education” or “the circles of certainty that now reign as common sense” -- which function always for the benefit of the wealthy and for no one else. But, you see, how they perform doesn’t count in rating them because they have been established as the “truth.” Primary among these is the dogma that the market, as it operates through gigantic financial institutions, is the only way to provide effectively for the distribution of goods and services. If one challenges this element of the canon, he is immediately portrayed as a heretic, and as very likely no longer sane. He is certainly not a person to be reasoned with.

Once you establish the boundaries of reason you control what can be discussed, and even what can be thought. Thus you banish any conversation that might threaten your interests. When only the increased wealth of those who are already vastly wealthy can seriously be addressed as a goal, the idea that a society is functioning as a democracy becomes farcical.

Giroux says that’s where we are now. I think he might be exaggerating a bit but he’s right to say that it’s the direction in which we are moving. He doesn’t suffer from my handicap with respect to moral judgment. He’s a full-scale moralist and he thinks the rich are bad. Where his authority for saying so comes from I’m not sure, but he seems very certain about it.

Since I can’t say they’re bad, I need to find other reasons for not wanting them to control society to the degree they do. I think in pursuing their own interests they do harm others, those who are definitely not rich, and that causes me to be less than admiring of them. But if I said that was my main reservation about rich people, I would be giving myself too much seemingly moral credit. So to take morality out of it, I’ll admit I think the rich are astoundingly boring. There are exceptions, of course. But there are exceptions to everything.

The rich people I have known, and most of those I have read about, seem to think of nothing but money. It serves in their psyches about the same way particular notions of God serve in the minds of complete religious fanatics. It’s not too much to say the rich -- mostly -- worship it.

I can’t say money is entirely without interest. I guess most people muse, now and then, about what they might acquire if they had more of it. I, myself, think occasionally about getting a new roof. But to concentrate on it all the time impresses me as a deadly way to live. What could be more droopy? I wonder if it may be a psychopathology.

If Giroux is right about the seizure of the entire educational system, we have to assume that it will come to address nothing but the concerns of the rich. If anybody in the system tries to bring attention to anything else, he or she will be eliminated. We see this happening right now at my university in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the president has just been ousted because she gave signs of caring more about education -- in the old-fashioned sense -- than about the money wealthy members of the board of visitors wanted her to focus on.

Just think of what life will be like in a society where it is considered impractical to speak or to think about anything other than money. Of course, if the priests of the pocketbook get their way, the idea of caring about anything other than money will disappear from human minds. But just because people have let themselves be convinced that money is the only worthy subject they won’t, thereby, escape flat-brained boredom. Naturally enough that will give some entrepreneurs the opportunity to acquire piles of money by selling more pills.

The idea of the rich being the only teachers is a descending spiral. I doubt even the wealthy are going to like it down at the bottom they come to.

June 21, 2012

Reading in Adrian Del Caro’s Nietzsche Contra Nietzsche, I came on the statement that Nietzsche thought Kant had left the problem of morals unsolved. I wasn’t surprised by it. I’m reasonably sure that is, indeed, what Nietzsche thought and I suspect most scholars of Nietzsche would agree.

The sentence, though, lodged in my thoughts to remind me that Kant wasn’t alone. I certainly haven’t worked out the problem of morals in any comprehensive way. I’m not even sure what is meant by the phrase: “the problem of morals.”

I have for some time now had a beginning thought about my relationship to morality, one I told myself was adequate for addressing social behavior. That thought was simply that I don’t have any morality, nor do I want any. But who knows? Maybe I’ve been confused.

If I have I think I’m partially excused by the plethora of definitions for morals and morality that exist in human discourse. You can say just about anything that comes to mind about morals and find people who will agree with you.

The reason I say I have no morality is that I’ve assumed morality has to be derived from some ultimate authority. I’m not in touch with any ultimate authority and consequently I can’t claim to represent one in any debates about right and wrong.

I’m aware that some might argue that morality is any system of right and wrong that might be put forward, for whatever reason. In other words, Joe can have a morality and Bob can have a morality. They may overlap in some respects and differ in others. But if that’s all that’s being asserted in moral discourse, then it seems to me simpler and more honest to speak of likes and dislikes. I can like one behavior more than I do another, and I can despise some behavior, without claiming that I’m taking a moral stance. I’m just being who I am.

Someone might respond, “Yes, but where do your likes and dislikes come from? You have to acknowledge that they emerge out of the great moral systems of the past.” That’s true to some extent, perhaps true to a large extent. But knowing that my preferences come from something doesn’t mean I have to acknowledge the claims to authority that something makes for itself.

Sorting out why a given person thinks as he does is an extremely complex business, one I’m a long way from completing for myself. That’s why I have to confess I haven’t solved the moral problem comprehensively. But I can say, based on a fairly common definition of morality, that I’m not representing the dictates of any infallible authority, and therefore that I am not being moral.

I realize that most people, when they declaim about right and wrong, assume that there’s something out there, somewhere, which has both the jurisdiction and the ability to establish a moral system, and that in standing up for right and resisting wrong they are simply being loyal to that something. If they are asked what it is, they have resort to undefinable terms like “god,” or “the laws of nature,” or “the constitution of the universe,” or “the collective opinion of humanity.” Yet just because people like to avoid responsibility by using fuzzy language doesn’t mean they are in contact with anything profound.

The advantage of speaking of preferences rather than of right and wrong is that argumentation is made less toxic. If you tell someone that you see things differently from him and then try to explain why, you have a better chance for real conversation than if you tell him he’s a sinner and violating the laws of God. You don’t have to weaken your stance by basing it on preference. You can defend it as fiercely as if you saw yourself serving in the army of the Lord. But if you’re going to maintain intellectual integrity you do have to admit that you’re acting out of your own convictions and that you recognize that others have convictions different from your own.

If you’re worried that following your own bent will lead you into complete isolation and deliver you into the grip of odious principles, you should recall one of Nietzsche’s most famous statements, from Daybreak, Section 103:

It goes without saying that I do not deny -- unless I am a fool -- that many actions
called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought
to done and encouraged -- but I think the one should be encouraged and the other
avoided for other reasons than hitherto.

There’s little danger that you will be ingenious enough to arrive at a set of injunctions which will isolate you from everybody who has ever lived.

What we should be thinking about are the “other reasons than hitherto.” Are there any? What are they? How can we get to them? If we spent our time asking one another about them, and less time denouncing one another for being evil, I suspect we would have more fun, even if we didn’t penetrate the ultimate mystery of existence.

June 23, 2012

The level of hostility brought on by divisive political and social issues in the United States has reached a point where the quality of life is being affected. Living in the United States is less pleasant now than it was forty years ago. You can tell yourself you’re not going to pay attention to the bizarre claims made by propagandists but unless you withdraw to social isolation it’s hard to avoid them.

I can’t decide what this means. If I read, for example, that 65% of Republicans think that Saddam Hussein planned the attacks on September 11, 2001, why should that affect my contentment? The answer I give myself is that such persons will promote future wars, vast loss of life, and wasteful use of resources. They will, in short, pollute my political environment.

I guess I should be concerned about that. But when I reach toward a broader perspective I have to acknowledge that in any large political unit there will be a portion of the population whose psychological condition compels them towards fear, hatred and suspicion. That’s simply the condition of humanity right now. And if that’s the case, then it’s the environment in which we have to live and work. There’s no sense in driving yourself crazy because things are not as you would wish.

What has happened over the past forty years is not that we’ve had a decline in public sanity but, rather, that there has been an increase in the number of venues in which people express themselves. I have said that I like people to express themselves. So why should I be distressed?

I suspect the distress I do feel comes from the refutation of something I used to believe. Until fairly recently I told myself that I could have a productive conversation with anyone, and that if two people spent some time trying to explain themselves to one another, the result would be a higher level of mutual understanding. I was resistant to the idea that unconscious drives control not only what many people do believe, but what they can believe. I now see I was largely wrong about all that. And being wrong, I don’t know what to do about it.

Formerly my answer to almost any predicament was, “Let’s talk it over.” Now, I don’t really have an answer. If someone comes to me and says that Barack Obama is part of a secret world organization dedicated to overthrowing the United States and, therefore, that impeachment proceedings should immediately be launched against him, how am I to respond? I know that person has moved far beyond the promptings of evidence and, consequently, any attempt I might make to introduce evidence would be futile. To tell him that he’s lost his mind would be even more futile. What else is there other than silence?

To return to the question of why the United States has become a less pleasant place to live than it once was, I think we have to acknowledge that a greater portion of our fellow citizens are beyond evidence than we used to think they were. We haven’t yet faced up to that. Nor have we decided what to do about it.

We can, of course, try to muster majorities in support of behavior that strikes us as sane. But much as I hate to say it, I’m afraid we have to give up the idea that we can have rational political discourse with all our fellow citizens. When I watch John Cornyn demanding the resignation of Eric Holder for reasons that are obviously false, I have to face the fact that I can’t talk with John Cornyn. I don’t know why he says what he says. He may be a complete political opportunist; he may be doing the bidding of someone else; he may have worked himself into a condition of total delusion. I don’t know, and there’s no way I can find out. Talking with him wouldn’t help.

I don’t yet know if I can make myself stoic enough that the actuality of being cut off not just from some but from millions of persons who reside in this country won’t reduce my sense of well-being. At the moment it still bothers me. Yet maybe I can get used to it. I probably don’t have any other option.

June 24, 2012

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the way you identify yourself and the way you identify other people is the most important thing about you. At about the same time I also came to understand that the business of identification is the strongest engine of manipulation in existence. It’s doing far more harm than good. When I think about it, I’m hard pressed to find any good it’s doing.

I first began to think about all this when I was young and people would ask me, “What do you do?” I realized that in uttering those words they were asking how I earned my living and that by finding out it would enable them to put me in a box. Then they could say, “John Turner is a soldier” or “John Turner is an engineer” or some such thing. That was not the thought I wanted them to have about me. I didn’t, however, know what to do about it. I was too young, and too shy, to adopt the answer I used when I was older: “I don’t do much of anything.”

I also noticed that when someone else was talked of, he or she would generally be assigned a fundamental identity. He would be a professor, or a Jew, or a father, or a black man, or a homosexual, or a football fan, or so on. That didn’t strike me as fair.

There’s a difference between noting a feature of someone’s life story and assigning someone an identity -- a huge difference. Yet it’s one that, in our culture, few take into account. Consequently, most people don’t know what they’re doing by making all these identities. They certainly don’t think of the pain they’re causing.

When my wife was a school teacher I began to notice how certain students were spoken of as IEPs. This meant they were following an “individual education plan” which meant in turn that they had been designated as having some weakness in learning. The people who said that Johnny or Beth is an IEP did it in all innocence. They intended no harm. It was just the way people talked. Most of us don’t register that the way people talk has dramatic results. We seldom acknowledge that it shapes our character.

I was reminded of some of these thoughts yesterday watching Jen Marlowe on Book TV discussing conditions in Palestine. She pointed out that journalists generally write about Israelis versus Palestinians, as though those were the only identities to be taken into account when 20% of the citizens of Israel are Muslim Palestinians. In the journalistic business of identifying, they simply get left out.

It happened in the midst of writing this piece, that I watched another Book TV program featuring Jonah Goldberg being interviewed about his new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. I confess, I was surprised. Having read a goodly number of Mr. Goldberg’s columns, I expected to find him a thoroughly disagreeable character but instead, he made a positive impression on me. I wasn’t won over to any of his positions, which promote a world I don’t think I would enjoy. But at the same time he seemed to be an honest guy, one with whom I could have a pleasant conversation.

A point he made about liberals is that they are always denouncing labels, which he finds both foolish and annoying. He was attacking the notion that the best people are those who don’t come at a problem from anywhere but, rather, pretend that they are doing nothing other than objectively weighing evidence. He’s right; that is annoying, or at least it should be.

Maybe it’s too fine a distinction to attempt -- though I’m a strong supporter of fine distinctions -- but I do think there’s a difference between saying that someone is in favor of something and identifying him as an advocate of that something. If you want to say you’re labeling him by pointing out what he favors, okay. But I do think you have the duty to acknowledge that your label applies only to the position you’re talking about and not to the whole of the person.

The only adequate identification of a person is his name. In the name lies the whole of everything he has been, all the changes he has decided to make, and who he is now. I don’t want to deny that certain associations, and memberships, and loyalties have a lot to do with who one is. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to pick out any one of them and say, “He’s that.” We can find ways to express ourselves which avoid that trap.

We need to remember that it’s a trap not only for the persons we stuff into boxes. It becomes a trap for ourselves. I shouldn’t have thought that I knew what Jonah Goldberg was because he is a columnist for the National Review. Maybe that’s one thing he would agree with me about.

June 26, 2012

The two most diverting things I read about the presidential campaign this morning are that Mitt Romney “lacks the courage of his absence of convictions,” which George Will may, or may not, have said, and that Barack Obama “is a paradox: an exciting story, an unexciting man,” which Richard Cohen of the Washington Post did say.

The two together reminded me that, despite the non-stop news frenzy, it is impossible to grasp adequately the character and personality of major political figures. The spin is so desperate it washes away authenticity. It’s worse than that, even; it causes one to doubt the existence of authenticity.

When we vote, we can’t say we know what we are voting for. We may know what we hope we’re voting for, but that’s a different thing than political knowledge.

I read considerable commentary about how we should respond to the rotten political conditions in the United States today (about the only thing people agree on is that they are rotten).  Yet I haven’t found any that strike me as sweepingly convincing.

There are people who say we should support the least bad of candidates and positions. Then we will make things better than they would otherwise be. That’s probably true, although the difference between the bad and the terrifically bad may not be as big as we think.

Others say to stop deluding yourself that any of the major systems now in power are capable of being reformed. Let the worst of them take over and then, maybe, the people will finally see how foolish they have been to vote for what they have empowered. But that’s a big maybe.

The advocates of smallness and specificity say to forget about the so-called big picture and concentrate your efforts on local improvements. Only out of grass roots accomplishments can improvement rise. But supposing by ignoring big things we permit something gigantically awful, like launching a war against Iran. That would more than nullify all the little advances.

Lately I hear more voices proclaiming that politics is hopeless. Find a niche where you can live and concentrate on the things that really matter, like literature, or education, or art, or philosophic understanding. I’m afraid such advocates forget that bad political conditions can sweep away all the niches where intelligent life can prosper.

I’m not sure what to do. I can make only two suggestions for how we might improve, and neither of them are certain solutions.

The first thing is to encourage people to try to find out more of what’s actually happening. Point out that anyone who attempts to be well informed by watching TV news and reading a single newspaper -- even if it’s the New York Times -- will end up being duped. The forces for duping in the world are astoundingly numerous. They have always been powerful but I doubt that ever before they have constituted the principal profession of humanity. So anyone who doesn’t want them to take him or her over has to make a commitment to greater effort than used to be considered normal. Not infrequently I meet people who consider themselves conscientious citizens but who have never heard of Jonathan Chait, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Robert Wright, Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Kline, Steve Benen, Kevin Drum, Tom Engelhardt, Chris Hedges, Lewis Lapham, Robert Parry. It’s even worse than that; I encounter people who don’t know who Paul Krugman, Joseph Steiglitz, or Noam Chomsky are. If sensible democracy is to have a chance in America -- I acknowledge the possibility that it might not be able to -- we have to develop a more highly informed citizenry.

The second thing is to align yourself with efforts to point out particular corruptions in American life. It’s easy to say that no matter how much malefactors are exposed, they roll right along piling up their benefits. It’s true; they do to some extent. Yet, over time, if their actions are steadily brought to public attention, they lose influence. A recent example is Jamie Dimon. Sure, he’s going to keep on being rich. Yet more and more people are learning that he directs a gigantic, manipulative and probably criminal corporation. And by discovering that J.P. Morgan Chase is what it is, greater numbers come to see that all the companies in the business that J.P.Morgan Chase follows exhibit behavior of about the same stripe. Their directors show up at Congressional hearings wearing expensive cuff-links and are fawned over by the law makers they have bought. But as their actions are more fully understood, contempt for them grows. And as it grows it grates. Jamie Dimon’s voice is not as powerful right now as it was two months ago. And that’s a good thing for the people of the United States. The decline occurred because some investigators had the energy and intelligence to dig into what was going on and report what was found. Ordinary citizens need to join such efforts to whatever degree they can.

We are in the midst of momentous times, which is not to say there haven’t been momentous times before. Maybe the entire nature of what we can expect from social life is going to change -- for the worse for most people. There are no guarantees, but there can be some satisfaction in trying to turn back from nasty destinations.

June 27, 2012

This evening will mark the end of a two week stretch of living alone for me. It’s not the first experience of that sort I’ve had, nor is it likely to be the last. Generally speaking, I don’t like to live alone, that is I don’t like it as well as living with people I care about. But there are benefits to solitude which aren’t well understood.

Thomas Jefferson was known for saying that company brings breadth of mind whereas solitude brings depth. Leaving aside for the moment the difficulty of defining those two terms, I think he was right. When I’m alone, I wonder about things more fiercely than when I’m with someone, and occasionally fierce wondering leads to something worthy.

I’ve been helped in my wondering this past week by reading Adrian Del Caro’s book on Nietzsche’s relation with romanticism, titled Nietzsche Contra Nietzsche. The title indicates that the philosopher’s thoughts about romanticism changed dramatically over the course of his life. They went from being strongly positive to something else.

Near the end of the book, Del Caro takes up Nietzsche’s response to nationalism, which in Germany, over the course of Nietzsche’s life, became ever more romantic. The state was projected as something glorious which gave meaning to the individual’s existence (you know, ask not what your country can do for you and so forth). Nietzsche hated that idea. It was the main reason he broke with his former friend and exemplar, Richard Wagner.

Del Caro paraphrases Nietzsche’s take on the emergence of the modern state by writing:

The state celebrates the great harvest of individuals. It is mankind’s new idol
when the tyranny of religion wanes, and man still has not the courage to live
without establishing some cult.

Nietzsche didn’t want any group to “harvest” individuals because he thought that the individual’s self development into something genuinely distinctive was the only noble human goal. And he also came to see that in order for that development to take place one would have to experience times of loneliness. As a person thinks more and more for himself, gulfs open between him and most other people. How could it be otherwise?

It certainly wasn’t that Nietzsche didn’t value friendship; he always wanted more of it than he could get. But he probably never examined himself closely enough to grasp all the factors that withered some of his connections. As far as I know, he never wrote carefully about friendship. And that’s too bad because his idea of individualism could have flowered into a version of friendship -- or at least into a theory of friendship -- that countered conventional ideas (countering conventional ideas was Nietzsche’s primary aspiration).

It has been often remarked how former close associations -- that were thought to be friendships -- fail to persist after the environment in which they arose is no longer present. We’ve all known cases in which people who worked together in the same organization, and who seemed inseparable, lose touch with one another when one of them goes off to work somewhere else. It’s commonly supposed that friendships die when the opportunity for sharing one another’s company is reduced. But that’s not it. The bond disappears because the only thing that made it real was common servitude. It did not exist because of respect for and interest in the individuality of the other. So we are prompted to ask whether it was real, or not. The answer depends on definitions, of course. But a case can be made that the only connections deserving the title of friendship occur between people who value one another’s being more than they do their roles. And if you hold that position then you’ll probably be driven to conclude that persons who are defined almost completely by their roles, by their positions within systems or organizations, are incapable of friendship. They may be loyal cult members, but they can be friendly only within the cult.

If you look into anything carefully, you’ll almost always find irony present. It seems to be the basic rule of human existence. It’s clearly ironic to discover that genuine closeness with another depends on frequent spates of loneliness. The making of the self in solitude is what creates the possibility of genuinely understanding another. I’m not saying that all hermits are, potentially, great friends. I suspect that many of them become so solipsistic that friendship is out of their reach. On the other hand, taking time, when you’re by yourself, to wonder who you are, and who you can be, may be the only way to make yourself worth being someone’s companion.

Being alone has its price. There are likely to be moments of fear, dread, melancholy, and nihilism. But all in all it’s usually a price worth paying.

June 29, 2012

I notice that the Attorney General has been held in contempt of Congress. It raises for me the question: how can one not be contemptuous of Congress? When you consider the House of Representatives of late, not being in contempt points either to questionable sanity or severe ignorance.

Take the package of John Boener, Eric Cantor, Darrell Issa, Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan, Vern Buchanan, Allen West, Paul Broun, Ben Quayle, Dana Rohrabacher, Mike Pence, Steve King, Louie Gohmert, Virginia Foxx, and Peter King. How can such a set have been put together? Collectively, they speak to a strain of dementia.

Some people say that we should be respectful of the institution regardless of current members -- the old respect-the-office ploy. I’m never sure what that means. At any given time the institution is its membership and its current behavior. And simply taking those two factors into account, the House of Representatives of the United States Congress is a contemptible thing.

The charge against the Attorney General was that he didn’t give the House Oversight Committee certain correspondence the President told him not to give them. This was supposedly concerning a law enforcement project launched by the Bush administration. But that the committee leadership was not actually interested in that project is attested by their failing to call as witnesses any officials who had anything to do with initiating it. Clearly, they didn’t care about how the project got started. They simply wanted to push the Attorney General to a point where he couldn’t comply, so they could get a submissive Republican House membership to pass a contempt measure -- something by the way no other Congress has ever done -- in order to score a political point. If that’s not contemptible, it’s hard to imagine what might be.

The American people now say they have a very low opinion of Congress. What a surprise! The problem with the people, though, is that a majority of them won’t take enough interest in this current farce to see it for what it is. It will be just too complicated for them to understand.

One can’t help recalling George Carlin’s explanation of why he didn’t bother to criticize politicians. I’ll post it for you here. It’s a statement the American people ought to be reminded of fairly frequently. Forgive the naughty language. That’s just the way George talked.

Now, there's one thing you might have noticed, I don't complain about:
politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they
suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't
fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality.
They come from American parents and American families, American homes,
American schools, American churches, American businesses and American
universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we
can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces:
Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to
get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're
just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans.
So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something
else sucks around here... like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks. There's a nice
campaign slogan for somebody: "The Public Sucks. Fuck Hope."

I really miss George Carlin. Just think what he could have done with Darrell Issa and the House Oversight Committee.

June 30, 2012

How do I know that casino capitalism is a bad thing?

First, we have to stipulate that it’s a bad thing from my point of view. It’s certainly not a bad thing from Mitt Romney’s point of view.

I see it as bad because it inflicts suffering on millions of people in order to benefit relatively few. Romney doesn’t see it as bad because he doesn’t care about the suffering as long as he’s among those who benefit.

Now and again I ask myself whether, if I had vast wealth, I would share Romney’s point of view. It’s the same thing as asking whether money could completely take over my mind. I like to think not, but I can’t be sure, of course. It’s not an important point because I’m never going to have vast wealth. I do know this: I wouldn’t sell my life for it, even if somebody offered me the opportunity.

The issue of perspective cleared up, it’s back to the main question. How do I know casino capitalism is a bad thing?

One reason is that people who are intelligent, who know about the movement of money, and whose motives I respect tell me it is. If you take the trio of Robert Reich, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz and read what they have written about the effects of the burgeoning inequality of wealth in America, you will have to be obtuse not to see casino capitalism as a bad thing unless you can adopt the perspective of Mitt Romney and other venture capitalists. That means you would have to dismiss the suffering of millions as a thing that doesn’t interest you. If you can do that, you’ll be set with the Romney program, though it’s still not likely to do you any good.

I have, however, something even deeper than the teaching of knowledgeable people which tells me about the badness of casino capitalism. It’s the experience of simply observing human behavior over a goodly number of years.

In any situation in which people have an advantage over others within a system, the majority of them will lie about the advantage. They will say it doesn’t exist, and they will make up all sorts of phony language to back up their claims. They do this so they can hold onto their advantages and convince most people they don’t exist.

When the advantages get to be gigantic, then the lies will become ever more monstrous and they will be joined by behavior which is beyond ruthless. When advantages have allowed people to accumulate wealth in the billions, the people who have accrued them will do virtually anything in order to keep them. And they will, of course, routinely lie to themselves.

The reason venture capitalists have been able to rake up as much money as they have is that the tax code has been rigged in their favor. It has been structured such that when casino capitalists gamble with other people’s money, and win, they get to keep the winnings. But when they lose, the tax code allows them to pass the losses off to other people, people with much less money, and for them still to make some money through the processes of ridding themselves of bad debt. This is a win-win situation, for them, and a lose-lose for everybody else.

You may well ask, how could such a system have been put in place? Simple. The plutocrats bought it, from the majority of national legislators. Furthermore, they hired an army of publicists to cover up what they had done, and convince the inattentive public that they, the operatives with all the advantages, were actually public benefactors.

This is not at all surprising. This is what people with advantages do. You might say it’s the human story -- at least so far.

There are various roles you might try out for in the story. You can try to be one of the people who own the advantages. You can try to snuggle up to them and get a few droppings from their tables. You can attempt to bring them down by stripping away their advantages. The latter is the most fun, of course. If you care more about fun than you do about advantages, your course is clear.

If you would like a succinct but still fairly detailed layout of the advantages of the casino capitalists, read Robert Reich’s article, titled “Mitt Romney and the New Gilded Age,” in the July 16th edition of The Nation. It’s only 2,751 words, so if you read with ordinary speed it will take you just 8.59 minutes. And if you want to take a few notes, maybe twelve.

©John R. Turner

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