Collected Thoughts

September 2012
September 1, 2012

Here in Hardee County my thoughts drift irresistibly towards the evisceration of the lower middle class in America. It was the class of people who gave me birth and raised me up, and now it is almost completely wiped out.

I don’t suppose there’s any reason to get overly romantic about this particular ruination. The lower middle class in this country during the first half of the 20th century was scarcely enthralling. Yet there was a health in it that has since departed from the nation, and, all in all, I think the country is worse off for the loss.

The people who made it up were not well educated, but they had a curious respect for education, and not just for the getting of degrees but for the real thing. The few among them who read serious books were honored for doing it and the result was that some children aspired to achieve that kind of recognition for themselves. Few did, of course. But the aspiration managed to motivate a number that made a difference. Furthermore, most parents of the class wanted their children to become educated. They had little idea what that meant but their cloudiness didn’t diminish the desire that their children would do it. I wonder if ever before in the history of the world there have been that many people who coveted an ill-understood quality for their offspring and sacrificed for it simply because they conceived it to be finer than anything they had known.

Their religion, which they conceived themselves to be committed to, was little more than the belief that it was better to be to be fair and honest with one another than to advance themselves financially through unscrupulous means. They didn’t wave signs like the one I saw on U.S. 17 today, in the hands of a young woman which demanded, “Honk for Jesus!” Their faith didn’t take a lot of thought or fervor but it actually did, often, have effect.

They were generally neat and clean. These are minor virtues but they often marry with behavior more important than themselves, and reinforce it.

They didn’t have a lot of fun, and the fun they did have was mild. But they weren’t puritans. They liked for their children to have a good time, and they made sure that on holidays some of the childish hopes were met, even if it meant having to give up some things for themselves.

They were, at times, harsh with their children but they were not often really vicious and they were almost never neglectful.

Though they seldom engaged in full-scale conversations they did tell tales, and these were charged with a wry humor which taught an affectionate but skeptical approach to humanity generally. It was possible to learn from them.

They had enough political sense almost never to trust really rich people, and never to trust rich people who cited their riches as evidence of their superiority.

Though they could be sentimental they rarely descended into overt sloppiness. They had a sense that gushing was not a thing done by decent people.

They regularly shined their shoes. They always kept their shoelaces tied.

They weren’t particularly grand but, then, they conceived themselves as something to be ascended from. They didn’t imagine that the future would involve a descent from the culture they inhabited.

That style of life is now almost departed from America. You can find pockets of it here and there, but it doesn’t contain more than ten percent of the nation whereas once it held a majority. Its loss might not be regrettable were it not that its disappearance has left a hole in the belly of the nation. The center has no supportive power now. It can’t hold anything together. How can a nation with a hole in its middle build towards a stronger, more healthy future? I don’t think it can, and, consequently, I don’t think it will. I have no illusions that the disassembled lower middle class can be revived. It is gone. But the need for the function it once served has not gone.

The requirement for a social setting where children can grow up in modest circumstances which nonetheless provide enough nourishment to spark ideals will never be less than pressing. I’m not saying that no children have those needs met now; obviously some do. But they constitute perhaps a quarter of the youth, the so-called upper twenty-five percent. Sure, there are millions of them. But what about the tens of millions who have a terribly hard time reaching toward hope and aspiration?

The lower middle class once gave them a place to live. Where are they going to live now? What are they going to spend their lives doing? The element of the population which has come to be designated the underclass doesn’t yet subsume three-quarters of the nation, but that’s the situation we are moving towards. If we continue, and do, indeed, arrive at that social structure, the United States will have become a country we never before conceived ourselves as being -- a genuine and accepted plutocracy in which there will be scarcely any movement between the ruling classes and the manipulated masses whose labor supplies the privileged group with their luxuries.

That’s what every society is and always has been, one might protest. Maybe, but there are degrees. And we are traveling towards a degree of separation between the upper and the lower that is fraught with danger. We are going to miss that once vital middle. There’s no doubt we will feel its absence as we head towards something quite nasty.

I don’t want to be droopy, but neither do I want to be blind.

September 8, 2012

After a considerable term of dislocation I am now back to what I used to call normal, that is the ability to get up in the morning and read a little bit, write a little bit, think a little bit. I realize that’s not normal for many people, but it has been for me. When I am taken away from it I begin to feel not so much disconsolate as lost.

Yesterday I drove over to Burlington to meet with a group of teachers of adults. The “Vermont Reads” program this year, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, selected two short books for the attention of various reading groups: Paul Fleishman’s Bull Run and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Officials at the Vermont Humanities Council thought the books would raise questions about the war overall, and that it might be well to remind the teachers of some of the basic events and attitudes at work in the United States in the first half of the 1860s. Carrying out this reminder was my function yesterday.

I am never satisfied with myself after such events. I feel I could have been better organized and have mentioned important considerations I left out. But then I have to remember that one can’t say everything there is to be said about the Civil War in two hours.

We had an affable group yesterday and lively discussion. Whenever people talk about an event like the Civil War the conversation slides naturally towards war generally. That creates a bit of complexity for me. I am unsure how open to be about the conclusion I have reached about war, which is that it is almost always idiotic. I care very little any longer about the heroism and valor of soldiers because that kind of courage strikes me as so disconnected from anything intelligent it’s not worth much commendation. But I realize this places me in a small minority among my fellow citizens. And since it’s not my part to proselytize anyone at meetings like the one I had yesterday, I try to mute my sentiments. In the sort of discourse that develops, however, it’s hard to keep them completely under wraps.

The point I try mainly to make when I talk about an occurrence as gigantic and problematic as the American Civil War is that it shouldn’t be seen as a single event but as millions of events, each one having some significance for the persons who experienced it. Trying to sum them all up into a comprehensive judgment is futile. If you tell yourself you can do that you’re simply living in self-delusion.

I also try to emphasize that one’s own perception of happenings pretty much determine what they were as far the perceiver is concerned. And there’s little any of us can do about that.

I got up this morning to start back again in Schopenhauer, and almost immediately came on this passage:

Since everything which exists or happens for a man exists only in his consciousness
and happens for it alone, the most essential thing for a man is the constitution of this
consciousness, which is in most cases far more important than the circumstances
which go to form its contents.

Was the battle glorious, horrifying, ridiculous, pathetic, necessary, worthwhile? It depends on who looked at it and what the battle did to him or her.

I’ve reached the stage where I think we would all be far better off if we were less certain than we tend to be. The conviction of knowledge where these is no knowledge has been the cause of much cruelty. The worst habit the human race has developed is the demand for certainty when there is no possibility of certainty. Why not get beyond that and take pride in the honesty of admitting that we don’t know what we, in truth, cannot know? Living with people in that frame of mind should be more enjoyable than the encounters we have mostly with people now. People suffused with certainty are like thoroughly boiled hot dogs, always on the point of popping.

I think as I settle into the rest of my life I’ll spend more time confessing what I don’t know, and inviting others to become my co-confessors. The truth is I don’t know much all; the volume of my knowledge is pathetic. Yet I doubt I’m far above average in ignorance.

The universe is vast, and we are little. The range of our knowledge is like a pinprick in an enormous tapestry. It doesn’t extend far. And yet it is fairly satisfying to live within it so long as we can always be trying to edge its boundaries out just a little, here and there, from time to time.

September 9, 2012

Over the past fifteen years, or so, something happened to me that I didn’t fully realize was happening. I changed my view of history. I’m speaking of “history” not so much as what happened but as the story people commonly tell about what happened. So when I say I changed my view of history I don’t necessarily mean I changed my view of the past.

Generally, when people talk about history -- in the form I have in mind here -- they mean the account of how power has been amassed and used. And they have mainly in mind the closely linked powers of military might and economic strength. In other words, when they write history they tell the story of armies and riches.

There are, obviously, many frames of mind from which one can tell that story, and the frame a person chooses is determined primarily by motive. A writer, for example, might be led by the desire to worship and glamorize someone, as Chris Matthews clearly was in his recent biography of John F. Kennedy (Matthews is one of the most worshipful personalities you can find). A writer might be strongly patriotic in which case he will tell a story about how power has been used wondrously by the nation he prefers, which has been the case with most U.S. historians over the past half century -- almost insanely by Tom Brokaw, for example. A writer might have an ideological impulse and, therefore, tell a story showing how certain political systems have been more “successful” than others. It usually happens that most writers of history don’t like to be aware of their motives and so they deceive themselves with the notion that they are working to tell the truth.

I’d like, if I can, to avoid that kind of self-deception, and, so, since I have come to think of history mainly as the story of folly and stupidity, I need to remind myself that the reason I see it that way is that I would like for the managers of power to behave in radically different ways than they have up till now. Furthermore, I know that unless greater numbers of people begin viewing political behavior differently things will roll on pretty much as they have. Consequently, I no longer see any sense in idealizing political leaders, not even the ones I formerly admired, such as Lincoln and Churchill. Perhaps they were better than others during their time. But they were not good enough.

What do I mean by that? It’s simple. They presided over gigantic slaughters, and I think it would be better not to have gigantic slaughters. That’s just an opinion, of course. Others can glorify big slaughters if they like. But, I’m not going to do it anymore.

One can argue that the slaughters were inevitable. Or one can maintain they were the cost of preventing something even worse. But those are just opinions too. There’s no evidence which proves they’re correct. There can be no evidence to prove such propositions.

We need to get it out of our heads that the holders of power can make inherently right decisions. There are no such things. Leaders make decisions which cause something to happen, and they make them on the basis of who they are. If we want different things to happen than have happened heretofore, then we need different sorts of people. We need leaders who will gamble in different ways than the leaders of the past have.

A sad truth about humanity is that it will not stop doing something because it’s bad, or because it causes misery, or because it’s tragic. People give up doing a thing when it comes to seem utterly ridiculous. Leaders don’t mind being viewed as tragic; they think that adds depth to their portraits. But they don’t like being seen as fools.

So what’s going to change an act, or a series of acts, from being perceived as grand and glorious? Only one thing: a story of those acts which paints them as idiotic. I’m not suggesting that anyone monkey with facts; they are what they are. But the stories we tell about the facts can vary greatly. We can tell a story about Pickett’s charge which makes it a great drama of courage; we can tell a story which makes it lunacy. As fond as I feel about Robert E. Lee -- and I do admire him in a number of ways -- I’d rather tell the latter story. That’s because I don’t want any more Pickett’s charges; I don’t give a damn how much courage they bring to the fore. The courage is not worth the spilled intestines on the ground  -- in my opinion, at least. We need to think more about what it means for intestines to be ripped out of bodies and deposited elsewhere.

I realize there’s a tantalizing desire among us to glorify our past. It’s a way of patting ourselves on the back, a way of saying what great guys we are. It makes people feel good. But does it make us behave intelligently? I don’t think so. It’s one more example of the tyranny of low expectations.

Instead of more glorification, I’m in the mood for stories which tell about the long, dreary folly of humanity. I can’t be sure that we’re capable of anything better than we’ve achieved up to till now, but it’s for sure we’ll never find out so long as we wallow in historical romance.

September 11, 2012

This morning in the New York Times David Brooks informs us that if men want to get on in the modern world they have to be more like Odysseus and less like Achilles. It occurs to me that was true in archaic Greece also. Brooks draws his conclusion, in part, from reading yet one more book of popular sociology, Hanna Rosen’s The End of Men. Ms. Rosen has discovered that men are rigid and women flexible, and the latter, she says, is the key to success. That may not be an entirely new conclusion either.

There are deeper streams wearing and shifting the foundations of culture than the journalistic mind imagines. That’s one of the reasons you can’t get educated simply by reading the newspapers or listening to politicians pop off. There’s a little learning there, but only a little. Now and then I feel slightly sad that David Brooks has wasted his mind wading in the shallows, but whenever I do I need to remind myself that I have little sense how deep a David Brooks can dive, even if he did conceive better intentions than he has up till now. Maybe he doesn’t have the heft to go beneath the surface. Or, more likely, he doesn’t have the desire, nor see any reason why anyone should have it. After all, you can’t make a lot of money by diving. Nor can you get on many TV shows. And ever since Nicole Kidman wore that fetching skirt we know that being on TV is the meaning of life.

Whether the difference between men and women amounts to more than disparate bodily features I can’t say for sure, though I suspect it does. But of this, I am fairly sure: the differences among men, and among women, are greater than the difference between men and women in the mass. Therefore, to spend a lot of time and effort announcing what men need, or what women need, strikes me as a fairly low grade activity. That’s not to say it’s not worth doing; there is a certain amount of fun in it. It’s just that it’s not a thing of much importance.

For example, nobody is going to transform education by making it more suitable for boys, or more suitable for girls, anymore than politics will be transformed by having more, or less, of one gender or another in positions of power. The difference between the goals of politicians and the desires of rest of us are greater than the difference between men and women in the whole.

Whether we are men or women, we need food, we need comfortable beds at night, we need something to occupy our minds that will lead us to feel that being alive is not futile.  Compared to those three requirements, the needs of men, as men, and women, as women, don’t amount to a great deal.

You might argue, of course, that escaping futility is a different process for women than it is for men. But if you’re going to argue that way, why not take up the complete truth that finding meaning is a distinctive thing for every one of us, and then put your mind to imagining the social conditions that will best allow -- and promote -- a sense of vitality for everyone.

The latter is complex, and hard, but it is the human task -- if there is any such thing. Running away from it, as we have for the past ten thousand years, is just going to leave us in an evermore sticky stew, particularly as there get to be more of us than the earth can sustain.

This is where you get back to the deep streams I spoke of earlier. They’re mysterious flows, I admit, but if you try you can imagine some. Think, for example, of the stream that crumbles the glorification of humans killing other humans and piles up boulders under disgust for the same activity (I know, I bring this up too much; but it is one of the streams my spirit lies down beside). Think how it would be if every time somebody makes a speech like John Kerry made at the Democratic convention, everyone he met for the next two weeks would vomit on him. That, in itself, would work a change, and I think one for the better.

There’s a risk in pushing people towards deep streams. I see that. Some will discover demonic torrents. Yet it’s better to have them talked about and seen for what they are than to keep them hidden, only partly conscious, in tortured and resentful souls.  It’s true that to the degree we have anything like this in politics, it deals with the much maligned social issues. But I say the social issues are okay. If there are passions in them, it’s more healthy to bring them out in the open than to leave them smoldering underneath.

In the long run, almost anything is better than being stultified by the kind of stuff David Brooks regularly pushes at us.

September 12, 2012

The big question agitating the U.S. punditry is what’s wrong with American politics? Why are our political processes so strained, inept, broken? The funny thing is, the answer is obvious and clear.

The American people suffer from a serious case of truth aversion.

American politicians are not the deepest minds of history, but they are bright enough to know that truth-telling is death for political careers. It is regularly spoken of as the ultimate political mistake. It is not quite, but almost, as big a mistake for journalists, particularly those who aspire to the plushiest jobs in the mainstream media.

A nation that can’t abide the truth can’t solve its problems.

It’s not that Americans can’t find the truth if they want to look for it. Truth is not being suppressed here, as it seems to be in countries like North Korea and some of the former Soviet Republics. The truth is right in front of our faces. But we, for the most part, turn away. We don’t like it.

What kind of truth am I talking about? The nature and behavior of the nation’s government. Whether they want to praise or to denigrate the government, many, and perhaps most, Americans would rather believe lies about it than anything approaching veracity. And journalists would rather go along with those lies than dig out facts.

A part of the problem comes from the fever of self-praise that has afflicted the country since its inception. We are exceptional throughout all history. We are the freest people on earth. Our ideas are greater than any other ideas have ever been. There is greater opportunity for success in America than there has ever been anywhere else (no one much bothers to define “success”). We are Number One (whatever that means).

Such assertions are not only indeterminable, they are incapable of expressing meaning. So why do we wallow in them so incessantly? I don’t know, for sure. It seems to me they are a mixture of a deep, unconscious sense of inferiority and the compensatory conscious desire for puffery. If you want to see an accurate depiction of what they have always been, read Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit.

America’s original self-intoxication has been exacerbated over the past half-century by the U.S. government’s acquiring the most gigantic killing apparatus on earth. Americans are wild to celebrate this toxicity, which is bad for them and bad for every other human on earth. There should not be any such concentration of military dominion.

It’s curious that we regularly quote, and just as regularly dismiss, Lord Acton’s famous aphorism about power. Perhaps we should complement his insight by reminding ourselves that power not only corrupts, it also drives people crazy. Once addicted to it, you can never get enough, even though chasing after it ruins everything else. We are very close to that situation now in the United States.

This mingling of autochthonous pomposity with military mania, sprinkled liberally with old-fashioned stupidity, has rotted the roots of republican caution which James Madison and other early statesmen used in fashioning the U.S. Constitution. That document was based on the understanding that no man and no group of men can be trusted to be perpetually virtuous. Uncontrollable power should lie in no one’s hands. All power should be checked by adequate power coming from other sources.

Most Americans, however, can’t face the truth that the use of power is out of control in the United States. It conflicts with their notions of inherent grandeur. They simply don’t want to know that bankers have too much power, billionaires have too much power, military and security officials have too much power, the office of the President has too much power (of a certain sort  - the sort that’s allied with the military).

It’s too tempting to believe that we’re Americans so we’re good, and everybody else is either bad or confused. There’s so little truth in that proposition that people mired in it can’t begin to see what’s actually going on in the world.

We are people in history, just as every other grouping of people have been and will be. We are not charged with the leadership of mankind by any transcendental power, as right-wing Christian religious loons steadily tell us we are.

The problem with believing falsehood is that it cuts one off from working with others to get nearer the truth. Nobody owns the complete truth and I suspect the human mind is constructed in such a way that no one ever will. But we can escape the grosser distortions if we’ll use our minds.

The problem with our politics now is that political aspirants are banned from wide regions of possibility because falseness has taken such firm hold on the public mind that even to investigate certain measures becomes political suicide. Might we have reached a stage in the world where adequate medical treatment should be considered a civil right? No, because that would be socialism! We don’t know what socialism is, but we know it’s bad. Hard as it may be to accept, that’s just about the state political discourse has reached in the United States.

I’m not sure what can open the minds of people in this country. There are clearly many vested interests working hard and spending money lavishly to keep them closed. But if we can’t think together, then we can’t work together. And if we can’t work together we’ll remain on a downhill slide.

September 13, 2012

I regularly read opinion pieces about politics and I write a few myself. In the process of reading and writing I’ve noticed that the underlying motivation of writers varies markedly.

A considerable portion of opinion writers -- perhaps a majority -- write as though they’re contending for public office and are trying to persuade readers to sign on to their campaigns. Consequently, their primary tactic is to say nothing that might alienate a potential adherent. This is pretty much the trademark of the writers of the mainstream media, particularly those who believe that the “Center,” whatever that mythical region stands for, is the palace of virtue.

Another significant portion are trying to hold their positions as attack dogs for political groups. We see them most clearly in the fever swamps of the right-wing. They’ll say anything, regardless of its accuracy, if they think it will raise the blood pressure of their followers. Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin fall into this camp.

A smaller group concentrates on the abuses of a particular cohort of malefactors. Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Engelhardt are among my favorites in this effort.

There’s a set you might call the Vanity Fair writers, who delight in the absurdities of the human race. Gail Collins of the New York Times is probably the most notable of these now.

Then there’s a fairly sizable contingent who are concentrated mainly with portraying themselves as purveyors of overweening wisdom. Tom Friedman, David Brooks, and David Ignatius pop to mind as objective correlatives in this endeavor.

I’m not sure where I stand among these groups, except that I’m definitely outside the first. If a person were seeking general favor, he would have to be insane to write as I do.

What’s in my mind is to look for topics I think are important but which relatively few other people take up. I can say, for example, that for the past twenty years at least I have written about the inadequacy of the American people as citizens. Obviously, it’s not a popular subject. If you were seeking votes, you could scarcely get them by telling people they were too lazy, intellectually, to know what they were voting about.

I have written also about the viciously punitive character of Americans. This is portrayed by many as a thirst for justice, and since I think that’s nonsense, I occasionally point it out.

The glorification of killing is a corollary of the punitive character. Reserving your greatest accolades for people who are designed and trained to slaughter human beings strikes me as degeneracy, or, at least, treacly sentimentality, but for most of my fellow citizens it is simply the debt one owes to heroism, and the essence of patriotism.

My basic conviction is that we’re too restricted in the ideas we will entertain, at least publicly. The reason we keep stumbling into the same mistakes is that our supply of ideas is too sparse to think sensibly about the complexities we confront. And since the world is becoming increasingly complex, our poverty in that respect is going to damage us more and more.

The American people are big on worshipping stuff. Where this lust for worship came from I’m not sure, but if you were to list and define all the things groups of Americans worship, you would have to fill up volumes. I have sometimes tried to point out that if you worship something, you put yourself in a box you can’t get out of. You can’t think about the thing any longer. You can’t ask yourself if your ideas about it are right. You have surrendered the option of getting fed up with it. Worship strikes me as the antithesis of freedom. Loving something, or someone, regardless of its faults or drawbacks, seems to me the grandest thing one can do. But loving and worshipping are very different emotional activities. I don’t see the use in the latter, and that, of course, puts me at odds with most other people. If what I wanted was to win them over, I would hush up about topics like worship.

I’m very aware that my chances of convincing others to think as I do are slight. So when I write, I don’t really think about persuasion. What I want is to get ideas into the general conversation that aren’t there now. I certainly can’t control what will happen if certain ideas gain currency. They might end up being seen in an opposite light from my own. Still, I’m convinced that a richer intellectual atmosphere will make for a more vital and interesting society. Though there are many inventive people in this country, and the things they bring forth are often astounding, the general culture remains stodgy. The chances of having a stimulating conversation with someone you meet in a restaurant or on an airplane are rare.

Stodginess drives the political character of the nation, which means, basically, that it determines how power is applied.  And when power is used out of dead-mindedness rather than out of imagination, far more people suffer than gain. I know, we will have to fuss about what’s imaginative and what’s dead-minded. But that, in itself, would be major progress.

When I write on a topic that makes someone angry, I’m not asking him not to be mad at me. Nor am I asking him to agree with me -- at least not right away. I just want him to think about it.

September 17, 2012

We need to remember the actual statement. Here’s what Mitt Romney said on September 11, 2012:

It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to
condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those
who waged the attacks.

This was a lie and not a mistake. Mr. Romney had to know it was false when he said it. Either that or he’s deranged.

I am not surprised -- and not even particularly dismayed -- that an opportunistic politician would employ falsehood to woo voters. We know such behavior occurs regularly. It does bother me, however, that tens of millions of U.S. citizens will vote to place such a politician in the White House. Yet that will happen without doubt. So I ask myself what it means.
I haven’t achieved a clear answer. I don’t know whether the reason people will vote for Mitt Romney is hatred, or resentment, or racial bigotry, or greed, or megalomania, or stupidity, or ignorance, or some toxic brew of them all whipped together. My most charitable thought about Romney voters is that they’re impelled by disgust with Barack Obama, because of his actual behavior, and figure that anybody will be better than he is.

That, though, forces me to ask myself what actual behavior exhibited by Obama is sufficient to cause anyone to believe that Mitt Romney would be superior? Obama’s worst acts have to do with policies most Romney voters would applaud, the suppression of traditional civil rights in the interest of supposed security. Romney voters think Obama should have suppressed them even more than he has, but that’s not the main reason they’re voting against him.

The point of this piece is not that I think Obama would serve us better as president than Romney would, though I guess that’s definitely implied. My curiosity right now is about Romney supporters. What’s in their heads, and could I understand it even if I sat in a room with them for months on end?

There was a time -- and not long ago -- when I flattered myself I could understand anybody. That confidence is waning. As it shrinks, my thoughts about politics are required to reshape themselves.

It has been considerably more than a short while since I believed -- as politicians steadily intone -- that all Americans want the same thing for their country. I haven’t thought that for, at least, a quarter-century. There is nothing that all Americans want. It does keep on surprising me, though, how widely American desires range. There are people in this country who want virtually nothing I want -- and not just a few, either. How am I to speak to them? How am I to negotiate with them? How am I to compromise with them?

I could put the questions in another way. What would I do if I had to sit alone in a room with Mitt Romney for two hours? There would be no sense in denouncing him and his policies. It would be like hurling insults at an iguana.

Politics are not difficult because we have differing interests. Politics are difficult because our characters are so different that it’s nearly impossible to forge links among us.  I think we are just beginning to realize this, and it’s causing a huge perplexity. All the cries about coming together, and reaching across the aisle and other such nonsense are actually screams of anguish which come from knowing that we’re not going to do it.

Rick Santorum made a speech recently in which he said the smart people are never going to be on “our side.” Some have taken that as a sarcastic crack about who people think they are. I doubt that’s what it was. He was acknowledging that people who are curious, who ask questions about traditional authorities, who have more confidence in the findings of science than they do in the doctrines of religion, are always going to be opposed to the sort of people he wants to be in charge of society. And he’s right. Those two types of persons are not only going to be opposed; they are going to be unable to understand each other.

Can they find a way to get along? I don’t know. I hope so, but I’m not sure. I am fairly sure that politics are going to keep on being nasty for quite some time. The formulas of the past about political virtue are no longer going to work. When people talk about freedom of speech, and thought, they are going to mean wildly different things. And when they talk about justice, they will be referring to acts that will be even more spread out.

When I encounter people likely to vote for Romney, I find myself being driven into the stance of a paleontologist. I know that’s not complimentary, and I regret any discourtesy it involves. But I don’t know what else to do. Genuine conversation seems not to be in the offing.

We are headed for political waters more stormy than any we’ve seen since the 1850s.

September 18, 2012

I have said for some time that the reason Republican politicians lie so steadily is that they have to. If they told the truth about what they believe and what they would like to do to the country, they could never get more than thirty percent of the vote. The Romney campaign is making that situation more evident than ever before. Romney, of course, lies all the time but, then, occasionally he gets caught telling the truth which, politically is more damaging than lying.

His recent comment about 47% of the people being deadbeat moochers is what he and hardcore Republicans really believe. But most of them know they can’t say that out loud. But you know what? It’s hard never to say what you actually think. It slips out at moments when you believe you’re safe and among friends.

If we could have honest political discourse in America, everyone would admit that too large a portion of our population is poorly educated and focused only on immediate gratification. Then the question would be how that portion could be helped to live more energetic and far-seeing lives. And we could confront the undoubted fact that too many Americans think that low aspirations are determined by race. But we can’t have that sort of conversation because all politicians are obsessed with flattering -- and thereby sewing up -- some segment of the electorate. Truth and accuracy have been more and more banished from our political argumentation.

I don’t suppose truth and accuracy have been highly-prized in any human society, ever. But they certainly have been more tolerated and thereby more employed than they are currently in the United States. It’s not easy to conceive a program for emancipating the American people from their destructive dismissal of fair-minded, clear-sighted appraisals of their society.

It’s never a good idea to get too full of yourself, and the United States has been too full of itself since the inception.

When you consider all the things we can’t talk about, and therefore can’t think about in America, the future becomes bleak.

No politician, for example, can say that pure capitalism does not provide us a functional plan for our economic future. Capitalism in America is pretty near a religious icon. You can’t mention what it actually is, and what it will do to us if we keep on worshipping it. You can’t point out that it is the strongest engine of destruction ever conceived. You can’t note that it is grinding up the natural resources on which human life depends. When something is a god, you can’t say it’s a very bad god, that is if you want to get the support of propagandized masses.

What you can’t say about capitalism you doubly can’t say about militarism and all the sloppy, manipulated emotionalism which accompanies it.

And you’re certainly not permitted to lay out the effects of the brand of religion which idolizes ignorance.

It’s not that capitalism, and military strength, and religious sensibility can’t play a part in a healthy society, it’s just that they can’t play the part they are playing now in America. They are poisonous rather than supportive. And we can’t address those problems in our political talk. So what are we going to do?

Don’t ask Mitt Romney. He has no answer. But the really sad thing is that the Democrats and Obama don’t have very good answers either. Are they better than the Republicans? Of course. Are they good enough to inject health into our social systems? Probably not. They won’t push us towards degradation as fast as the Republicans will. Yet they don’t dare express ideas that might energize us.

Some say you can’t look to the political classes for your help. It has to arise elsewhere. I hope that’s true. If it’s not there may not be any help coming.

There is in America at least -- as there is in other parts of the world -- a thrust for technological innovation. It is driven too much by dreams of immoderate wealth but I guess it’s something.  I have a hard time, though, seeing new technology as our savior. The smart phone has probably been the biggest technological transformation over the past decade. But has it actually made human existence more vital? I don’t suppose anyone can say for sure but I doubt that inventions of that sort will give us what we need. As for their effect on politics, they’ll be used only to play the old stupid game more frenetically.

I’ll confess to a streak of romanticism which says that if a political movement could find a way to be attractively honest, a way to push past all the garbage that’s been deposited by manipulation in human thinking over the past half-century, there is a chance for a democratic regeneration. I know, it’s a slight chance. But I’m hoping for it all the same.

September 19, 2012

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says the wealthy classes can get away with almost anything if they will only testify to their privileges by having noble manners. This is a truth the rich people in the United States have almost completely forgotten, or worse, never knew. The rich in America are our exemplars of vulgarity. And their natural leader is Mitt Romney.

The essence of good manners is an awareness of words. It’s a sensibility Romney not only does not have, he probably couldn’t grasp it no matter how much it was explained to him. With respect to the nature of language, he’s as badly educated as a man can be. This is what people are sensing when they describe him as being creepy.

It’s a handicap that cannot be addressed during the course of a campaign. His staff knows that and it’s driving them crazy because they don’t know what to do about it. You can’t tell Romney to sit down and read Middlemarch, or Mansfield Park. Just think how he would respond. He considers himself a bright guy, and nothing will disabuse him of that delusion.

Campaign gurus think they can train a man to say the right thing by staying, as they put it, “on message.” But that’s a mistake. There come times during the course of a long campaign when a person must show his natural self. Though some people are good at wearing masks, it is extremely hard to wear a mask every second, particularly when hordes of journalists are clamoring to elicit something they can run with.

If we consider the key passage from the commentary which has recently raised a kerfuffle, Romney’s difficulties become unmistakable:

There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government,
who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility
to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing,
to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to
them … I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care
for their lives.

This is a verbal mess of the first order. The first issue is the subject. Romney’s not fully aware of who he’s talking about. On the one hand he’s alluding to a class of people who have the characteristics he mentions -- dependency, victimhood, lack of responsibility. On the other, he’s pointing towards those who will vote for Obama. He can’t think those two sets of people are identical. He knows there are wealthy, skilled, accomplished people who will vote for his opponent. But in his foggy rhetoric he equates them simply because he doesn’t like them, and he doesn’t like them because they’re not going to vote for him. In his confused mind that makes them all practically the same thing. All he’s saying is that 47% of the people, at least, will not vote for him, and he thinks they are outrageous. Once he gets caught uttering this befuddlement, he tries to avoid damage by calling it “inelegant.”

That’s bad enough, but worse is the concluding sentence. Even he will not be able to convince them to become responsible. In other words, he takes it for granted that it’s his job to straighten people out morally, but some people are so bad he can’t worry about them. And guess what? If we take him at his word, we have to conclude that these hopeless people constitute 47% of the adult population of the United States. He can argue that’s not what he meant, and to the degree he meant anything, it probably wasn’t. But that’s what he said.

A man incapable of saying what he means will certainly not be able to know what effect his words will have on other people. It is not necessarily bad manners to insult those you mean to insult, but it is terribly unmannerly to insult those you don’t think about insulting. The latter is what Romney does repeatedly. And then he thinks he can get out of it by appearing bewildered.

The thing he has going for him is that there are many people in the country who are unaware of manners. But are there enough of them make a person the president of the United States? We won’t find out for sure until November, but at the moment things are not looking promising for the Romney candidacy. And the demeanor which has got Mr. Romney into dire straits is in his bones. Nothing can wash it out, at least not within less than two months.

My guess is that the manners which have become inherent within the wealthy classes of America will continue to flow out of Mr. Romney as he proceeds. The media are not skilled in seizing on matters of vulgarity when they first exhibit themselves, but once they are unmistakably before the public, neither will the media let them go.

We’ll have to wait and see. Yet once Romney’s manners are the issue -- even though they’re not called what they are -- they’ll continue to afflict his campaign. He needs a gigantic surprise to make people forget who he is.

September 21, 2012

I heard on a TV news show last night that Mitt Romney is launching an effort to humanize himself. Gosh, I thought, politics is getting to be a really tough game! Now you have not only to prove that you’re a U.S. citizen, you also have to prove you’re human.

I don’t know how to do the latter, and I especially don’t know how Mitt Romney can do it.

Ever since Scott Fitzgerald made his famous remark about rich people we’ve been struggling to determine if vast wealth effects a transposition from human being to something else. I have no strong position on the issue. The truth is I don’t know. There does seem, however, to be some evidence that as great wealth moves in, humanity departs. I have known few super rich people in my life, though I have known quite a few whom I consider to be exceedingly well off. My tiny experience among the former tells me that something has happened to them, though whether it’s a complete transmogrification is hard to say.

Consider, for example, the process of building elevators for your cars. If a person should spend considerable time thinking about how big the elevator should be, what color its interior should have, how the doors should be decorated, and so forth, it might well do something to his mind that’s hard to fathom.

Take the issue of the square footage of your house. I have known men, just among the exceedingly well off, who feel diminished if their houses don’t exceed a certain size. This is completely independent of having any need for extra space. I met a man once who was tearing down an eight thousand square foot house in order to replace it with one covering twenty thousand square feet. When I asked him how he was going to use the extra twelve thousand square feet, he gave me a look as though I were encased in the realm of pure irrelevancy. And he didn’t answer.

The issue of how many houses one should have is not a question that often rises among those firmly embedded in humanity. Most of us make a virtue of necessity and answer, one. But if you could have twenty, as easily as ten, how do you pick the number? I guess you could say you need to have one in the city and one in the country, one at the sea shore and one in the mountains, one in Europe and one in the Caribbean. But that’s only a half-dozen. As you expand beyond that number it must place ever greater weight on your mind to devise the reasons for the others. At some point, might such pressure produce a transformation? I think it’s a possibility.

When you get into horses, how many? and, barns, how many? and artificial lakes, how many? the whole thing become so bewildering I don’t know how an actual human could deal with anything else. It would be either Ubermensch or concentrating on nothing but how to be rich.

Given all this, I think we need a new rule. If a person wishes to be considered human, and also wishes to participate in politics, we have to set some limit on how much money he has. Above a certain level, he will either not be able to give mind to governing at all or he will have to exit the human race, rising above it to something we can’t understand and, therefore, might do well not to trust.

We could have a grand public conversation about what the limit should be, and whether we should implant it in the Constitution or just let it be a matter of ordinary legislation. When I have raised this question among my friends, some of them have come up with pathetically paltry numbers. One guy I know actually said two million dollars. I trust that my expression, in return, made him feel absurd.

If you were to ask me what it should be, I would find myself, yet once again, retreating into uncertainty. I hate to admit the smallness of my mind, but here in the relative privacy of my web site, where few ever venture, I’ll confess that, at times, I have thought that five million would be an adequate amount. But when I think about how many of my fellow Americans -- human or not -- would find that figure strangulating, I realize I would have at least to double it if I wanted to be serious.

Thinking of numbers over ten million -- I’m speaking of dollars now -- places me in such indecision I reach the point of no longer knowing what to say. I am forced to exclude myself from the ongoing debate and leave it to persons of more expansive mind to settle on the right level.

When you have it, let me know what it is.

September 24, 2012

One of the sharp sadnesses of the past decade for me has come from my inability to discuss, with friends who have left this life, ideas and books we once would have talked about eagerly. I felt that sadness strongly over the past week while I was reading Richard Noll’s The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung. It’s the sort of book Dan Noel and I would have gone on and on about, had he not died about ten years ago.

Noll’s book was published before that. I recall that Dan and I noted it as something we needed to look into. But I don’t remember discussing it further. Nor do I remember whether Dan had a negative inclination towards it.

He was a religious studies scholar and he was strongly interested in Jung. I don’t think he could have been designated a disciple of any sort, though. The famous Swiss theorist fascinated him because of the symbols associated with Jung’s brand of psychology, and even more, because of Jung’s deep involvement with what has come to be called “sacred space.” I never was sure how Dan felt about such places, and I think that was because he was never sure either. But he did have the sense that certain places activated the imagination more than others, and he did believe in active imagination as an important ingredient in meaningful life. He thought of imagination as a sort of charge of energy which made everything more vital, more alive, more interesting.

Dan was determined to go to every place in England Jung had visited, and I think I tagged along with him to each one of them. He toyed with the idea of writing a book about Jung’s interaction with England, just as he did with the ambition to write a novel set in 1939, in which Jung came secretly to England and visited Freud shortly before his death (an event which didn’t happen in history). Truth is, Dan thought of almost all of England as sacred space and though I would not have put my feelings in the same words, I shared aspects of that sentiment. That’s why when he and I were in England together, we always had not just a good time but a time, if I were given to more flowery expression, I might call enchanting.

I wish I had read more about Jung before Dan died. It would have made our conversations even richer than they were. Perhaps the best talk we had was one night in Sennen Cove, near Land’s End, where Jung had held a famous conference in September 1920. An English friend of Dan’s, who had been in Jungian analysis for more than fifteen years, came down to Cornwall to drink with us in the pub of the hotel where the conference took place and to soak up the Jungian ambience. I asked him what was the difference between Jungian analysis and psychoanalysis, and he replied he was damned if he knew. We then got to analyzing dreams, and after I related one of mine about exploring the hidden side of a house no one else knew about, the friend sighed and said he wished he could still have simple dreams like that. I felt thoroughly put down which, in that setting, was not unpleasant but rather, psychologically inspiriting. Struggling back up the cliff to our hotel, after the friend had left, Dan admitted that, perhaps, our English companion was a little full of himself -- in a Jungian way. And, then, having clambered into our room, we drank a whole bottle of Bristol Cream and exchanged lots of Jungian jokes. I don’t remember a one of them but I do recall that they, along with the sherry, convinced me, beyond question, that I comprehended Jung’s psychology completely (in those days I had less skeptical attitudes about certainty than I have developed since).

Since, in those days, I wasn’t as informed as I should have been, I was never able to probe Dan briskly enough to know what he would have thought of a critique like Noll’s. Maybe he wouldn’t have been as persuaded as I am now of its rightness. Noll doesn’t view Jung as an outright charlatan, but he does say the great man never let facts stand in the way of his theories. That, for me, is not so much insult as it is testimony that Jung was a religious innovator. He was trying to create a path to salvation that avoided the oppressions -- as Jung saw them -- of Christianity. And this involved immersion in the spirits of the ancient past, the time before Christianity was ever heard of. The only way to contact that era was to dive into the deepest pits of one’s unconscious mind, where one can find layers that have nothing to do with personal experience but which contain the collective attitudes and emotions of primitive ancestors. Jung supposedly found out how to make that dive, and he believed he could teach others to make it. And the grandest thing about it was that once one had made the journey, he became a god -- not the only god, but a god nonetheless. Since Jung didn’t want to be considered a complete fanatic by the general medical and scientific community, he gave this process the modern-sounding name of individuation. Only among his most intimate collaborators did he speak explicitly about his full ambitions. Or, at least, that’s the reading we get from Richard Noll, which, as I said, I find reasonably convincing.

Even so, if the spirit of Dan were to return and ask me if I think Carl Jung was totally reprehensible, I would have to admit I don’t. Jung was trying, in a curious way, to convince people that they had something going on within themselves that was more significant than just getting rid of personal anxieties. He was arguing that a person, to be restored to health, has to find a connection between himself and the overall development of humanity. That’s not an altogether bad idea.

I think Dan and I would have agreed about that. About the details we could have argued forever. I wish we had had that much time -- or, at least, something much closer to it than we were, in fact, granted.

September 25, 2012

I see that the reading scores on the SAT in 2011 were the lowest in forty years. Perhaps more significant was the Educational Testing Service’s judgment that 57% of the students who took the test read too poorly to be able to engage in college-level study.

Numerous explanations for the condition have been offered, chief among them being that more students now take the test than did in the past, and that many of the tested students come from homes with low incomes. Probably most of these factors play some part in the result. Yet, overall, the best explanation is that the majority of the population is ill-read and cares little for literacy beyond an elementary level. That’s the attitude they project onto their children and there’s little reason to think their offspring won’t adopt it themselves. It’s not a condition that can be ameliorated by new teaching techniques in the schools. It’s certainly not a mechanical problem.

Most people who want to read can learn to read well. 

Though many find this a distressful condition, it’s unlikely they have analyzed the nature of their distress. The most common concern we hear is that if people are not well educated they won’t be able to make money, or, as is most often said, won’t be able to compete in the global market. I’m not sure what that means. The global market cares no more for literacy than the American people do. If it were left to the global market, reading, except among a small minority, would disappear.

The affluence of the average person in the United States will be affected by a host of developments. I suspect it will decline compared to the other peoples of the world. But I doubt that poor reading skills will have much to do with it. If you could make an accurate survey of the reading habits of the Fortune 400, I don’t think you would find much attention being paid to the books that used to be considered the furnishing of a well-educated mind. Literature works not to make people rich; it works to make them thoughtful.

If you have ever worked in an organization devoted strictly to profits, you’ll know that thoughtfulness is not a prized characteristic. It doesn’t, necessarily, lead one to “get on the team.”

It may be time to recognize the truth that a country will be what it wants to be. The United States does not want to be a well-read society. It cares almost nothing for the habits of mind that go with serious reading. There is, of course, a small portion of Americans who care about literary well-being. They will probably do better to look to themselves than to worry greatly about dragging their fellow citizens into their camp. It’s unlikely that readers have that much dragging power.

Inertia will ensure that some attempts will be made in the schools to teach children to read. And a certain portion will learn. But it’s likely that most will learn only slightly, and the national reading scores will continue to go down. It won’t be an apocalypse. It will just be a continuing sag. If I had my way, things would be different. But I don’t find any reason to anguish over the way they are.

Most of America will be a reading desert. You can see that now by looking for a good bookstore in most middle-sized cities. It’s hard to find one. But there will be oases, and more and more readers will find their way to them. The desert will revel in its own pursuits.

It’s not just with respect to money that the gap between riches and poverty continues to widen.

September 26, 2012

I seldom watch Monday night football, but it happened that I did watch the game night before last which may end up being the most famous contest in NFL history. So I can testify that everything you’ve read about the incompetence of the fill-in officials is not only accurate, it’s fairly subdued. They are beyond terrible.

Furthermore, they somehow managed to display their grandest ineptitude in a game that was as intense a struggle as I’ve seen. Both teams were playing not only fiercely but well. It was the sort of game that has made professional football a highly seductive spectacle for current television. To have it rendered meaningless by a silly call in the last second took all the energy fans had projected into it and turned it to dust. I didn’t much care who won the game but even I felt deflated.

Well, after all, you might say, it was just a football game. But if you take that attitude with respect to an event people care about, you might as well take it about most things which involve human emotion. You can say you think football’s a stupid game, you can say it’s bad physically and emotionally for the people who play it, you can say it engenders brutal attitudes, you can say you have no interest in it. But you can scarcely say, reasonably, that if it is going to be played it’s okay to trample the rules and turn the game into a farce. And that’s what the officials did on Monday night.

The call at the end which took the game away from the team that should have won was only the last in a string of foul-ups which punctuated the entire contest. I’ve heard some people say they were evenly distributed, but that’s just another way of saying the game was meaningless.

Another excuse I’ve heard is that the officials are trying to do their best. But the truth is they’re claiming to be able to do something they can’t do. They are behaving stupidly, and their actions confirm one of my basic convictions: there’s little to choose between arrogant stupidity and malignant intent.

All this hubbub has been created because the owners want to reduce their contribution to the officials’ pension fund. The money involved is relatively minor. For each team it amounts to about the revenue received for a single television commercial.

Probably the worst feature of professional sports is the ownership of the teams. It seems to be the case that men who are driven to own sports franchises are among the most enormous egotists the human race has produced. When you see them strutting along the sidelines at the end of games, or regaling themselves in their sky boxes, it becomes hard to keep your expletives in order.  They like to boss people around, and when the referees say they want to hold on to a pension plan that has satisfied them in the past, the huffiness displayed by the owners probably has less to do with the money than with the affront they take at being resisted by ordinary mortals.

I don’t have a ready solution. I wish there were more operations like the Green Bay Packers, where shares in the team are widely distributed among residents of the city. After all, a team is thought to represent a certain municipality, so why shouldn’t the citizens of the town have something to do with how the team behaves? But one of the facts the American people have trouble getting through their heads is that some activities shouldn’t be profit-driven. They are diminished when they aren’t regulated for the sake of the activity itself. That’s clearly what we see going on now with respect to the strike by the referees.

It would be a grand thing if the players would refuse to play with the officials the owners are now providing them. But we have to remember the players are mostly unsophisticated young men who have relatively few years to make their mark and provide for their own financial security. We can scarcely expect them to take a fully mature attitude toward the problem.

It will drag on and finally be resolved in one way or another. And then it will enter the record of the past as one of the saddest episodes in sports history. In the grand scale of things, it will not be major. I don’t suppose we should feel ripped apart by it.

On the other hand, I never want to watch another game like the Packers-Seahawks contest of a couple days ago. The conclusion of it really was sickening. And if it ever should be examined carefully, it could teach us telling lessons about the kind of society we have become.

September 30, 2012

Being near the nation’s capital forces attention on the enormous network seeking to gain political influence by manipulating voter behavior. It is more vast than the average citizen has ever imagined, and far more Byzantine. There are tens of thousands of workers trying to control political outcomes by playing to every voter bias anyone has ever unearthed. This gigantic army of operatives, however skilled and complex they might be, are virtually all, however, laboring under a serious mistake. They think voters are simple interest machines which invariably support what they conceive as their direct personal benefit. But voters are more convoluted than that -- worse in some respects, but nonetheless more complicated.

The major handicap for political prognosticators is that they have no way of encountering voters when they’re being themselves. The politicos set up so-called focus groups to try to determine the attitudes of a random sampling of the electorate. But they tend to forget that as soon as a person is put into a focus group he becomes something he has never been before and will never be again after he leaves it.

A focus group member will start immediately trying to impersonate a rational, informed and virtuous person. Yet he has no idea what such a person might actually be. That’s why the members of focus groups sound so geeky when you get an occasional shot of them on TV. They are trying to play somebody they’re not and somebody they’re not capable of imagining. They remind me of former students who tried to write like experienced scholars and thereby made a mess of their compositions. When I would tell them to write what they knew, not what they thought somebody else knew, they would stare at me with perfect incomprehension. The average person can’t conceive of showing his, or her, actual self to the world. He’s desperate to cover up that revelation.

If I were young and starting out in the business of political manipulation, I would seek levers that had nothing to do with what voters say they want. A good place to begin would be popular television programs. If you knew why programs are well-received you would have a good start on crafting messages that could appeal to the voters’ deepest impulses. But you couldn’t find out by asking. Most viewers can’t begin to explain why they like one TV show and dislike another. The only way to find out would be to look at the shows themselves and try to dig the hidden triggers out of them.

Consider, for example, Person of Interest, a series which began its second season last week. It’s based on the notion that a wealthy genius invented a machine which can identify persons who are about to be involved in some sort of crime or mayhem. The machine can track these persons, thus allowing the inventor’s accomplice, a former CIA agent, to intervene and save innocent persons from harm. It’s a catchy concept which enables a myriad of plots. But there’s an underlying premise to the show, which is that the world as we now know it is out of control, and that the former authorities to whom we looked for security are either inept or corrupt. There needs to be something new, something which can rise above the traditional safeguards, both intellectually and morally. Without it the world will continue to descend into chaos.

The genuine cause of this feeling is that the world is severely overpopulated and, consequently, we have inadequate resources for coping with the difficulties the added billions create. But political manipulators don’t generally concern themselves with real social problems; they’re interested in the fears and aspirations of voters, which often have little to do with reality. Yet it appears to be the case that their knowledge of fears and aspirations is severely limited.

You would think the lack of sophistication among campaign workers is so obvious they would be driven to improve their measures. But right now there’s probably not much motivation in that direction. Success among political advisors depends not so much on actually being effective as being thought effective among colleagues. The latter is what brings about hiring and promotion.

Still, I suspect there is opportunity for major innovation which could lead to major success. New methods in persuading voters are like any other changes. They will be denounced by old operatives until they have proven themselves to be undeniable improvements. I expect to see them soon, though, because the opportunity is quite splendid.

Exactly how to use knowledge of Person of Interest might be a fairly complicated process, so I’ve leave that for later. But I’m convinced it could be used.

©John R. Turner

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