Collected Thoughts

August 2012
August 1, 2012

I confess, I hadn’t thought much about dressage before this summer. But now that Mrs. Romney’s horse, Rafalca, has become a competitor in the Olympics, the sport has been pushed to the forefront of the news.  There are even rumors that Mr. Romney is considering Rafalca as his running mate, should she win the gold medal. But, you know, that’s probably just talk. Even if it would one-up McCain’s choice of 2008, you can imagine the nasty commentary sour-minded people would indulge in. They might even try to raise constitutional challenges. Those Obama people will stop at nothing.

The resentment in America against superior people is getting out of hand. I just read some comments from Jeff Greene which plucked at my heartstrings. You remember Jeff Greene. He made a few billion dollars -- I don’t know exactly how many -- buying and selling credit default swaps, basing his trades on what some creepy people said was inside information that the U.S. economy was going to crash. Then he ran for the Senate, but the voters were too perverse to reward solid achievement like his. He is now beginning to be anxious. Here’s what he said recently:

But over the past few months, it’s become clear that rich people are very, very afraid.
Sometimes it feels like this was the main accomplishment of Occupy Wall Street: a
whole lot of tightened sphincters. It’s not a stretch to say many residents of Park
Avenue harbor vivid fears of a populist revolt like the one seen in The Dark Knight
Rises, in which they cower miserably under their sideboards while ragged hordes
plunder the silver.

It’s awful that people who made their money through hard work, like Jeff Greene says he did, now have to worry that hoards of losers might start coming in and scratching up their furniture. But Jeff Greene must know that’s how it is. He is a rich person and therefore he -- properly -- associates only with other rich people and they, evidently, have been sharing their genuine fears with him.

There’s now even beginning to be writing which says that the superior classes are failing in their duty to society. Chris Hayes, who has been awarded a weekend show on MSNBC, is receiving attention for a book he wrote titled Twilight of the Elites. He has gone so far as to say that elite culture in America is corrupt, and that “meritology,” the ideology of the elite, which proclaims that wealth is indisputable evidence of top-notch intelligence, is a set of broken ideas.

It’s hard to know how all this may work out. If the power of money is not unassailable and supreme, than what’s the world for? Why should one devote his life’s effort to piling up ever taller heaps of money? And if the superior people should stop doing that, where will the jobs --and, even more important, the leadership -- come from?

It’s always the case that failing to put the top thing in the top place leads to decadent chaos. And if money is not where it should be, at the pinnacle, then all of us are right to be terrified.

August 2, 2012

The piece I wrote yesterday -- which some of you may have viewed as leaning towards the cynical -- was a setup for the essay I’m going to try to write this morning. This one is going to attempt to persuade you of the need to recognize that the elite of modern America, and perhaps of other Western countries also, are different from the other elites history has provided us.

What makes them different is a deep-seated, near-religious belief that everything is fungible -- everything. You remember “fungible.” It was in the news back when Donald Rumsfeld’s spout-offs were making headlines every day. The dictionary definition says it’s an adjective applicable to goods that can be replaced by other identical goods. Obviously, not all goods have identical counterparts, at least not in the old-fashioned way of thinking. A given estate, suffused with events from the past, cannot be replaced identically with any other estate in the world. So how can it be fungible?

It becomes fungible when a perceiving mind declares that the only thing about it that matters is the price it will bring on the market. And that’s pretty much the kind of mind modern-day elites have -- or I guess you could say, are possessed by. Thus an estate in England, which once was owned by Lord North, and now can be had for $8,500,00 is identical in every significant respect to a ten thousand square foot penthouse apartment in Las Vegas, which can be picked up for the same amount.

Elites, of course, have always been invested in some mode of determining value. There have been family connection, position in hierarchies, land ownership, knowledge, skill, taste and so on. All of these, at times, have been associated with injustices and cruelties. But each also had some positive aspects. Ownership of a grand house, for example, which has been in a family for four centuries normally imposes on the current owner a sense of duty to maintain the traditions and the beauty of the house, to keep intact the healthy relations it has had with its surroundings and the people who live in its presence.

By contrast, the standard of fungibility carries with it no human duties at all. An argument in favor of the wealthy in the past was that they provided all of us a model of elegant behavior. They failed a great deal but, still, there was the opportunity to carry out the function, and, I suppose, some did. You can’t say the fungibility elite model anything, except, perhaps, how not to be. There is no physical object or activity too low or vulgar for them to embrace, if its market value can be jacked up.

It used to be said, as a term of derision, that among certain people, everything is for sale. But we didn’t imagine that the time would come when the so-called leaders of the nation would be those people.

It is widely reported in the news, with little sense of regret, that public offices can be bought by the men or women who will pay the most for them. It is even the case with many local races that the only feature of a campaign that will be covered by the press is how much the candidates have raised in their attempt to secure the position. Therefore, you can say that in a given city, a seat on the local council is worth such and such because that’s how much the successful candidate had to pay to get it. And people do say that, all the time. It’s not that politics has ever been free of the influence of money. But I wonder if ever before, money has obsessed the concerns and actions of politicians to the degree it does now.

My grandfather used to tell me that a Yankee would sell his wife if the price were right. His implication was that Southerners were better than that. He held the typical prejudices of his time and place. But that he would use a willingness to sell anything as an insult shows that there was something working in his mind which has pretty much disappeared from the thinking of current big people. Now, the ability to sell things when the price is right is taken as the only mark of intelligence. That’s what the smart guys do.

I’ve been asking myself what good comes from having the market determine the worth of everything. Am I blind to that glory in some way? Many politicians say it promotes freedom. But exactly what sort of freedom they’re talking about I cannot determine.

Diocletian, after he retired from the imperial office in 305, and went to live at his private estate on the shores of the Adriatic, was at one point asked to return and take up the duties of emperor once again.  He replied that if his advocates could imagine the grandeur of producing the cabbages which came from his garden, they would realize how empty their request was. I don’t know how honest Diocletian was being, but I think I do know the expression that would come over the face of Donald Trump if you told him that story.

“What are cabbages worth?” he would likely ask.

August 3, 2012

A recent poll ascertained that 65% of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 can’t find Great Britain on a map. It’s an interesting figure. I’m not sure what it means but I suspect it means something significant.

Reporter John Cassidy has compiled a list of ten beliefs which are held by large numbers of Americans which he thinks may, altogether, suggest that America is crazy (his term, not mine). Number 6 on his list is: “America is the greatest country in the world.”

I’ve been asking myself how the greatness of the nation comports with the 65%.

The belief itself is, of course, meaningless because at least 95% of those who hold it couldn’t begin to come up with a coherent process for measuring national greatness. Think what would happen if you asked an adherent of the belief what nation, according to his standards, is the second greatest.

Even so, assuming that “greatest” runs parallel with a designation of unusual goodness, are we permitted to wonder whether any degree of ignorance detracts from that elevated stature. Or are ignorance and knowledge simply irrelevant?

My guess is many Americans would say they are. Who cares whether one’s grasp of geography is sufficient to permit finding a major nation on a map of the world (think what the percentage would be if the country in question were Kazakhstan)? What’s that got to do with anything that matters?

What matters to various people is obviously the great mystery of the world.

I’ve been trying to recall when I became aware of Great Britain’s location. I remember clearly musing about it when I was six years old. I would pore over the maps in a dictionary someone gave me for my birthday and imagine going to various places. How long before that I knew is lost in the mists of time.

I’ve also asked myself what it would be not to know. How would that affect my mental operations, my sense of reality and so forth? I can’t be sure but I think my mind would be different in some respects.

If I were talking with someone and happened to find out in the process of idle conversation that the person didn’t know where Great Britain was, how would that shape my thoughts about my companion? Would it cause me to be less respectful of his opinions, or what? I suppose it would depend on the object of his opinions. If we were discussing the best way to fix a carburetor, I don’t guess I would care.

My thoughts are taking the course they’re now in because, as you know, I’ve been ploughing through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. One of its beguiling features is the ordinary, commonsense, 18th century view that the great majority of people can never be expected to pay attention to anything other than what’s right in front of their faces or that redounds to their immediate benefit. As Gibbon says, “A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds,” but he then hurries on to point out how very few those minds are. Most people cannot be amused in that way.

Until fairly recently I’ve been dominated by a democratic rectitude which teaches that every mind is capable of flights of productive fancy and searching curiosity. The reason people aren’t inquisitive is that they haven’t been afforded the opportunity. Yet, surely, most of the people who have grown up in the United States since 1988 could have found out where Great Britain is if they had wished. And 65% didn’t. I suppose they might have employed their minds on something else not directly pertinent, but the arrangement of the world into continents and countries is pretty basic. If a person doesn’t know about that, what is he likely to know about?

I’m challenged to find a way to argue that our pieties about the human constitution are superior to Gibbon’s judgment.

I happened on a short essay a couple days ago in which the writer professed to be surprised to discover that a metaphor he had come across in a recent novel -- “hewers of wood and drawers of water” -- was not original with the author but had been taken from the Bible. How could he not know that? I asked myself.

Joshua says that to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water is to be cursed. For the sake of the 65%, we can hope he’s wrong, that it’s not a curse but a blessing. I wish I could be sure which it is, but I can’t.

August 4, 2012

Every now and then I think of Franklin Brooks, as a kind of general metaphor for what has happened to American society over the course of my lifetime. Brooks was a football star at Georgia Tech when I was there. He was a lineman in the days when players went both ways, on offense and defense. He was All Southeastern Conference, Second Team All American. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. I used to see him around campus pretty often. He weighed 172 pounds.

Now the average weight of a Division I college lineman is more than 300 pounds.

Different things happen when 300+ bodies bang together than when the bodies average around 170. And the differences at the upper end aren’t pretty. As George Will points out in his column today in the Washington Post, college and professional football, as they’re played now, necessarily damage brains and shorten life. But as I implied, I’m thinking today not just about football but about the general condition of society.

I recall clearly that shortly after I graduated from college I began to think about how much money would be desirable. I concluded that the most any sane person could imagine wanting was $60,000 annually. By today’s prices that would be about $300,000, or maybe a bit more. It wasn’t that I thought I would ever reach $60,000; rather, that was the most I figured I -- or anybody else -- could ever want. Think what Jamie Dimon would say to that.

When I graduated from college, the world population had not quite reached three billion. Now it’s more than seven billion.

Again, back in the ancient times when I graduated, the average size of a house in the United States was 1,000 square feet. Now it’s 2,700 square feet. But the latter figure doesn’t tell us what’s happening in the affluent suburbs of virtually all American cities. Four thousand square feet is considered pathetic, and I have visited neighborhoods where the average is eight thousand.

In 1960, the gasoline consumed by passenger cars in the U.S. was 41 billion gallons. In 2006, it had risen to 75 billion, despite a near-doubling of the number of miles a car could go on a gallon.

I could go on endlessly with these comparisons. But maybe these make my point. And I haven’t even mentioned bombs. We are suffering from a condition which can reasonably be called “giganticism” and it has the potential not only to impair the pleasures of life but to threaten life itself.

In 1999, I wrote an essay which argued that the turning of the millennium marked the most important point in human history: the time when the basic human problem was transformed from there being too little to there being too much. I didn’t imagine then how prescient I was.

When things change from the way they have been for a very long time, or, in this, case, as long as anybody can remember, people have a hard time adjusting their attitudes. They hold on to what they are accustomed to, even if that holding on becomes toxic. And that’s the condition we’re in now, here a dozen years past the turning point. You might say that the nastiness of our political atmosphere at the moment rises mainly from people trying to hold on too tightly. I mentioned yesterday John Cassidy’s list of ten American beliefs that indicate the country is crazy. Number 9 was: “Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.” When you consider all the behavior that belief by itself engenders, you can see that holding on to it could shortly lead to disaster.

Curing ourselves of giganticism is going to be harder than anybody has yet conceived because it is packed so tightly with our notions of success. In America, bigger is better. William “Refrigerator” Perry is better than Franklin Brooks, although the game that Brooks played was more exciting than Perry’s game was.

The best defense against giganticism I can think of is ridicule. It’s unlikely to have a gigantic effect right off --which is appropriate. But, gradually, if every time someone started bragging about his big house, or his big car, or his big gun, or his big estate, and most of all about his big bank account, he were portrayed as a buffoon, the notion of bigness being superior would begin to wither. We have seen the tactic already start to take effect. Recall the prediction less than a year ago that if Rick Perry joined the presidential race he would blow his opponents away because everything about him was oversized, especially his rhetoric. It didn’t quite work out that way. Of course, Rick Perry helped by being unmistakably a buffoon, without anyone’s having to paint him as one. Still, he’s a good example. When someone pushes giganticism as a measure of grandeur, picture him as Rick Perry, and talk about him the way Rick Perry was discussed. If that were done, the country -- other than Texas, of course -- could begin to loosen itself from the obsession of bigness. And we could consider selling Texas to China -- that is if that’s not too gigantic a transaction.

August 9, 2012

My trip from Burlington, Vermont to Tampa, Florida yesterday, and the consequent residence in airport world for eight hours, provided me with a spate of thoughts.

One was a near-revelation that I can recommend to all air-travelers. To make getting onto an airplane far easier than you have come to expect, adopt one simple mental device: assume that all employees of the TSA are insane. Then, immediately, remind yourself that when confronting crazy people you don’t want to do anything to make them even crazier. Don’t ever attempt to have a rational interchange with them. People in the grip of psychotic fits can’t be conversed with as though their minds were under sensible control. The key is to humor them, no matter how bizarre they become. Refuse to go along with them only if they want you to do something that will endanger your life. Remember, placating people of this condition is not the same thing as allowing yourself to be pushed around by sane people. In the latter instance, you’re being humiliated; in the former you’re simply taking account of derangement. If an obviously berserk person barked at you on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t get mad, you wouldn’t feel insulted; you would simply smile and walk past. Treat TSA people the same way. If they say something you can’t understand -- a not uncommon occurrence -- just look pleasant and don’t respond. This will cause them to scream at you even more loudly than they did the first time. If you still can’t understand, just lift your hands, palms upward, to about the height of your shoulders and shake your head ever so slightly. Chances are this will cause somebody else to scream at you, and this time you may be able to understand. In any case, if you’ll just try to give the appearance of being agreeable, after a while they’ll settle down -- most of the time that is. Eventually, they’ll wander off and you’ll be able to go into the boarding area. You probably won’t ever have to say anything. Think of the experience as an anthropologist would. I promise, if you do it this way, you’ll be a lot less frustrated than if you approach the ordeal as though something sensible were happening.

It turned out that my first plane was a little over an hour late. So once I made my way through the looney tunes arena, I had an hour and a half to sit and read. I chose the latest edition of Philosophy Now, which I get on my Kindle. It turns out that this number is devoted to future enhancements of one sort or another, and the first article I read was about “moral enhancement” by Julian Savulescu and Igmar Persson. What they mean by moral enhancement is changes in attitude which will allow humanity to avoid some of the disasters which, under the direction of current behavior, appear to be inevitable -- the two main ones being climate degradation and gigantic wars. In other words, they were asking what might be done to change the thoughts of the average person enough so that we won’t be swamped by one, and perhaps by both, of these stupidities?

Savulescu and Persson conclude that it’s impossible under the current political system called democracy. And they make a pretty good case. The average person in a democracy is incapable of grasping that multiple small acts of wastefulness and bigotry -- given the world’s current population -- will accumulate to produce gigantic horrors. And the task of mind-changing is made all the more difficult because the act committed today may not deliver its worst effects for decades. Humans, as they are currently constituted, say the two philosophers, are unable either to imagine the enormity of billions of small acts or to care about horrors visited upon people fifty or sixty years hence. Consequently, democratic debate, especially as it’s now twisted by billions of dollars spent to support vested interests, cannot move us towards effective action.

As I was approaching the end of the essay, I noticed that I was uncomfortably chilly, sitting there on a day when the temperature was well into the eighties outside. I realized that not only was the air-conditioning blowing full force but that numerous fans placed all around the waiting room were driving the chilled air directly into our faces. I was in a laboratory demonstrating the truth of what I had been reading. Enough energy had been wasted in the departure hall while I was there to supply the legitimate needs of moderate sized house for several weeks. And this was in just one small airport. Virtually all the commercial space inside buildings in the United States during the summer is chilled well below the temperature required to make people comfortable. And most of the people who enter that space never summon sufficient thought to recognize that they’re in the presence of cultural suicide.

I looked around. Almost everyone I could see appeared to be oblivious of what they were experiencing, even those who were digging sweat shirts out of their bags to keep themselves warm.

And guess what: I didn’t do anything either. I knew the situation was absurd. I knew that I was in the midst of a serious immorality. But I did nothing.

The occurrence at Burlington did, at least, get me in the mood to watch for other instances of seriously psychopathic behavior. And once I got going, they rushed over me like a tsunami. If I listed them all, and speculated about what they meant, I could make books about that single day. But supposing I did; nobody would read them. There’s already a torrent of books screaming to point out the idiocy flooding the world. The problem is that few will pay attention. Savulescu and Persson are ready to say that we should consider some sort of chemical inducements to produce attention. They know that’s radical and fraught with danger. And, yet, if we do nothing, or keep on as we have been, they argue that hideous breakdowns are inevitable.

When we finally got off the plane in Tampa, I was relieved to be there. But I can’t say I had a happy feeling about the territory I had flown over, or the system that had wafted me across it.

Who knows. I may just have to stop getting on airplanes.

August 10, 2012

I see that President Obama has announced that any other country in the world would like to trade places with the United States.

I realize that it has become a tradition in this country for campaign rhetoric to include utterly silly statements. I also realize that politicians think they need more to stroke people than to say anything sensible to them. But ought there not be some limits? Shouldn’t there be some commentary that an intelligent man has too much integrity to indulge in?

What could possibly be meant by the concept that one country would wish to trade places with another country? You can say, of course, that if the people in one country are hungry and those in another are well-fed, that the hungry people would like to have as much food as the more favored people do. There are many comparisons of that sort that can reasonably be made. I, for example, would like open land in the United States to be as well-tended as the landscape of southwestern England. But simply wishing for some feature of your own country to be improved is not the same thing as wishing to trade places with a country where that feature is superior.

The notion of a country trading places with another country is nonsense.

Furthermore, if you conducted a survey among people in other countries and asked them if they would wish to trade places with the United States, my guess is it would be difficult find any people who would say, yes. Try it out in France and see how it goes. Or Canada, for that matter.

The flattery that American politicians think they have to spray on the people of the United States has become flatulent -- in its basic sense. Is it that they think the people demand it? Is it that they think all their opponents do it so they are forced to do it too? Is it that they think it has become so ritualistic that not to do it would be viewed as heresy? Is it that they believe it? If it’s the latter then we’re in even deeper trouble than we have supposed.

Nothing is standing more in the way of making the United States a more healthy nation than the concept of America exceptionalism. It provides ammunition for every sleaze-bag politician in the country to push irrational policies that benefit no one other than his own donors. If someone comes forward with a proposal to improve a system, all the rotten politician has to do is scream that it’s not American, and since America is superior to every other place, any procedure that has worked well elsewhere must be bad for us because it’s not American.

It’s the main reason the American medical system is one of the least efficient in the world.

It’s the reason our infrastructure is crumbling.

It’s the reason the American people fall for every asinine militaristic adventure the political elite decide to indulge themselves in.

It’s the reason we incessantly degrade our natural environment.

It’s the reason we have locked more people in jails than any other nation on earth.

It’s the reason our schools are, at best, mediocre.

It may not be the whole reason but it contributes to our having a rampantly vulgar popular culture (although I have to admit that popular culture is a serious problem for all countries which tell themselves they’re democracies).

It’s the reason Americans believe they have the right to destroy natural resources at a per-capita rate which if it were practiced by all the inhabitants of the earth would make human existence nearly impossible.

American exceptionalism, as its propounded by the political class, is, in short, garbage. It saddens me to see a man supposedly as intelligent as Barack Obama indulging in it.

It surprises me that someone with the position to put questions to the president doesn’t ask him how one country changing places with another country would work.

If anyone were valiant enough to put that query to the president, I wonder how he would respond. I doubt it could be an exercise in brilliance.

August 12, 2012

Lately I’ve, somewhat unwillingly, found my attention focused on the deficiencies and dysfunctions of democracy. I don’t enjoy digging into these topics because I consider myself an advocate of democracy and it’s not pleasant to realize that something you favor is flawed. But as I come on more and more thinkers pointing out that the difficulties bedeviling humanity are unlikely to be addressed by current democratic practices, I’m forced to acknowledge that we require modifications in our decision-making procedures.

The worst thing about democracy is that it appears inherently allied with fallacious thoughts about equality. If every person is to have an equal say in how society is ordered then perhaps each person’s opinions on the subject should be considered as worthy as anyone else’s -- or so the theory runs. But I suspect we all know that’s nonsense. The only way people are equal is with respect to their inherent worth -- and that’s only according to theory. The inherent worth of people, of course, can only be determined by theory. No scientific fact can establish it.

When current pieties become stifling it’s refreshing to consult thinkers from previous ages who had no hesitancy in announcing that some people are intellectually superior to others. Here, for example, is a passage from Schopenhauer’s Councils and Maxims:

It is most important for everyone who is capable of higher and nobler thoughts to
keep his mind from being so completely engrossed with private affairs and vulgar
troubles as to let them take up all his attention and crowd out worthier matter.

Here there’s a frank acknowledgement that some persons are capable of higher thoughts than other people are and that the concerns of common people are not as worthy as they might be. If someone said that today he would be denounced as an unconscionable snob. Yet the validity of Schopenhauer’s warning is obvious. Persons who think of nothing but private concerns and vulgar troubles are not going to be as intelligent, in the ballot box, as those who have expanded their thinking beyond narrow matters. It’s not true that every vote is cast with the same knowledge and good sense behind it. That’s so obvious it scarcely needs to be said. Yet our public discourse pretends that each vote deserves the same regard as every other.

Americans are suffering from a degraded ability to make clear distinctions. A legal right is not he same thing as an intellectual or moral right. We confer legal rights on people who will use them ineptly, or viciously, not because we ought to like doing it, or find virtue in doing it, but because of practical necessity. We can’t discover a way to exclude stupid voters, so we have to let everyone vote. But that doesn’t mean we need to delude ourselves that votes cast out of ignorance or nastiness are as worthy as votes informed by thoughtful analysis.

If we could publicly acknowledge -- openly, unashamedly and with no sense of guilt -- that many voters are ill-informed and bigoted and consequently cast their votes in support of harmful positions, we might begin to repair some of the defects in our democracy. One thing that would become immediately possible would be the bringing of interesting correlations into political debate. It’s well-established, for example, that there’s a connection between gun violence and the excessive consumption of alcohol. People who own guns are more likely to go on drinking binges and to drive drunk. If that were generally acknowledged it might marginally affect voting habits. Legislation is not the only way to modify our political culture.

My argument is that democracy will function more fully for the benefit of the general populace when social conditions are portrayed accurately and included in political debate. Wallowing in pious pretense about the glories of the population and their sacred rights serves no one other than political manipulators. Our political system rests so much on popular flattery we are commonly pushed away from effective attention on genuine problems.

If we want to save democracy, or find sufficient reasons to save it, we won’t be successful by continuing to distort who the people are. Some people are not very smart; some people are hugely ignorant; some people are driven by hatred and resentment. Consequently, the policies and stances they support are pathetic. Why should that not be an ordinary understanding of our political debate? If we could reach the point of facing that people under the sway of destructive emotions flock together, we might start learning clearly who’s voting for what, and why.  And that could reinvigorate genuine democratic initiatives.

I’m not saying it would. But it could. And we’re in a situation where we need to try something different.

August 15, 2012

Here on vacation in Hardee County, I am, of course, away from my books. But I do have my Kindle with me, and on it, over the years, I've stored quite a few classic works that  I ordered with the notion of carrying a small basic library around with me. Among the items in that list is Arthur Schopenhauer’s Counsels and Maxims, one of the more prominent of his numerous essays.

Happening on it about five days ago I decided to read it. And I’m glad I did, though I find it worrying in some respects.

One of the recurring themes in Counsels and Maxims is that about five-sixths of the people in the world are blockheads. And they occupy that station not because of poor educational opportunity or because they are surrounded by cultural vulgarity but, rather, because it’s their nature. In other words, they can do no other than be blockheads, regardless of the chances for learning they encounter.

One might ask, so what if an eccentric German philosopher advances a theory about the nature of humanity that can’t be precisely defined and certainly can’t be scientifically investigated? Why not just brush it aside?

The truth is I would prefer to brush it aside because I don’t like the idea. For most of my life I have gone along thinking that almost everyone can learn and be taught, if the conditions are right and sufficient energy is employed. But what if I’ve been wrong?

I have to admit there’s something in Schopenhauer’s dark charm that causes me to question myself. Suppose we didn’t use his pejorative terminology and said simply that humanity is divided into two groups, one considerably larger than the other. The small group naturally is curious and eager to learn; the large group seeks its solace in never discovering anything new and enjoys nothing so much as clustering with like minds.  What would that tell us about social functioning?

At the very least, it would be bound to exert an influence on thinking about democratic decision-making.

It goes almost without saying that within categories of people as numerous as five-sixths of humanity -- or even one sixth -- that there would be groups within groups. Even if one were among those who have little curiosity, he might be more shrewd than his fellows. He could be seen as quite bright among persons like himself while still having virtually no inclination to learn anything fundamental. These shrewder persons would be likely to occupy positions of responsibility among the majority. One thing about them seems fairly clear. They would be opposed to the goals, interests, and tastes of the one-sixth. In fact, they would do what they could to squelch those pursuits.

The reason I find Schopenhauser’s displeasing analysis worrisome is that it seems strikingly accurate with respect to the only population I have a chance to observe regularly, that is, the people of the United States. We don’t have to accept Schopenhauer’s division; we can use his analysis if the breakdown is one-third-two thirds, or 40% - 60%, or whatever, so long as the majority falls into the category of the blockheads.

I’ve been asking myself how my thoughts would change if I found myself firmly persuaded by the Schopenhauer theory. I remain unsure.

I’ve already figured out that there’s no sense getting angry with people who seem incapable of grasping primary truths of social wellbeing. And if Schopenhauer is correct, that conclusion is only strengthened. These people are as they are by nature. They can’t help it. If that seems condescending, so be it, Schopenhauer would say.

A more difficult issue is whether there is any sense in the two groups trying to talk to each other. They have to communicate in some fashion if they occupy the same society. But how? I don’t think that’s an easy issue, either for individuals or policy-makers. It probably does advise talking only when it’s unavoidable. If Schopenhauer is right, there can be neither pleasure nor enlightenment in it.

We are left, of course, with the validity of Schopenhauer’s stance. I’m still a good way from being won over. I continue to hope I’ll find evidence proving him wrong. But I admit, he -- and others of like mind -- have been persuasive enough to have, fairly firmly, planted their sense of humanity in my mind. Whether or not I ever accept it, I’m probably consigned to perpetual speculation about how to make my way in a society dominated by blockheads.

August 17, 2012

In the trove of books we rescued from the sale room at the Hardee County Library there was a volume by Garry Wills I had not heard of (Wills writes so many books I guess that’s not surprising) -- Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders. It’s in the form of a mini-Plutarch in that to each of the essays about leaders in various fields there is appended a brief note about someone else who is designated an “antitype.”  For example, the antitype to Franklin Roosevelt, as an electoral leader, is Adlai Stevenson.

I’ve been skimming through text over the past few days, and I’m forced to say it’s not one of Wills’s better efforts. Wills’s entire premise rises from a notion that strikes me as less than well-founded: that society needs followers, and that followers are distinguishable from ordinary citizens making decisions to the best of their ability. Wills says at the conclusion of his introduction: “We do not lack leaders. Various trumpets are always being sounded. Take your pick. We lack sufficient followers. That is always the real problem with leadership. Calls are always going down into the vasty deep; but what spirits will respond?”

Does this mean that if people simply pick some leader, or other, and follow, that everything will be okay, or, at least, improved? Or does it mean, as I suspect, virtually nothing at all?

I don’t understand how a man presumably as bright, and as perspicacious, as Garry Wills can litter his writing with as many vacuous sentences as this book contains. After he writes, does he not ask himself, “What have I said?” And if he doesn’t, why not?

An example which leapt out at me comes in the chapter on Martin Luther King as rhetorical leader. Wills has been building the thesis that sermons have been among the most effective forms of rhetoric -- an argument I don’t think many would deny -- when he slumps into this comment: “Jonathan Edwards and other masters of the jeremiad could move their audiences more deeply than Demosthenes ever swayed Athens with his eloquence.”

There is first of all here a disorienting difficulty with definition. What, precisely, is meant by moving an audience? And what yardstick can we use to measure the depth of the movement? You would think a writer as adept as Wills would have perceived these problems and, in some brief way, have addressed them. Without something more from him, we don’t actually know what he’s talking about.

Then, supposing the vagueness of definition was at least partially resolved, what can possibly allow us to gage accurately the emotional state of an Athenian audience listening to Demosthenes? I don’t see how that can be done in a manner that would allow us to compare the ancient feeling, in any meaningful way with the more recent enthrallment achieved by Jonathan Edwards. This is, in short, a nonsensical sentence. It functions simply as filler. It offers nothing to the reader.

My point here is not -- mainly -- to castigate Garry Wills. As a scholar reaching out to popular readership, he’s better than most. It is to say we exist in an atmosphere of such loose and sloppy diction that, for the most part, we don’t know what we are trying to say to one another. It’s an atmosphere that transforms us all into ready victims for charlatans.

If even the best traffic in blather in order to get books cranked out, I guess for the money, why should we expect anything other than what we get from Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, and those of their ilk, who live only for plunder?

I can’t be sure of this but I fear that in America we are more careless about language than the citizens of other similar countries are. Americans seem unaware that language is the primary tool of humanity. It is not something to be used as though it were tinsel. It deserves our respect and care as much as anything. And in the United States, it’s not getting what it deserves.

August 23, 2012

As they approach their convention in Tampa the Republicans wax ever more bizarre. It’s as though they have collectively decided to play the game called, “How Crazy Can We Get?”

For the moment they’re knotted in the question of whether it’s prudent to use the words “legitimate” and “rape” in the same sentence. The bigwigs have been saying no, not because they think there’s anything incorrect in it but out of fear that such a juxtaposition might lose them some votes. They are, however, being effectively countered by the rank and file who argue that the connection is a matter of faith and ordained by God.

“Faith” is a big word for Republicans. They are all people of faith, of course, and that, in and of itself, elevates them above the pathetic dweebs who think they have to rely on evidence. It’s not easy to ascertain exactly what “faith” means in the mind of a Republican, but as near as I can tell it’s the privilege of believing anything which assists in the acquisition of money. If, for example, an industrialist can increase his bottom line by dumping poison in a river, he has the right to believe that God will provide for the purity of the stream, because, you know, that’s the sort of thing God does.

“God” is another word which takes on mystery as it emerges from Republican mouths. It appears to mean something like, “the Big Convenience.” God is he who lets you do what you want to do so long as you scorn people who don’t accede to the Republican notion of God, because they’re sinners and deserve to be put down.

All this palaver prior to the convention has bolstered my hypothesis that the driving theory of GOP leaders is that at least 51% of American voters are imbeciles. They will believe any falsehood they’re told so long as the lie is salted with nastiness. Thus we have the widely reported horror that Obama has struck down the work requirement for people on the welfare rolls, because he wants to make sure that undeserving people become even more undeserving. We have also the charge that Obama is robbing Medicare to pay for Obama Care. The motive for this may seem obscure until you recollect that the president doesn’t want anyone to receive medical assistance unless it comes from a program that has his name on it (the voters the Republicans are reaching towards believe that the act extending health insurance is named, officially, “Obama Care”).

The 51% estimate of mindlessness -- you might almost call it a faith -- is probably fairly close to the truth. Those of us less than excited about four years of a Romney presidency can hope it’s exaggerated by three percent, or so. And it probably is. We may thus escape complete national degradation, and be allowed to celebrate continuing mediocrity.

We should however keep in mind that if 48% of the population can be captured by egregious lies, there is bound to be a major political party who will continue trying to lure them into its ranks. The Republicans have reason to hope that sooner or later some international or biological disaster can be twisted in their favor, and that they can, thereby, win an extra three percent to their side and seize the government rather than simply paralyzing it. There is little chance that they will disintegrate merely from corruption or stupidity.

The spectacle taking place next week in Tampa, therefore, may be little more than a preview of what’s to come. We can be pretty sure the GOP will go for all-out craziness in order to lay the groundwork for an insane assault on the second Obama administration. Those who relish such goofy melodrama, like most of the TV political journalists, are almost sure to have a rich future ahead of them.

August 27, 2012

Let’s say that you enjoy reading a book, perhaps one that’s provocatively stimulating, like the Bible or a collection of Schopenhauer’s essays. It seems a normal thing, doesn’t it, that you might like to talk with someone about the book? You might want to read a passage aloud and ask your companion what it said to him, or to her. That would be reasonable wouldn’t it? And then, having heard what your companion thought, you could offer your own interpretation. That could generate conversation, couldn’t it? And the conversation might be pleasant, right?

When I was young, I assumed that such activity would be common in my mature life. If I had been told that it would be extremely rare, so rare that it would be virtually impossible most of the time, I would have thought that was crazy. Yet that craziness has become reality, so common that almost everyone I know takes it for granted.

I can’t be sure about this, of course, but I’d be willing to wager that here in Hardee County, where I am now, month after month passes without a single instance of such activity taking place.

Obviously, there are many things to be talked about -- what Hilda did, or what Horace did, or what Hilda and Horace did together up in a bar in Lakeland last Friday night.  Things of that sort certainly have their interest. I’m not averse to talking about them. But why can’t there be discussion of thoughts which have achieved a literary status?

One answer, clearly, is that scarcely anyone reads stimulating books. If that’s the case, it raises a whole new set of questions.

The aforementioned Schopenhauer has an answer which I don’t like but which could have a measure of truth, regardless of my preferences.  In his Counsels and Maxims, he comments directly on the possibility of intellectual companionship, saying:

Further, if a man stands high in Nature’s lists, it is natural and inevitable that he
should feel solitary. It will be an advantage to him if his surroundings do not
interfere with this feeling; for if he has to see a great deal of other people who are
not of like character with himself, they will exercise a disturbing influence upon
him, adverse to his peace of mind; they will rob him, in fact, of himself, and give
him nothing to compensate for the loss.

In other words, if you’re the sort of person who enjoys wondering about the worth and meaning of demanding books you’re better off alone. Most of the people you encounter will drag you down. It’s futile to expect them to offer you anything stimulating. It’s not in their nature to do it (Schopenhauer is big on the natural ranking of people). His message is that the more you think, the less you should seek the company of other people.

It’s a snobbish opinion but I suppose that sometimes snobs are right.

I can relish communion with books, and perhaps with the people who wrote them, by myself. When I’m in my room, alone, with my pencils, notebooks, and texts, things can seem pretty good. Yet, so far, I have not been able to escape a feeling of loneliness. Is this no more than a weakness? Should I take myself in hand and forget the notion of rich conversation? Should I be content with tales of Horace and Hilda? These are honest questions. I really don’t know the answer to them.

Perhaps I was spoiled by the accident of once having a good friend, who liked conversation even more than I do.  I met him most days and we shared our thoughts about everything, including the books we were reading and the papers we were trying to write. But he was so inconsiderate as to die, and I have found no one to replace him.

I exaggerate to a degree. It’s not that I don’t have friends with whom I can talk. But they are all busy people who don’t have a great deal of what’s called “spare time.” The consequence is I see them infrequently. When we do meet, it’s for an hour or two. Few topics can be pursued vigorously under that schedule.

I begin to think I haven’t given sufficient credit to solitude as an advantage.  Perhaps it’s a practice we all should pursue more actively. Find ways to be content with ourselves. Share only commonplaces. Never hint, in company, that there’s anything to be thought about other than cocktail party chatter. Be sufficient to oneself.

If that’s an answer it may lead to greater ease. Perhaps, as Schopenhauer advises, it’s the only way.  Still, I can’t be sure. And I can think of few methods of working towards being sure. Surety, of course, is not the province of humankind.

August 29, 2012

Schopenhauer tells us that the human world consists of misery, depravity and folly in equal magnitude. If we concentrate on any one of these it will seem to exceed the others. But that’s just an illusion caused by the colossal range of them all. He does, however, admit that in this miasma of futility, what the Buddhists call “Sansara,” there are small points of light, acts of intelligence, generosity, kindness and sympathy. These are signs that the Sansara contains “a good and redeeming principle, which is capable of breaking through and of filling and freeing the whole of it.”

From whence do these points of light come? Schopenhauer says it’s a mystery. They seem so antithetical to human nature that investigators are driven to fictions to explain them. Kant, for example, having demolished all other arguments for theism, allowed it back in because he couldn’t solve the mystery of these actions. God is presumed to exist even though there is no theoretical proof for him.  Schopenhauer, however, has doubts about Kant’s seriousness in this matter.

There is in human thought a deep stream of mysticism with regard to virtue. The latter provides a kind of arcanum for meditation and, I guess, for hope. It doesn’t make sense, given what we know about reality and, yet, there it is. Of course, many people explain it as an evil perverted against itself, but I suspect most of us would prefer to think of it as genuine.

Let’s assume it is. Then, what’s its source? I have to admit from the start that I don’t know. But there are a few things I can wonder about.

It seems that many people, and perhaps most, when they confront the reality of human existence, say to themselves, “My god! this can’t be it. There has to be something else, something to allow it to make sense.” This sentiment is the cause of fairy tales, such notions as paradise in an afterlife, and so forth.  Yet if you aren’t seducible by fairy tales, what then?

Society is for the most part a network of barriers designed to keep people running along designated paths in the service of a small minority, who are themselves confused about the functions they pursue. They know only that they want to be on top, but they have little concept of what that means. They will readily kill to maintain their position but they can’t be bothered to understand it. Consequently, society is a gigantic engine of oppression and has persisted in that process since its inception.

Might it be that the flickers of light are momentary impulses to break out of the machine, to become something other than machine-people? Why would we wish to do that? Perhaps because there is hope that outside we will find something more interesting, refreshing and sweet-smelling than the odor of the machine-people?

Is it a reasonable hope? We can’t be sure. That’s why it constitutes a mystery. Yet when we go back to the conviction -- this can’t be it -- we find but slight reason not to give hope a chance.

What would the non-machine-people be like? We don’t know. The reason conservatives push their greeting-card morality and tinsel sentimentality is that they don’t want anyone imagining that persons outside the machine could be more interesting, less boring, and less cruel than the machine-people are.

Schopenhauer thought that most humans are by nature machine-people. They can be nothing else. Still, even he acknowledged the possibility of a breakthrough. How can there be a breakthrough if people cannot escape the previous restraints? How can there be a breakthrough if there is something overweening we call “Nature.” It seems to me we have been enthralled by nature, or, at least, human nature, too long. Saying that the flickers pointing towards a breakthrough is a mystery is all very well. But, by itself, it doesn’t tell us what to do tomorrow.

It all depends on how fed up you are. When I watch the TV I get more and more fed up. When I watch the Republican Convention, I get really fed up. I think it’s time to take a chance. It’s true, I’m not sure how to do it.  But deciding that I ought to take a chance is at least some movement. I sense that more persons than just myself are approaching that point. I hope that’s the case.

August 31, 2012

Schopenhauer says that the mark of bad character is the propensity to say, when one encounters another person, “not I, not I, not I.” He’s clearly right in that the hideous abominations of history have occurred because of the ability to view other humans as beings so different from the self they don’t count for anything. When that’s the case, if they present inconvenience of any sort, one has a perfect right to eliminate them. They become akin to mosquitos. This is, indeed, a bad habit of mind.

On the other hand, there is some positive use in seeing oneself as different from others. We shouldn’t forget that building a worthy self requires observing habits we don’t like and resolving not to take them up. Goethe said there must be fools and rogues in the world, and I suppose he was referring to the use we need to make of them in shaping better character.

The answer to how we should respond to this seeming contradiction with respect to the proper perception other people is fairly obvious. Despite a person’s promotion of acts you abhor, he retains his humanity and, therefore, he continues to deserve, regardless of what he does, the basic care that humanity confers -- or, at least, ought to confer. If we could get that thought clear in our minds it would take away many of the horrors we regularly observe, such as legalized killings posing as acts of justice.

This morning I read in the paper another fulmination from John Bolton who, in my opinion, is a murderous crank. He was spewing against Barack Obama as not being strong enough because he is not a believer in American exceptionalism. I don’t know if Obama believes in that goofy theory, or not, but clearly, he is at times an eager killer. It’s just that he doesn’t kill enough to serve Bolton’s preferences.

Bolton’s ideas strike me as about as odious as a man’s can get. But that doesn’t give me the right to wish him human ill. I don’t want him to get sick. I don’t even want him to have a stomach ache. If I found him broken down on the road on a freezing night, I would give him a ride to a warm place, and I would do it even if I knew he wouldn’t extend me the same consideration (I have to admit I don’t know if he would or not).

This is no more than loyalty to the ancient, and somewhat hackneyed, axiom that we should hate the act but not the actor. It’s an extremely simple notion but for some reason we don’t seem to have been able to teach it to ourselves.

Schopenhauer’s explanation for this inability is that bad character is a priori, that is, it existed before humanity came to be, and that, through a process we have not yet been able to understand, it is projected into a certain percentage of the beings who proceed into existence. Some other humans, by contrast, get another character.

This is an eccentric theory to say the least. Yet it’s one I suspect most of us have held at one time or another. There are some people we think of as being mean, and we don’t hold much hope that they will ever lay down their meanness. It defines who they are. We can’t imagine them without it. Most people, for example, can’t conceive that Adolph Hitler, had he lived another thirty years, might have ameliorated his attitudes.

If mean-spiritedness enters the human race from some mysterious source outside time and history, what can we do about it? The current theory, embodied in our national policy, is that we should kill all the mean people. I, myself, think that’s a futile idea. For one thing, they don’t all live outside our borders. If we limited ourselves just to the American portion of the solution, it would take forever.

The best answer I can reach is that we should try to get the mean people to simulate goodness through the mechanism of shame. Their hearts won’t change -- particularly not if Schopenhauer is right -- but their behavior might. The funny thing about society is that if behavior changes people will begin to convince themselves they believe in it. That’s clearly what’s happened in the United States with respect to racial bigotry. Though millions still clasp it in their hearts, I suspect it afflicts a smaller percentage of the population than it did fifty years ago.

So what? one might ask. If the meanness itself is ineradicable and if its manifestation moves away from something, it’ll just move to something else. That’s probably true. But the something else might be more manageable. If, for example, meanness moves from lynching to Republican attempts to do away with Medicare, that’s probably, overall, a gain. I don’t think we should tell ourselves we can make the world perfect. If we can just make it better, even a little bit better, that should be enough to keep us going.

I can’t be sure Schopenhauer would agree. But maybe.

©John R. Turner

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