Collected Thoughts

July 2010
July 2, 2012

A friend sent me a link to Jim’s Holt’s article in the New York Times titled “Is Philosophy Literature?” Trying to answer, of course, drives one into a welter of definitions, a problem Mr. Holt readily acknowledges. He persists, however, because it’s pretty clear he wants to say that philosophy is literature, and, in particular, that analytic philosophy is -- or at least can be -- literature.

Over the past couple decades I’ve subsided into thoughts about abstractions which make speculations of this kind less captivating for me than they once were. I want to free myself from abstractions as much as I can and though I’m not so bizarre as to think I can get away from them altogether, the stretching out towards freedom has become, for me, enjoyable.

As we know, people have many motives in employing words and most of them are barely connected with the abstraction we call “philosophy.” But even when we limit ourselves to the activities which generally have been described as philosophy we still find more motives than are easy to sort out. Holt doesn’t get into this explicitly but his piece rides on the underlying assumption that philosophers are attempting to construct systems which get to the bottom of things. You could almost say he is defining philosophy as the construction of such systems. Over the past half century, or so, academicians who define it in the same way have concentrated on the nature of language, following the hypothesis that if we finally determine what language is then we will arrive at reality -- or, I guess to be fair, as close to reality as we can get.

If, however, language is extremely limited or non-existent as a medium of reality, then this becomes little more than an elaborate game which needs to be pursued only by those who take pleasure from it. We also should consider the possibility Nietzsche put forward that language is primarily a device the individual uses to isolate himself from reality. There are thousands and thousands of volumes devoted to issues of this sort and my stance has become that one is well advised to read them only if he gets fun out of them. For myself, I get a little bit of fun so I have read a few of them, but not so many as to qualify me for anything deserving an abstraction.

Just as there are many motives for philosophizing there are also many motives for reading -- actually, a lot more. Some people read under the delusion that if they do it a great deal they will be able to arrive at comprehensive explanations of why things are as they are. My thoughts about abstractions have rescued me from that concept. I cannot read enough, nor can I live long enough, to be able to say with any assurance why things are as they are. I do not know where things came from; I do not know where they’re going. I am pretty strongly convinced that I will never know.

That doesn’t mean, however that I don’t like to read, or that I find no use in it. Though I can’t know in any full sense, I can live. In fact, I have to live until I stop doing it. So, the question for me is how to live well. Neither reading nor philosophizing is a total answer to that question, but I do think they are partial answers. It may be I consider them a bigger part than the average person does, though I can’t know about that.

As soon as you speak of living well you get tossed back into definition. You can be as abstruse as you wish about a definition of the good life, but you can also be pretty simple. Generally I prefer the latter. So here I’ll just say living well means waking up in the morning eager for the day and being able to sustain some of that feeling until you go to sleep at night.

Then the questions for philosophy become, what can I read, what can I think, what can I do, to keep me eager to continue living? Beside those questions, the issue of whether philosophy is literature becomes certainly not meaningless but less than essential.

The thing I should always remember in defining philosophy this way is that it’s a definition just for me and not one I have any business imposing on anybody else. And that does tell me that everyone needs to adopt his or her own definitions, which is a kind of philosophical point.

July 4, 2012

This being the 4th of July, the web sites and newspapers are full of encomiums to the grandeur of something. Discerning what that something is, though, isn’t easy. There’s nothing better than the 4th of July to confirm my stance that people who deal mostly in abstractions are completely convinced they know the truth about things they can’t define.

I noticed that Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post said that his real religion is America. He was careful to add that he doesn’t think Americans are better than other nationalities, nor does he think that the government of the United States has always, or even mostly, engaged in admirable behavior. But the basis of his religion is that he believes “in what this country stands for?” And what is that? And how does Mr. Samuelson know? It’s hard to tell from his essay.

Gary Gutting in the New York Times delves into the issue of whether you can be both patriotic and moral. He seems to come out saying that mostly you can’t, because usually there are inherent contradictions between patriotism and fairness to all people. But if you’re an American patriot it’s different, because, you see, devotion to America is little more than devotion to universal fairness. He does acknowledge that even if an alliance between China and Saudi Arabia were shown to result in a fairer distribution of the world’s petroleum than would be the case if the United States controlled the distribution, it wouldn’t be patriotic to favor the Chinese/Arabian alliance. He tries to slink out of this seeming contradiction by maundering on for a while about how Alasdair MacIntyre says that morality has to be defined as treating the people within your own group fairly. Though Gutting doesn’t support MacIntyre’s notion, writing about it gives him a little space to separate the contradiction he posed from his final conclusion, which is that American patriotism is moral whereas most other kinds aren’t. Besides, the main thing is that when at his house on the 4th of July they drink a toast to the United States of America, he has “to force back tears of pride at being an American.” Tears, of course, always trump thought.

On those rare occasions when I have been brash enough, after hearing a fervid declaration of love for country, to ask the speaker what he meant by “country,” I have never yet received a definite answer.

Does he love the people who currently reside within the borders of the United States?

Does he love the geography encompassed by the nation’s boundaries?

Does he love the nation-state because of its actions in history?

Does he love this area of the earth because of its once plentiful natural resources?

Well, not exactly; it’s not any of those.

Is it some combination of them? Well, not that either.

But at the conclusion of the discussion, the speaker will almost always declare something like, “But I know this; I love my country.”

Discourse of this sort takes on a religious dimension and it always reminds me of the statement I’ve seen asserted frequently in theological tracts: Nobody believes in God, but vast numbers believe fervently in their belief in God. So maybe no one actually loves his country, but most people love with intense passion their love of country.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Hard to say.

The benefactions and depredations of the nation-state -- any nation-state -- are likely so numerous, complex, and tangled that they’re beyond summing up. There’s no doubt that any conclusion about them is beyond universal assent. Even though we don’t like to admit it, it’s an assessment everyone has to make for himself.

A feature of American patriotism which troubles me is that it promotes the notion that in this country no one has the right to make that assessment. If you were at a 4th of July celebration and remarked, “Well, I think the United States is a pretty good country; I’d rank it about 10th or 12th in the list of nations,” you would become an instant pariah. You’d be considered some kind of kook-head. But why? Why can’t a person assess nations the way he does football teams? You can be a football fan without thinking your team is the best team of all.

It’s when patriotism becomes compulsive that it turns stinky. If, for example, you’re expected to cheer what the military forces of your nation are doing in a foreign country even though you think what they’re doing is horrendous, that’s nauseating  - at least from my point of view. What could be more oppressive than being told you have to support something you hate?

It seems to me there’s too much compulsive patriotism in the United States right now. I can’t see that it’s any different from being told that you have to adopt a certain religious faith, or else. We say we’re against that, don’t we?

July 6, 2012

Louis Menand’s review in the current New Yorker of Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite is a fascinating, if non-explicit, comment on the state of modern history. The conclusion a reader is forced to draw from it is that you can’t trust the accuracy of modern historical accounts because they are encased in self-serving pseudo-mythology.

Cronkite has been given credit by many for forcing the country to turn against the U.S war in Vietnam. A principal story has been that President Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s special, “Report from Vietnam,” said to an advisor that if he had lost Walter Cronkite “he had lost Mr. Average American.” It was only a month after the February 27, 1968 TV report that Johnson announced he would not seek re-election.  Supposedly Cronkite’s stance on Vietnam had something to do with that. It’s a great story about the power of journalism and courageous journalists. The only trouble with it is that it’s not true.

At the time Cronkite’s program was broadcast, Johnson could not have watched it because he was speaking at a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally of Texas. Furthermore, there is no evidence that he ever watched it. As for Cronkite’s doubts about Vietnam playing some part in forcing Johnson out of the presidential race, there is quite a bit of evidence that Johnson had made up his mind about that well before Cronkite’s program was broadcast.

Another myth is that Cronkite was astoundingly courageous in reporting that the United States was not winning the war in Vietnam but rather that it was a stalemate. Yet Cronkite was fairly laggard in coming round to that view. Several prominent journals had already announced that the war was unwinnable, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. This is not to say that Cronkite’s report was not reasonable journalism. It was. He went to Vietnam and took some risks traveling out into dangerous regions. He deserves credit for that. But the idea that he was far out in front of general opinion about the nature of the war is not credible.

I spent too much of my time early in 1968 going up to Capitol Hill to attend hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by J. William Fulbright, on the conditions in Vietnam. I was amazed by the difference between what I heard in those hearings and the way they were reported by the media, including CBS News. It was the first time I knew with perfect clarity that the news which emerged from the mainstream media was seriously doctored to support goals other than truth-telling.

You couldn’t attend those hearings without learning that the war in Vietnam was a complete mess, and that the reports being issued by the military command were largely lies. There were always reporters from major news outlets there, but somehow they managed to mask what the witnesses -- including officials such as high-ranking military officers -- were saying. Why do you suppose they did that?

For some reason, the general public has a hard time grasping that accuracy is a fairly weak motive in the calculations of large organizations. I doubt that any organization has ever set the truth above self-interest in deciding how it would behave. I certainly never heard of one that did. News organizations tell the truth only when they think there might be something in it for them. Consequently, when history is based on what news organizations have reported, the public gets a severely distorted picture of what happened.

I don’t know why anyone could think it would be otherwise. Most people have worked in some sort of organization. They know how facts are twisted to push someone ahead, or undercut somebody else. Why would they suppose that propaganda would be less intense in systems where the stakes are higher than they have experienced? Gossip is not devoted to truth and all organizations run on gossip. If that’s the case in small colleges, which I know it is, just think what it must be in the State Department or the Defense Department.

The public likes to create human icons. They like to think that the big guys, up there at the top of the big systems, have somehow risen above the petty behavior they see around them every day. It’s true that some people do, to some degree, rise above petty behavior, but they’re not the people who rise up -- in organizations that is. There’s nothing an organization hates more than a person who won’t go along with the conventional wisdom about what’s good for the team. Organizations don’t put people like that at the top of their affairs.

Douglas Brinkley says he took on the job of Cronkite’s biography after being told by David Halberstam that Cronkite was “the most significant journalist of the second half of the 20th century.” Maybe he was. But stature in that respect depends on the definition of significance. Perhaps he was the most talked about person in the news business. And there’s a kind of significance in that. Cronkite doubtless was a decent person, as corporate newsmen go. But if you want the most determined, inveterate truth-teller you probably need to look elsewhere. Cronkite was first of all a CBS man.

July 9, 2012

Nearly every day we have a new report on the activities of what is now regularly designated the “Surveillance State.” This morning in the New York Times, Eric Lichtblau writes about the 1.3 million demands from law enforcement agencies last year for information from nine cellphone carriers. The thing to remember is that a single one of these demands might involve the activities of dozens of people, so that this process alone is gathering data about many millions of citizens. And there is virtually no restriction on what is done with this data. Even if it’s gathered “collaterally,” that is in connection with a completely unrelated targeted person, it may be stored in some agency’s information bank and kept there indefinitely.

People who are concerned about these developments often cite Senator Frank Church’s warning:

The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around
on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is
the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t
matter. There would be no place to hide. If a dictator ever took over, the NSA could
enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.

The trouble is this statement was made thirty-five years ago, when governmental agencies had only a small percentage of the powers they have since acquired. If it were true in the late 1970s, it is many times more true today.

We don’t have to assume anything as dire as a pure dictatorial takeover. Even if the head of government remains fairly well disposed towards the American citizenry, the vast system of surveillance we have now ensures that there will be numerous harms inflicted on innocent persons.

The naive notion of security agencies portrayed in the mainstream media is of intelligent and sober operatives dedicated to the protection of the people. And it may well be that a majority of security personnel generally fit that description. But when you have a system as gigantic as the security operation has now become in the United States, it is guaranteed to include not just dozens but thousands of unbalanced employees. And each one of them has the opportunity to reach down into an enormous data bank, drag out somebody’s name, and weave a suspicious story around it. Then once that person is located and detained, he becomes a man or woman who the system is inclined to keep on detaining, because, you know, you can never be sure that a given person is innocent.

We have no way of knowing how many people at this minute are being held by the government for flimsy and spurious reasons, and no way of finding out. For the most part they just disappear.

Here’s my prediction: over the coming years we will be treated to an increasing number of scandalous stories in which an innocent person has been hideously abused by the government. We can be sure of one thing about these reports. They will deal with only a tiny percentage of the cases in which the government has behaved similarly. Each one that comes to light will require an indefatigable investigator or justice group working for years. And there will never be enough such efforts to keep up with a zealous army of spies and cops. The latter are far better funded

The question is whether the American people can ever be brought to care. I suspect not, so long as the names of the mistreated persons sound funny to the average guy in Missouri, and as long as the agencies are careful to arrest only a very few people with blond or red hair. Maybe as demographics evolve, and there are more people with funny names, and as some of them work their way into public notice, as TV broadcasters and so forth, concern for those whose lives have been ruined will grow. We can hope so. But, by then, goodness only knows what the powers of the surveillance state will be.

One thing we know for certain. The sort of organizations created over the past twelve years to combat “terrorism” are insatiable. They never have enough money, or personnel, or power. There is always some threat just beyond the horizon they have to be ready to defeat. And as a huge industry develops around them, the thrust of financial advantage and vested interest fuels their growth.

Their effects will become evermore pervasive as they become harder to unearth and detail. People will take it for granted that they are being watched by the government, and as a result they will become wary, worried, and distrustful. The irony will be -- irony is always the law of history -- that as the government is seen as more of a monster to certain groups, there will actually be more people willing to use illegal force to strike at it. That, in turn, will be used to support the argument that the security agencies need more power.

Societies decay not usually through dramatic coups and seizure of power by ruthless men. Rather they go down because of billions of acts of inattention, the sort of inattention which is the norm in America today. The American people, mostly, can’t be bothered to maintain a just society.

I guess that can change. I hope it will. We can never tell when there might be some misuse of power so egregious that the general public will awaken. But at the moment there are few signs that the people are moving in that direction.

We are still on the downslope.

July 10, 2012

I am ever more impressed at how the daily news offers us topics for deep contemplation. For example, yesterday we learned that Sarasota Republicans have designated Donald Trump the statesman of the year, and will hold an awards ceremony for him at about the time the Republican Convention convenes forty miles north in Tampa. There have to be profound currents of perception flowing in Manatee County. I suspect most Americans did not know that Mr. Trump was a statesman of any sort, much less the finest statesman of the year.

David Brooks is upset about increasing inequality among children in America. It turns out that children who manage to have rich parents receive more stimulation than those whose parents have barely enough money to get by. Rich kids get to go more places and take more classes, and play on more athletic teams. We have to do something about this, and what Mr. Brooks prescribes is that left-wing people start acknowledging the importance of marriage, and right-wing people agree that there need to be a few more taxes. He doesn’t say whether this will smooth everything out. But that’s the implication.

Paul Fahri, writing in the Washington Post, is concerned that academics have become “obsessed” with Stephen Colbert. Courses about him are being taught, and academic papers on his influence are being published. This, according to Mr. Fahri is more unsettling even than the high cost of college education. You can’t tell from his article just how voluminous Colbert-mania has become, but, clearly, it’s big enough to constitute an obsession. So what more do we need to know?

On the ESPN web site, Rick Reilly ascends to the heights of frustration because in the major leagues, batters are allowed to step away from the plate to adjust their gloves and wiggle. Recently, Mr. Reilly watched a game on TV which stretched beyond three hours when it should have been over in the Reilly-approved time of two hours. He doesn’t tell us what he would have spent the saved hour watching if the umpires had been more admonitory. A curious phenomenon of American fandom is that people who don’t like baseball are infuriated over the way it is played. That there is an easier remedy for their discontent than becoming outraged and demanding transformations appears never to occur to them. But, then, I guess we need to remember that in America the manufacture of indignation has become our number one industry.

There is a great deal of passion directed at the issue of whether, or not, the tax cuts passed during the Bush administration should be allowed to lapse, or at what level of income they should be retained. Seldom do journalists report on how much money would be involved at various levels, or how much that amount would affect the taxpayers to whom it applied. I guess that’s because what the changes -- or lack of changes -- would actually do to the majority of people is of virtually no consequence. The issue is how the political rhetoric about taxes will influence the election. Will the electorate care more for the argument that taxes should be kept ruinously low only for non-wealthy persons, or for everyone, regardless of wealth? That the increase for persons of modest income resulting from letting the cuts lapse would be trifling is unable to penetrate the political debate. That’s because it doesn’t help either party to point it out. So, for American journalists, the question of how various tax rates would shape the country is simply a non-issue. The important thing is who will be able to ride on top as the whole nation slides downhill.

In the nation’s capital, the disconnect between social health and political success is almost complete. And that is probably the most fascinating feature of the news as it unrolls, day after day, for our contemplation.

July 12, 2012

I read a disturbing article by Tony Dokoupil in the Daily Beast yesterday about the effect the internet is having on human brains. There have been many such warnings over the past several years but this one is fortified by more scientific studies than I have seen before.

The basic message is that when one spends more than forty hours per week grazing on the Web, the brain begins to show the same distortions that are displayed by the brains of severe drug addicts. This shouldn’t be surprising. Surely we have all known persons who are so wrapped up in consulting their electronic devices they can’t engage in what used to be thought the ordinary activities of life.

It happened that I came on the article the morning after the meeting of the Johnson Society, my literary discussion group. Though we had an affable conversation, our focus seemed always to move towards the quality of the human situation we appear, inevitably, to be moving towards. No one there held a bright perspective on the future. In fact, most of us predicted increasing social psychosis.

For a long time people have been saying the world is going to hell. Maybe that’s just the way humans are, or maybe they’ve been right. And it’s not beyond possibility that the dire results some have been predicting for more than a century are getting close to reality.

One of our members is especially concerned about the growth of population. He has read studies which proclaim that already the earth has six times more people than it can sustain in a healthy, stable condition. My friend is more than convinced that this is true. I used to think he exaggerated, and I still do to some extent, but the more I read, and the more I observe, I come closer to his opinions.

Until recently, warnings about overpopulation concentrated on the depletion of natural resources. How can all these people be fed, and supplied with the energy modern comfort demands? It seems we are approaching a limit. Yet bad as the resource problem is, I wonder if the psychological problem is not worse.

The combination of vast numbers and electronic journalism, including such quasi-journalistic systems as Facebook and Twitter, may be driving people mad. That was the message Tony Dokoupil delivered in his article. I found it fairly persuasive.

I don’t know how it happened, but from the time I was a teenager I began to wonder how many people a single person could know, and be concerned about, without going crazy. I never had a specific number in mind but I was fairly sure that if you kept on increasing the number of people you felt you needed to keep up with you would eventually go nuts. And the effect of the dementia would be to retreat into a self-constructed cave and try to forget about actual persons altogether.

That’s not a lot different from what our Web-addicted denizens are doing right now. If you do nothing but play electronic games, the characters of those games will become your reality. Science fiction writers have been telling us this for quite a while. I guess most of us remember Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, which gave rise to the term “dystopia.” In it the majority of citizens are regularly fed “soma,” a hallucinogen which induces inner-directed personal experiences but which nonetheless take place within a socially managed psychic environment.

It seems that the effects of soma and the effects of excessive Web use are not greatly different, even though their delivery mechanisms are not the same.

One can argue, of course, that a dystopia can become a utopia once people accept it as the norm. That’s what makes dystopias so creepy. There’s something in us that doesn’t like the notion of becoming completely other than we have been. Yet there’s also something which goes along with Nietzsche’s proclamation that too long the world has been mad. Managing the tension between those sentiments is likely to be the major task of the future.

Carrying out that management will demand thinking much harder than we have about excessive numbers of people and incessant electronic data. I think that if the latter continues to be driven by capitalistic impulse, our chances of doing anything sensible are low.

There’s always the possibility that a new Dick Cheney will seize power, and reduce the world’s population to a size more in keeping with my friend’s desires. But the methods the ur-Cheney will use aren’t likely to please even the most avid population control advocates. I hope we can find another way.

July 13, 2012

When the pronouncements of those in power become completely asinine we should anticipate a breakdown of some sort. The assurances of government officials are almost always self-serving and frequently silly, but when they step outside even weak reason, trouble portends.

Tom Junod of Esquire, who recently published an article titled “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” received a telephone call from a person he can describe only as having “intimate knowledge of the executive counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration,” in other words, a high official of the security system, speaking off the record.

The first thing we should ask ourselves about this incident is why the person should want to keep his name secret. He was calling presumably to inform a journalist about the truth. There should be nothing disgraceful or threatening about that. But clearly he wouldn’t allow Junod to say who he was.

His main point was that state secrecy exists not to cover up the misdeeds of those in power but for two valid reasons. One is to protect the sources and methods of the intelligence community. The other is to maintain the “requirement” of non-acknowledgement. In case you don’t know what the latter means, it’s the practice of doing something nasty in another country which the executive in that country doesn’t mind but would be forced to protest if it were acknowledged that the United States had done it. It’s a deal, so to speak: “we’ll do this but we won’t admit that we’re doing it.” Junod’s caller was eager to explain that such deals are an essential element of diplomacy. That’s why non-acknowledgement is a requirement.

The necessity of such deals was put forward as self-evident, even though it’s not self-evident at all. It’s the assertion that government everywhere becomes impossible unless all governments lie to their own populations, and to everybody else. It’s the stance that falsehood must be the prime activity of government.

I suppose one can make that argument, if he wishes. He might even bring some evidence in support of it. But it’s not self-evident.

In short, Junod’s caller is full of crap, or is thoroughly dishonest -- and maybe both.

Journalists don’t have to reveal the sources and methods of the intelligence community in order to cast light on what that community is trying to do. For the most part, they make no effort to reveal such practices. Furthermore, it is not self-evident that non-acknowledgement is a necessity of government. If an executive wants to say it is then he needs to step forward and explain why. But, of course, no executive will do that because if he did he would be thoroughly denounced. Even the most cynical are reluctant to admit that falsehood is the only operable practice of government.

Yes, one might argue, that’s all true, but if the people are not astute enough to see that government officials are making asinine propositions, then what keeps them from being accepted as deep statecraft?

The answer, evidently, in the minds of most political operatives, is, “Nothing.”

What they forget is that though a majority of the people may be indefinitely dupable, putting one’s principal effort into duping them leads toward more and more fantastic schemes. If you have convinced yourself there’s nothing you can’t get away with, then there’s nothing you won’t try. Eventually, you’ll try something so ridiculous it will blow up in your face.

The United States government has entered the course of thinking that it can kill anyone, anywhere on the face of the earth, and get away with it simply by saying they didn’t do it. It’s the basic criminal delusion: “I’ll never get caught.” It was that delusion Mr. Junod’s caller was trying to defend.

Who knows why he chose to make the call, or who authorized him to do it? Whether he did it on his own, or at somebody else’s directive, it was a really dumb act. It’s only significance was to demonstrate to persons who are willing to probe into such arguments how crazy they are becoming. It’s likely the caller has deluded himself and really does believe he can get away with anything.

Over time, two developments are almost sure to bear bad fruit -- at least from the point of view of those who think government power should be unrestrained. Sooner or later some unbalanced security official will convince the president to kill somebody who is not only completely innocent -- that’s already happening on a regular basis -- but also someone who has enough supporters and backers to raise a genuine fuss. Then there will be severe blowback. Second, as the program marches forward, more and more evidence will be unearthed about the hideous things that have already been done. Although it’s true that a majority of the American public doesn’t care, and therefore provide a kind of immunity for the killing program, more and more incidents, like the proverbial steady drip, will deepen the recognition of what’s being done. And that will canker the public’s view of the honor of its own government. That’s already happing to a considerable extent.

There will be an unravelling. I can’t say exactly what will bring it about, or how it will unfold. But the quality of blatant nonsense put out by Junot’s caller, magnified many times over, can’t go on forever without creating disorder and punitive reaction.

Just think about coaches at Penn State in the mid-1990s, or the leaders of the Catholic Church over the past three decades.

July 14, 2012

I was on the verge yesterday of noting that the two billion dollars J.P. Morgan Chase said it had lost in trading shenanigans recently had somehow risen to 4.4 billion. I’m glad I didn’t because now, it seems, the number has gone up to over seven billion. Actually, J.P. Morgan Chase doesn’t appear to know how much it was, and there are indications it doesn’t have the means to find out.

Trying to read about affairs of this sort have often left me feeling less than competent. I can’t grasp fully what happened. But when I discover that the organization that lost the money can’t figure it out either, it makes me feel a little better.

One bright note is that J.P. Morgan Chase is taking this matter seriously. At least that’s what C.E.O. Jamie Dimon says. The persons primarily responsible for the yet to be determined but over seven billion dollar loss have been dismissed, and efforts are underway to claw back their salaries. The term “claw back” gives me a sense of trepidation. I don’t know exactly how clawing back works, but it sounds fairly nasty. I get the sense lawyers will be involved.

It could be that the average person, reading about seven billion dollars, doesn’t have a solid hold on what it means in terms of his everyday expenditures. Perhaps it would be helpful to mention that it’s about the amount that 210,000 people, paid at ordinary rates, earn over the course of a year. In other words, it represents four hundred and twenty million hours of labor for people doing things like picking up garbage, unstopping toilets, and stocking shelves in grocery stores (actually, come to think of it, for people doing work of that kind it probably represents more than seven hundred million hours). That’s quite a few hours, actually.

These people are taxed so that, among other things, when big banks incur losses which put them in danger of failure, the government can take those taxes and use them to save the banks, and the bankers. I don’t guess there’s anything wrong with that, when you consider it’s a system which produces persons of such sterling character as Jamie Dimon, and Mitt Romey too. Still, it seems a little peculiar, if you look at it from a certain perspective.

Most of the time when I go to the grocery store and want to buy bread, I get it off the day-old shelf, so that I can pay $2.19 for a loaf instead of $4.39. I really don’t mind getting the day-old bread. It strikes me as just as good as the bread that was baked the previous day. It’s true that getting it off the reduced price shelf limits my selection a bit. There aren’t always all the types of bread I might prefer to choose among. But there are certainly enough. I can’t plead any hardship for buying bread that way. Truth is, I still probably get too much. I’m not sure bread is the best dietary ingredient.

I mention all this simply to lead to the point that people who feel the need to look for sales in grocery stores are experiencing not only a different social reality than Jamie Dimon and Mitt Romney are, but that they are so removed from those who monkey around with seven billion dollar trading losses there is no possibility of meaningful discourse between them and the denizens of high finance (as it tends to be called). If I were in a room with Jamie Dimon and conversation seemed to be called for, what could either of us say?

I can only assume our thought processes are so divorced from one another that very little that was meaningful for one could even be imagined by the other. I don’t suppose there’s a greater difference between me and Jamie Dimon than there is between me and a mole. Yet, I wonder.

This difference between persons who shop carefully for bread and Jamie Dimon or Mitt Romney has a meaning. And the meaning is that persons of the latter character can’t discern what counts in the world of bread-shopping. It’s not that they are evil. In fact, trying to discover any moral similarity between the two orders is generally futile. Big financiers live in a different moral universe than I do.

There’s a lot of talk on TV about how we should not dislike persons who are immensely rich, and that Americans are too high-minded to engage in that sort of petty resentment. But it’s not a matter of dislike; it’s just a matter of recognizing reality. Mitt Romney doesn’t care what happens to you, if you’re a bread shopper, not because he’s bad but because he can’t. I won’t go so far as to say he’s less able to care about you than a mole can. But it’s in that direction.

This being the case, it’s foolish for persons who don’t inhabit Mitt Romney’s universe to expect him to represent their concerns. He won’t do it. Barack Obama might not do it perfectly either, but he retains the ability to come a lot closer. Romney has been perfectly clear about what he intends to do. He will try to benefit people like himself and not people who shop for bread. Nothing could be more obvious than that.

Jamie Dimon seems to understand something Romney doesn’t. Dimon knows he can’t make an honest connection with sales shoppers in grocery stores. So he doesn’t try. He simply goes on his superior way. There’s a kind of integrity in that -- I suppose.

July 17, 2012

I sympathize with Republican, or conservative, polemicists and pundits. No matter how much they value intellectual integrity, no matter how much they want to see themselves as honest, sooner or later they have to lie. That’s because they want things that are bad for the general public. And they can’t allow themselves to admit it.

It’s a real bind. I confess, I don’t know what advice to give them. I guess they could stop being conservatives, but that’s not what they want.

The very definition of conservatism, and particularly of modern conservatism, encompasses caring only for a small sector of society -- the very wealthy and powerful. They are the only persons worthy of supporting and sustaining. Everybody else is to be used in whatever fashion they can be used, and then dumped.

I don’t discount the authenticity of one rich guy’s feeling for another. If two billionaires become friends, and one of them gets a dreadful disease, the other will probably be genuinely sad and willing to make some sacrifice for his sick friend. And that’s a good thing. There is the problem, though, that billionaires, in order to accumulate their billions have necessarily had to screen themselves from the damage the accumulation created. Let’s face it: nobody gathers up a billion dollars without hurting quite a few people. It’s that truth which causes conservatives to trumpet the virtues of competition and “the game,” as though the injuries you leave behind you on your march to your first billion is the same thing as getting a hit off the guy who’s trying to strike you out. Still, my guess is that most excessively wealthy people do have genuine feelings. I don’t want to exclude them from the human race. I don’t even want to hurt them, at least by my standards of hurting. But I think it is fair to see them as who they are.

Capitalism, which is the ideology of conservatives, is about making larger piles of money. It is not about creating meaningful or decent lives. Capitalism doesn’t care how money is used as long as more money is being poured on a pile somewhere. It’s all very well to say that creating capital makes the human race, on average, richer. But if you’re not getting much of the capital, which is the case with most people, a higher average does nothing for you.

One can care about anything he wishes, obviously. There’s no divinely sanctioned list of things it’s okay to care about -- or, at least, I don’t think there is. There has been a long tradition of arguing that the purpose of society is not to make everyone happy or comfortable, but rather to produce superior beings. Though I don’t much agree with that argument, I don’t think it should be summarily dismissed. But it does carry with it the duty of defining “superior” so far as human beings go. Over the course of human history there have been no arguments, winning any respect, that have defined superiority simply as the possession of wealth. It’s hard to say, for example, that Jane Austen or Samuel Johnson, neither of whom had much money at all, were inferior to John Ellerman, who at the time of his death in the mid-twentieth century was the richest Englishman who had ever lived (ask yourself: had you heard of John Ellerman before you read this sentence?).

So, conservatives have an extremely hard row to hoe. They appear to be possessed by the quasi-religious belief that rich people are more important, or more significant, or more intrinsically worthy than other people, and especially of greater consequence than people who have almost no money. But somewhere in the backs of their souls they know that to come right out and say so will brand them as illimitably vulgar. And they don’t want that (although I’m not exactly sure why). Maybe, now and then, the image of Donald Trump floats before their minds.

As a result, they have to make stuff up. They have to construct arguments consisting of virtually undefinable abstractions, in attempts to convince people that the things they stand for are more noble than the things the cursed liberals stand for. And the challenge is that the liberals have more evidence on their side -- not that they’re perfectly logical by any means. The liberals can say, for example, that you can’t produce widespread and sustaining employment simply by making rich people richer. And they can cite evidence which shows that’s true. The conservatives are driven back to repeating incessantly terms like “job creators” in the mode of yapping dogs.

There is one argument conservatives might try. They could say that the grandest thing humanity has brought forth is gigantic and richly adorned houses. I like houses of that sort -- at least as they were constructed in the past by persons of taste. And, for the most part, only very rich guys can build them. So that argument could have a little traction with me. Yet I doubt there are enough people who share that sensibility to make a big difference, and besides, for the most part now, rich people build ugly houses.

I don’t know what to do for conservative champions. I feel bad about it, and bad for them.

P.S. I trust it’s clear that the “conservatism” I’ve been using here is the current version employed by political journalists, pretty much synonymous with “Republican.” We all remember an older -- and better -- definition, which spoke to cultural quality, in manners, literary taste, philosophical subtlety, and artistic depth. The irony is that the more recent definition is in many ways the opposite of the previous one. Rush Limbaugh is a conservative, as is Glenn Beck, Allen West, and Michele Bachmann. But what of quality they are conserving is hard to know. The truth is, that using the old definition, Barack Obama is the most conservative politician we have.

July 18, 2012

I may have a slight advantage in grasping certain features of the recent news because I have actually been in the same room with John Sununu.

I’ve been sitting here for a while wondering how to sum up Mr. Sununu without resorting to impertinent language. Here’s the best I can do.

It is not the case, as some of you may have surmised, that John Sununu considers himself to be more intelligent than any human creature now alive or any human who has ever lived. If he were that modest one might think that his opinion was somewhat unusual but nonetheless within what has hitherto been understood.

John Sununu doesn’t conceive of himself as possessing superlative powers of perception. For him, that would be petty. It’s rather that there is nothing to perceive until John Sununu has pronounced. It’s not that he has intelligence; it’s that he creates intelligence. Until John Sununu tells you what is the case about something there is nothing worthwhile for you to know about it. No truth about it has heretofore been allowed into being.

The consequence of these powers is that attempting to disagree with Mr. Sununu, or even to converse with him, is asinine. Nothing you could say -- about anything -- would have any validity until the truth about it had come forth from John Sununu.

In his presence all you can do is wait to find out.

Naturally enough, people who don’t see this correctly incur Mr. Sununu’s displeasure. The effrontery of such people is astounding.

Now that Sununu has informed us that President Obama doesn’t know how to create jobs, and furthermore doesn’t understand the American way, we are compelled to welcome this alteration of truth. Obama’s inability and lack of comprehension was made operative by Sununu’s transformation of epistemology. The entire mind of humanity has been required to shift.

You may be wondering how it happened that we have been blessed with the gift of Sununu. There really can be only one answer. It is an emanation of divinity. But even in saying that I may be slipping towards heresy. It implies, almost, that Sununu came from some place other than Sununu, and that, of course, is absurd. He is a creation of self.

Now, as I hinted at the beginning, you may not be able to take this in without having been in the presence of Sununu. When you walk into a room with Sununu the scales, immediately, begin to fall from your eyes. As soon as the first word comes from his mouth you become aware that you have entered the realm of the miraculous. It is not a thing that can be explained; it just happens. But it is accompanied by such perfection of certainty you know, beyond doubt, that post-Sununu, everything will be transcended. Furthermore, should perversity suggest to you, even for a fleeting instant, that the revelation you have just experienced could be a delusion, you are shocked and irradiated by the surety that should you allow that perverse thought to gain a foothold in your mind, the result would be an explosion beyond nuclear. The universe would probably be eradicated. No duty you have ever before experienced can approach the duty to eject that odious thought from your being.

Observing him in the flesh (might that metaphor be disrespectful?) really is a quite wondrous thing. I would recommend it to all my fellow creatures.

July 19, 2012

I was having a talk with my eight-year-old grandson Jack last night about the Roman Empire when, somehow our conversation digressed to the nature and origin of the universe. I’m not sure what caused the transition. I’ve consulted my memory, but so far it has failed me.

We had been discussing Trajan, and Jack had just read aloud to me a passage from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (which, I confess I had supplied to him), when suddenly Jack, pacing rather excitedly up and down my bed, began to lay out for me his theory of the beginning of everything.

There was, he said, an explosion. He doesn’t know why it happened. Some people say God had something to do with it, and Jack says that could have been the case but he’s really not sure. At any rate, this explosion occurred in empty space and it created a lot of really gigantic rocks. They were bigger, Jack explained, not only than the world but than any of the stars. Then, over time, some of them broke up into smaller pieces which became round, and thus we got the planets.

The stars came about in a different way. In the rocks there were atoms and some of these atoms got terribly excited and turned into glowing, fire-like stuff. Jack says he doesn’t know how that came about, but he would like to know. Anyway, that’s how the stars got going, and there’s something about these agitated, star-constituting atoms which insures that they’ll never burn up.

I mentioned to Jack that some physicists think the big explosion created space itself, and that if it hadn’t taken place there would be no space. But Jack would have none of that. There was space, he said, but it was just that it didn’t have anything in it, nothing at all.

We took out a Bible and read half of the first chapter of Genesis. Jack thought it was interesting but he said that wasn’t the way it happened.

This morning a friend sent me to a link to an interview with Jim Holt, discussing his new book, Why Does the World Exist? It sounds like it might be worth reading. Holt has ranged widely in the literature of ontology and seems to have collected a variety of entrancing things people have said about why there’s something rather than nothing. But the interview didn’t include any of these that were particularly scintillating. It did, however, contain the warning that if you try to think too sustainedly about why there is something, it’s likely to drive you nuts. That, I thought, was fascinating in itself. It pulled my mind back to the previous evening, and Jack’s repeated assertion that he didn’t know why certain things happened. He declared this quite easily and with no embarrassment whatsoever. In fact, he gave me the impression that he considers not knowing why some things happened the ordinary condition of being and that there’s no need to worry about it.

We didn’t get into linguistics last night, but if we had, I would have mentioned to Jack the question of whether our words are a suitable device for approaching ultimate reality. Quite a few ingenious people have tried to use them to that end but I’m not aware that any one of them has succeeded. Words, I’m afraid, are securely earthbound (though I don’t know why I should say, “I’m afraid,” because I’m glad they are). I don’t feel that way because I want people to give up trying to use words to sort out reality. Trying is fun. But if the effort careens beyond fun and heads towards derangement perhaps we should find a way to step back.

I love language considerably, perhaps more than anything other than a few humans, including some literary characters. But loving intently does not require that we overestimate the thing we love, or make it into something it’s not. I am always being reminded of Nietzsche’s assertion that language is the limited vehicle of a limited being.

I want to ask Jack what he thinks about words and what they can do. We had an inconclusive conversation the other day about his use of “pbj” as a word. When I told him I didn’t know what it meant, he asked me if I was crazy. “Everybody knows that,” he said. Consulting other members of the family, I discovered that they agreed with Jack more than they did with me. I was told that I could easily go into a restaurant and order a “pbj.” I’m not going to do it though.

The look on Jack’s face as he repeated “pbj” to me, as though, if he said it more clearly, and loudly (mostly loudly), I would be bound to grasp it, told me that he has a notion of very close connection between words and their referents.

I want to point out to him that if we consider certain words we would discover that the connection is not as close as he thinks. I bet that he would have something interesting to say about that. If he does, I’ll try to remember to tell you about it.

July 21, 2012

I don’t know what the percentage of deranged people in the average nation is. I don’t know if there is any such thing as an average nation in that respect. I assume there is no way to make an accurate tally of derangement anywhere in the world. The problem of definition alone would defy any such effort. Even so, it’s clear that considerable numbers of persons with serious thought disorders exist, and that people of that description make up a larger percentage of the population of the United States than we used to assume. The presidency of Barack Obama has shown us that beyond any doubt.

The new feature with respect to derangement which has come to pass in America since 1980 is the complete dependency of one of the two major parties on the votes of people whose minds are possessed by fantastic theories. Since the Republican Party has to have these votes in order to win any election, it feels the necessity of appealing to them.

I have not yet been able to sort out whether these appeals are being made with complete cynicism, of if the candidates who make them, share in the mental disorder. If I were forced to wager on the question, I’d put my money on the latter.

When Mitt Romney appears on a stage expressing unity with Donald Trump, what does that tell us about the Republican nominee?

As Dana Milbank has reported in the Washington Post, Cliff Kincaid recently held his annual conference at the National Press Club for “conspiracy-minded conservatives” (that is, nut cases). Cliff, himself, told the attendees that there is a very strong possibility that the president’s real father was Frank Marshall Davis who raised him to be a Communist and, perhaps, a pedophile.

Then Trevor Loundon stepped up to report that Leon Panetta is a Communist.

Then came Larry Grathwohl to announce that Obama is a revolutionary mole and a part of the Muslim-Communist plot (who knew before now that there was a Muslim-Communist plot?)

My point -- and Milbank’s -- is not that these people are loons but that Romney not only needs them, he finds ways to encourage them. Why else would John Sununu recently have employed the standard Republican tactic of saying something outrageous, which is widely reported and then, later, backing off from it, slightly, which doesn’t get as much coverage. There is, in the case of Sununu of course, the possibility that his megalomania elevates him into the ranks of the Kincaids. But even if we assume he’s run off the sanity track, we still have to inquire why Romney employs him as a spokesman.

The Romney campaign relies on the support of members of Congress like Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Paul Broun, Dana Rohrabacher, Louise Gohmert and Virginia Foxx. If you made a list of the statements this half-dozen alone have issued over the past year, you would have a fairly complete delineation of severe psychosis. But the significant fact is not simply that national legislators say crazy things, but that hundreds of thousands of people vote for them over and over again.

Louie Gohmert, the Representative from the first district of Texas, for example, recently appeared on the Istook Live TV show and said that the recent murders at a movie theatre near Denver occurred because God has withdrawn his protective hand from the United States. And why has God done this? Because some Americans have expressed religious views different from Mr. Gohmert’s. Keep in mind, this was not a deranged cult leader; it was a U.S. Congressman whom the people of a extensive district have elected four times in a row. And it is the element of the population who vote for the likes of Gohmert  that Romney must have in order to have the slightest chance to win the presidency.

How many of them are there? It would be one thing if we could be fairly confident that out of population of more than three hundred million people, ten million or so have been captured by theories no rational person can entertain. But what if it’s not ten million? What if it’s forty, or fifty million? Then we have a different problem.

I don’t have a sure solution for it, but it’s usually the case that the first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. As a political culture, we certainly have not done that to the degree necessary. It’s fine to say that everyone has a right to his own opinion. But when a gigantic number of people have opinions that are absurd, the rest of us have to, at least, point that out, and then admit it’s the source of much harm and trouble.

It’s okay to laugh at Louie Gohmert, I suppose. But I don’t think it’s enough.

July 22, 2012

There are many features in political campaigning which are vile. But in the United States, the lowest of the low, the filthiest of the filthy, involve charges that somebody, or some thing, is less “American” than some other person or thing. When you encounter that argument you can know you’re in the presence of scum.

There’s a set of reasons why the tactic is scummy. Foremost among them is its foul intellectual quality. In order to be valid the charge would have to answer questions it can’t answer because they are unanswerable. Who has the right to say what is American, or more American than something else? And who, or what, has conferred that right?

Generally, when someone is asserting the Americanness of something, he has selected a behavior which has taken place in the United States and arbitrarily elevated it over other behaviors which he doesn’t want to acknowledge. But choosing among bits and pieces of American history doesn’t tell us what the whole thing has been. To say that it does is the worst kind of scholarship, the kind pursued by ideologues and ignoramuses.

It is, of course, a characteristic of extremely insular communities to believe that whatever takes place within their confines is normal and real, whereas things which take place elsewhere are abnormal and probably perverse. This is the case no matter how peculiar the attitudes and practices of those communities might be. The strategy of charging someone with un-Americanness is intended to appeal to pathetic narrow-mindedness. It is also an assumption that a majority of American voters fit that category. So it is not only asinine, it is an insult.

What allows a practice so obviously obtuse to continue to appear in American campaigns is the bizarre notion, which has taken hold of a considerable portion of the American people, that nationality is a measure of humanness. And furthermore that American nationality confers greater humanness than other brands do. Not many Americans would say such a thing outright, but they live under the influence of a collective, unexamined, barely conscious, attitude that permits the concept to flourish.

The presidency of Barack Obama has brought the sensibility out in full regalia. That it’s a disguised form of racial bigotry is obvious to anyone who has given it half a thought. But the bigotry has married itself to other forms of provincialism to produce a particularly odious streak of criticism. We saw it last week, pouring out of the mouth of John Sununu, who attempted to tell us that because Mr. Obama lived with his mother outside the United States for short periods during his childhood he has been rendered incapable of understanding the true nature of Americanness. For that reason we should all vote against him because, obviously, we wouldn’t want to vote for anyone who doesn’t manifest full-scale Americanness, even though we’re not quite sure what it is. Presumably, we can gaze upon John Sununu and see it in dazzling refulgence.

Demagogues are drawn to subconscious prejudices in the same way flies are drawn to rotten meat. Unacknowledged beliefs constitute, for demagogues, the ultimate delicacy.

If we want to hold onto the erroneous idea of Americanness as a character trait then at least we ought to recognize that it should have nothing to do with political preference. A superior degree of Americanness is not related to one’s ability to perform the duties of political office in a healthy manner. I’m more than willing to admit that Mitt Romney is thoroughly American. He shares the characteristic with Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and, for that matter, Jerry Sandusky. But I don’t view the feature as a reason to vote for any of these men. I don’t want any of them to have anything to do with directing our public affairs, other than the small part they can exert by voting.

The United States has the highest murder rate of any wealthy country. I guess that’s American too. But it doesn’t thrill my soul.

The greatest reform we could make in political debate would be to recognize that abstract insults tell us nothing about the quality of government. When you hear someone making the charge of un-Americanness, all he’s doing is calling names in the manner of an overwrought schoolboy. If he can support a candidate with that tactic, it’s strong evidence that the candidate can do us no good.

July 23, 2012

Any perusal of history will bring out the names of thousands who were once potent and famous and now are known only to the most avid investigators of the past. I don’t suppose that’s any reason to discourage those who are seeking current renown, but it does modify the sense of grandeur some people assign to themselves. Nobody’s importance will last forever. But, then, forever is quite a long time.

I’ve been thinking today of Julia Domna, the second wife of Severus, who seized the Roman throne in 193 and held onto it for eighteen years, until he perished in Scotland in 211, trying to subdue the wild Caledonians. He shouldn’t have gone there, being afflicted by the gout and all.

Julia was said to be the patroness of every art and the friend of every man of genius. She was not, however, noted for her chastity. I don’t suppose chastity is anything to be particularly noted for. I sit and wonder what it would have been to inhabit the same room with Julia, and whether her beauty was as striking as it was reputed to have been. Then I sink into despair as I realize I can never know. When we think about historical characters, we tend not to imagine them as actual flesh and blood creatures sitting near to us. Yet that’s clearly what they were to certain people.

It’s impossible to know whether the emotions of people in the far past were similar to the feelings we experience now. Julia’s older son, Caracalla, who seems to have been about as mean a bastard as there ever was, had her younger son, Geta, murdered in her presence. In fact, she was stabbed in the hand trying to protect Geta from the swords of the assassins. Think about the thoughts that must have run through her head the night after that happened. I guess we can be sure they were numerous and, to some extent, tortured. But beyond that we can’t know much about them.

I wonder about her clothes, how she selected them, who she had make them, how they made her feel when she draped them on her body. Those were probably all important issues for her then.

Did she take a bath every day? Probably.

All the things that count for us disappear. After a while, nobody thinks about them. I find that very sad, although I’m not sure why.

I was sitting on my back deck this afternoon when my granddaughter, Cate, came running out to explain some plan she had in mind. Then she extended her arms, smiled, and did the most seductive twirl imaginable. It was a transcendent moment, even though she is only two and half years old. Is it just going to vanish? If it does that’s not right. I feel compelled to say that things are not right, even if there’s nothing I can do to change them.

That being the case, I want tonight to try to reach out across the centuries and say to Julia Domina that I don’t think it was right that her son was stabbed to death in her lap and, furthermore, that I don’t hold her lack of chastity against her. Okay, so that’s fantastic, and she can’t hear me, and even if she could, she might not care. But shouldn’t somebody care about her, every now and then? And might it be that, tonight, I’m the only person in the world who does?

All these people whom history has swirled away; they were people too. They counted, or, at least, they should count. If we can’t care about them then maybe we can’t care about anybody.

July 25, 2012

Having had three small children in my house for the past several weeks I have learned -- or I guess I should say that I have been taught once again -- that their expression about body parts and bodily functions is considerably more graphic than was the case when I was their age. Had I used some of the words they use regularly, the results for me would have been unpleasant.

I can’t say that this transformation is new. I just ran across a book published nine years ago titled: Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets.

Changes of this sort are often described as either good or bad, but the truth, of course, is that they are neither. The degree of frankness employed in alluding to our biological being is first of all a matter of taste. But underlying the taste is a set of advantages and disadvantages among which we are privileged to choose. If, for example, modes of excretion are not considered appropriate for polite conversation, the advantage is we can temporarily perceive ourselves as ethereal, and the disadvantage is we are led to avoid facing conditions that need attention. Nothing in the heavens or the nature of the universe tells us exactly where we should come down between those two poles. The location fluctuates for reasons too complicated to be traced.

Having established that there’s nothing moral about any of this, I can move on to preference. And with respect to this set of habits I have to confess I’m old-fashioned. The question for me is why.

I certainly can’t claim to be a person who perceives a golden age in the past. There was no golden age. Horrible as many current practices are, we can find in earlier ages things even more horrible. I began about five days ago one of my recurrent efforts to read a really big, famous book that I should have read already. This time I chose Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I knew before that it was a very great book. Digging into it this time has convinced me that it is even greater than I had realized. But reading it straight through has shown me something I hadn’t fully grasped from reading small sections of it. It is stomach-churning. The things people then did to one another, even described in Gibbon’s discreet 18th century language, were -- and are -- nauseating. Scholars can rave on all they wish about the glories of the Roman Empire; I will have none of it. I stick in this digression to absolve myself of the suspicion that I am a historical romantic. I don’t think anything is better just because it came before.

Yet this isn’t to say that some practices of the past don’t strike me as more agreeable than some we have chosen now. Pleasure is a very personal thing. So the habits I enjoy may not appeal to anyone else and even if they don’t, I don’t much care. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to be like me (the thought, actually, is quite horrible). The reason I prefer delicacy in referring to bodily functions is that it helps us, for periods, to forget about our biological destiny.  I think that’s necessary in order for us to carry out some of the functions that make humanity worthwhile, if anything can (and about that I remain undecided).

If we consider just one small example, the comparison of novels in English written before 1875 with those written subsequently, I think we can get at a little of what I have in mind. It would be absurd, of course, to argue that there have not been very fine novels written over the past 125 years. Yet, if we consider what the best of the earlier era delivered to us, I think it’s possible to say that they accomplished more of what the novel can do than the later ones have. And a part of that completeness, it seems to me, is that they were quite circumspect, even a bit fussy, in their language. They left us with a sense of human quality not completely merged in biological necessity.

One may argue -- and not absurdly -- that such a sense of separation has produced a disregard of nature which will hurt us badly. Maybe. But if we can’t find some meaning for ourselves different from the meaning of worms, then, perhaps, we’ll just become worms. I read this morning, by the way, an essay which says that David Brooks has already become one.

Again, this is a matter of taste. There’s nothing which tells us for sure that it’s bad to become worms.

I realize that this is a long way from children using words that formerly were considered naughty. That’s a very small thing. Yet more and more I become convinced it’s the small things which are most telling.

I hope it’s clear that children don’t decide to do what they do. They are taught to do it. Come to think of it, maybe nobody ever decides.

July 26, 2012

I guess I should warn readers in advance that I’m about to commit heresy.

I don’t care whether America is Number One. That’s because I don’t know what “Number One” means and it seems to me that anyone who’s concerned about it is an ignoramus.

My thoughts in this vein were sparked by reading Frank Rich’s column in New York about notions of American decline which have been prominent in the news lately. I was, by the way, happy to encounter Rich’s expansive column. It reminded me of the pleasure I took from him when his pieces appeared in the Sunday New York Times. He never appeared to be worried about exceeding a word count.

It’s one thing to say that a country has problems, or that certain features of the national life are less pleasant than they once were. It’s another to proclaim that the nation is going irrevocably downhill. The latter assessment seems always to be related to how the nation stands with respect to other nations. People who are concerned with such ranking give the impression that they would rather see their country elevated above other pathetic countries than they would to have their fellow citizens experience healthy and meaningful lives. The thing that counts for such analysts is who can look down on whom.

Rich’s essay wasn’t as thoroughly coherent as his writings often are, though its various components were informative. His main point seemed to be that the prophets of American decline, regardless of the political position from which they come, employ overdrawn rhetoric. It may be, however, that exaggeration is a requirement of the genre. It’s not dramatic enough to say merely that a country’s in a slump. If you want to get serious attention you have to warn that it’s running off a cliff. We live in an age of dire consequences and hysterical fears.  For persons given to proclamations of disaster, anything -- such as the slight bump in the murder rate sustained last week in Colorado -- is a sign of the approaching end.

I have difficulty conceiving what the end might be. Short of the earth’s being smacked by a great big comet, I can’t think of what could bring the country to a close. A greater percentage of the citizens could live in misery and depression. The roads could get more shabby. Television programming could move even farther towards vulgarity and mindlessness. The military could give up all pretense of defense and shift to being complete corporate mercenaries. Congress could have a greater number of idiots than it does now. Mitt Romney could get richer. These developments are all more likely than not. And they’re all disgusting. But they wouldn’t constitute a complete cessation, a voiding of the national existence.

Furthermore, we need to remember that change is usually incremental. Consequently, we compare a condition with the way it was just before the present, not the way it was long ago when it might have been so incomparably better that the current situation would have appeared intolerable. I can remember when the only thing necessary to get a license plate was to walk down to the courthouse, fill out an application card with your name and address, and shell out four bucks. Nobody asked what kind of car you were going to stick the plate on. If I had been ordered then to do what’s required now, I might have had a fit. It would have seemed like it was the end of the world. But people adjust. That’s one of the good things about them, and one of the really bad things. They’ll accept almost anything once it becomes normal.

It’s possible the United States will come to be seen by almost everyone, including its own citizens, as a third rate dump. Americans won’t be worried then about being Number One. They’ll be too busy trying to get water clean enough that it won’t make them sick.

I don’t want that to happen, but the best way to avoid it is not to concentrate on ranking, and crowing, and putting other people down. Nor is it to obsess about the end of the world. It’s rather to look honestly at where we are, think about how to improve, and begin to implement our strongest ideas. If you improve enough, the rankings will take care of themselves. Besides, if you’re actually making things better, you won’t care much about who’s at the top

The time could come when commentators like Frank Rich will be writing about how the latest upgrade of the electrical network could have been even better. I know that’s hard to believe. But we’re in a very strange world. Yet however bizarre it inches toward being, it’s unlikely to become apocalyptic -- that is unless somebody like Dick Cheney manages to get unimpeded use of a batch of A-bombs.

July 28, 2012

Reading in the comment sections of news outlets, it’s easy to get discouraged. You’re driven to ask, “How can we have any sort of decent society with this many crazy people in it?” A common view is that only recently -- say over the past three decades -- has politics in America become insane. I’m not sure about that, but if you use the hypothesis to assume that the current derangement is bound to be temporary and can’t last much longer, you’re making a mistake. Humans are capable of persisting in irrationalities for a very long time.

I read this morning an article by David Maraniss in the Washington Post about how many of the haters of President Obama are complete frauds. As you might imagine, it got some people stirred up. Here, for example is a portion of one of the most recent postings that go with the article: (Oops! Between the time I read the comment and went back to copy it -- about three minutes -- the Post moderator deleted it). Here, however, is a comment from the same person, posted a bit earlier (he’s active):

Could be because Obama is a pathological liar and intellectual sociopath, stubbornly
wedded to a 1930s-style Leftism while mouthing conservative platitudes...a President
who has racked up over $5 trillion in new debt with nothing to show for it but a first-
time ever credit downgrade. And, oh yeah, a Nobel Prize for doing exactly nothing...
except being half-black and not GWB.

Though this is a considerably more moderate sentiment than the one that got scrubbed, it conveys the qualities I wanted to point out.

You can say that people of this mentality are just nuts and that we shouldn’t worry about them, the implication being that they’ll just fade away. But will they? It’s not hard to imagine someone popping off with equal fatuity in 2112, or 2512 (assuming the U.S. will still be functioning at the later date). Humans are extremely slow learners, the reason being that for most of them there’s no incentive to learn.

If you consider human history over the past two thousand years, in the region north of the equator and between 75 degrees east longitude and 120 degrees west longitude, i.e. the area generally called “The West,”  you can find the same foolishness flourishing from beginning to end. Wars start for the same reasons. The same sort of boasts are made. Puffed-up buffoons are put forward as great leaders. Hideous cruelties are justified as patriotism.

The favorite excuse advanced for ongoing stupidity is human nature. In other words, humans are programmed by the universe to be dumb and to spend their existence in senseless mayhem. Maybe that’s the case. There’s another hypothesis, though, which strikes me as more likely. Humans can, and do, learn, but the percentage of genuine learners increases at a pace that’s barely discernible. It’s less than inch by inch; at best it’s millimeter by millimeter. Social conditions don’t -- and can’t -- improve at rates we have envisaged. Or perhaps I should say, “political conditions.” In certain areas of human behavior there have been tremendous advances over the past century -- in medicine, in scientific understanding, in basic tolerance for activities once scorned and persecuted. But in the way money and power are distributed and used -- that’s politics -- conditions remain pathetic.

As far as I can tell, there’s one question which suggests why there are improvements in some areas and not in others: “Where do the smart people go?” It’s for sure they don’t go into politics. The usual explanation for why our political discourse is so clownish is that voters will punish any expression of intelligence. But what if it’s the way it is because it’s conducted mainly by clowns?

We probably don’t have enough intelligence to spread it across all areas of human endeavor. It clusters in some spots and avoids others. It tends to seek itself. If we work with that hypothesis, what does it suggest a sensible person should do over the next several decades?

For me, the first answer is, “I don’t know for sure.” Certainty is the province of dopes. There are, however, some things that seem likely.

There must be ways to contribute intelligence to the world. So try to find them.  I’m not thinking of institutional reforms, or anything monumental. Efforts of that kind increasingly strike me as dubious. I mean simple acts like trying to have an intelligent conversation now and then, sharing information with companions and asking what its significance is, taking time to explain something clearly to a child, reading a book that taxes your understanding. We can’t measure these effects but it’s not ridiculous to embrace the faith that they add up to something.

A second category is blunting the depredations of stupidity. The best way to work on this is by reducing the emotional energy expended on fatheaded pronouncements. When Rush Limbaugh, or John Boehner says something fatuous there’s no cause for frustration. It’s just Limbaugh being Limbaugh or Boehner being Boehner. The sad truth is that a considerable segment of the citizens of the United States are ignorant and vulgar. This isn’t an insult; it’s just an observance of evidence. We can wish it were other than it is, but eventually we need to face our location in history and the conditions that go with it. We can try to counter the results of foolishness, but it’s not sensible to tell ourselves it doesn’t exist or to pretend it can be extinguished overnight. There’s no use in thinking we can escape political absurdity anytime soon. It will be with us, similar to what it is now, for generations to come.

Adjusting expectations and welcoming incremental change is not a program for perfection. But surely it’s better than driving ourselves batty because there are Republicans on the loose.

July 31, 2012

President Obama, Vice President Biden and various Obama campaign officials have sent me dozens of e-mail messages recently saying the upcoming presidential election can be bought, and if I don’t send money to help them buy it then Mitt Romney will do it.

Can this be true?

Can it be the case that the inane campaign material the two sides are churning out will decide the election simply by its volume? More garbage put out, more votes come in? If that’s the way things actually are, then we’re worse off than we thought. If the American people are choosing who to vote for on the basis of what the candidates say about themselves, and about their opponent, during the campaign, then democracy in America has become a farce.

In the New York Times this morning there was an article by Larry Bartels and Lynn Vavreck about the three to four percent of American voters who say they haven’t yet made up their minds. Supposedly, the decision they eventually make will decide who wins. These people are clearly the least well-informed segment in the nation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there are voters so ignorant about public affairs they don’t know at this stage whether they would rather have Barack Obama or Mitt Romney for their president from 2013 to 2017. But when you consider, as Bartels and Vavreck report, that many of these citizens don’t know which party has the majority in the House of Representatives, their befuddlement about the presidential election becomes slightly more understandable.

I have throughout my life considered myself an advocate for democracy. I have regularly told myself that it’s the best form of government. But what if I’ve been wrong? If democracy, over decades, proves itself to be asinine, where do we go from there? Will we finally be forced to face the truth that government by ignoramuses, no matter how democratic it may be, is a formula for disaster? Last night on TV, I saw the figure that only 21% of citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 manage to vote. Think of what that means: 79% of our young people can’t be bothered. What does that pathetic percentage portend?

Might it be that government by some kind of meritocracy, regardless of how ominous that sounds, could serve us better than the quality of democracy we appear to be tending towards? I’m not ready to take that position, but I have to confess, I’m willing to think about it.

There are some who argue that despite the flaws of our current system it’s running along pretty well. But I don’t think they’re right. Conditions in America are growing more dire for greater numbers of people. And our public support systems -- schools, roads, hospitals, energy supply, water, electrical grid, parks, criminal justice operations, courts -- move steadily towards degeneracy, either functionally or financially. Something will keep going, of course. But the quality of it looks more and more dubious.

One is always reminded of that famous occasion on July 30, 1763, when Johnson and Boswell were being rowed down the Thames by a boy, and they fell into a conversation about the worth of a liberal education. Johnson, in a joking spirit, asked the boy what he would give to know the songs the Argonauts sang, and the boy replied, “Sir, I would give what I have.”

I can’t be sure the anecdote is true, but it probably is. And if so, we can say we need more boys of that nature in the United States nowadays. But where are they to come from?

I suppose, at the moment, there’s nothing to be done other than to keep on trying to activate the public mind in whatever small ways we can discover. I don’t see any sense in giving money to Barack Obama, despite the nauseating thought of a Romney presidency. Money for Obama will not be spent to activate minds. The only money I’ve given so far this season is a small contribution to Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. She seems, so far, to be free of the vice of pussy-footing. If there’s to be any hope for a better political future, we have to have some voices on the national stage who will speak honestly about what the power structure is up to. It would be grand if we could have a president who would do it. But currently that seems to be outside possibility.

©John R. Turner

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