Collected Thoughts

October 2012
October 3, 2012

Tom Friedman in the New York Times this morning points out that if the Chinese adopt the so-called American dream as their model for national development, the result will be disaster for the human race. Everyone knows -- or should know -- that the earth does not have enough resources to supply all the people of China with the wasteful, reckless kind of consumption most Americans continue to look to as the goal of their lives.

You would think that might teach us something, but the lesson is having a hard time sinking in.

The major educational effort of the first half of the twenty-first century lies in teaching the American people, and particularly the American power structure, that everything they do is not grand, glorious and right. There have been gains in advancing that message, but, mainly, it continues to circulate among portions of of the population who are pushed to the margins. The great center of America remains caught up in self-adulation and the entire political system is dedicated to protecting, and even to intensifying, that heresy. Politicians believe, with a faith stronger than any religion has achieved, that if they can be seen as flattering American egotism more thoroughly than their opponents, they will retain their offices. Consequently, there appears to be no limits to the syrupy rhetoric they will employ.

At the moment, fact is having little effect on the delusion. We are regularly informed that in virtually all the measures used to gage social health, the United States is not only well down on the list but continues to descend. Yet Americans don’t seem able to correlate those truths with with their self-estimates. The message continues to ascend that we are great simply by reason of being Americans and independent of anything we do, or fail to do, as a nation.

This would be bad enough if it simply portended a steady decline in standards of living. But the truth that makes it even more horrible is that the United States remains Number One -- as we say -- in one respect. The military establishment of the United States has more destructive power than any other nation possesses, and perhaps more than all the others put together.

Consult the simplest knowledge of psychology, and ask yourself, if most aspects of your self-esteem are crumbling but if you still retain one superiority, wouldn’t you be tempted to use it to draw attention away from the rest?

As soon as the upcoming election is over, regardless of who wins, we will face a serious threat. Major elements of the power structure have been gearing themselves up for launching a gigantic attack on Iran. The reason given will be that the possibility of Iran’s attaining a nuclear weapon is intolerable. Legions of predictions will be launched about what Iran would assuredly do if it had a nuclear weapon, all of them based on the proposition that the Iranian leadership is completely insane.

All this will be done independent of any credible evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon.

There will be countervailing arguments of course about the terrible effects of such an attack, the most immediate being that gasoline prices in the United States will rise sharply and might even double. The less than sterling results of our recent adventures in Iraq and Iran will be cited. Some commentators might even be brave enough to refer to the toxic effect it would have on the U.S. reputation around the world, and the incendiary hatred it will generate in the Middle East.

The warmongers will mount answers to all these with the refrain that America has the God-given responsibility to lead the world.

Who knows how it will turn out? There may be enough residual sanity in the government to resist the demand for a temporary spike in self-promotion and phony moralizing. There’s some reason to hope. But this we do know. The furor will turn attention away from our genuine problems. As long as the nation is concentrated on whether we need to blow somebody up, we won’t have to face the mundane problems of a crumbling electrical grid, bridges and roads in ill-repair, a medical system in which too many dollars are spent on hangers-on and too few on the delivery of service, a school system under threat from corporate takeover and the introduction of “zombie functionalism,” the continuing pollution of the environment by the greedy use of natural resources, the rapaciousness of financial structures which have no investment in social well-being, and so on.

This contest between reality and national mythologizing will work itself out somehow. We can only hope that the the people will begin to face how dire the world situation is, and turn their minds to workable solutions and away from continued self-delusion.

We can’t say how things will develop, but I do think we can say the people of the United States will be forced, in one way or another, to change their attitudes.

October 6, 2012

I have really missed Bob Herbert since he left the New York Times about a year and a half ago. He was the soundest commentator in an editorial lineup that was stronger than it is now. Though he still issues opinions, they no longer receive the attention the Times provided him.

The essay he posted yesterday in the Huffington Post about Barack Obama’s debate performance on Wednesday is a strong example of his courage in confronting difficult issues. Titled “No More Excuses,” it’s a model of what Obama’s supporters should have been saying to him since he first showed his propensity to wobble in the face of Republican aggression. And we need to remember that began in January 2009, in the name of so-called bipartisanship, the limpest ideal advanced in American politics over the past several decades.

For almost four years now, Obama has resolutely refused to say who the Republicans are and what they want to do to the country. And it’s not that he doesn’t know. Rather, he holds back in the interest of a timid political strategy which advises him to rise above the fray and try to look presidential. What the latter means to Obama and his advisors is attempting always to make compliments to liars and thieves. The strategy was on display this week when Obama was more eager to find areas where he and Romney agreed than to refute the incessant falsehoods Romney spewed all over the stage.

Bob Herbert will have none of it. He says that Obama’s performance was “indefensible,” and that it’s time to stop making excuses for the president. And he goes farther and booms forth a thought many have felt but few have been willing to express: “On Wednesday night nearly sixty millions television viewers got to witness this chronic unwillingness of Barack Obama to fight.”

A truth the public needs to face -- or, at least the non-Republican public -- is that Obama does not have the right to give the country over to the ministrations of Romney and his supporting pack of billionaires. He was elected to lead and re-vivify the Democratic Party, not to make politics pretty (which they never will be) or to receive a pat on the head from Republicans for his reasonableness (which will never come).

Listening to the debate three days ago, you might not have known there were parties involved. It was all as though there were just two men and their somewhat different views of what’s good for the country.  Romney, at least, had the clarity to take shots at Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. But listening to Obama you would never know he was opposing the party of Jim DeMent, Lindsey Graham, Allan West, Steve King, Paul Broun, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jim Inhofe, Tom Coburn, Jon Kyl, Darrell Issa, Jeff Sessions, Rush Limbaugh, and legions of small-minded Republicans with bizarre opinions who hold office at the local level. These are the people who support Mitt Romney and will demand favors for their support should he get to the White House. And he has already shown he will try to give them what they want.

If Obama, because of some immature theory about how we should all get together for the good of the country, allows the nation to fall into the hands of a pack of plutocrats and bigots, he will have carried out one of the most damaging political follies the nation has ever seen. There are people who want to loot the country, and people who wish to implant rigid religious codes into the laws. It is the major responsibility of the Democratic Party to protect us from those forces, and it is the responsibility of the leader of the party to keep it focused on its goals.

I have read reports since the debate that the president is aware of how badly he behaved and is determined to reverse course once he gets on a stage with Romney again. I certainly hope that’s the case. Obama has disappointed us many times but most of us, including myself, continue to expect he will find a way to meet the promises he gave us in the campaign four years ago. His time now, though, is limited. If he doesn’t summon the force in the next debate to show Romney and Republicans as what they are, his re-election will be in danger.

The best tonic I’ve seen for helping him rise to that level is Bob Herbert’s column. Obama ought to read it, swallow hard, face its truth, and bring his courage to the sticking point. And then, he can do his duty to his fellow citizens.

October 7, 2012

That Mitt Romney repeatedly dealt in falsehood during the presidential debate has been amply established. I have seen no one defend Romney’s truthfulness whereas the refuters of his assertions are legion. Steve Benen of The Maddow Blog, for example, has compiled a list of fifty lies or obvious distortions Romney employs regularly.

Yet just as unanimous as belief in Romney’s prevarication is the conviction that Obama lost the debate. Is there some sort of dysfunction in having these two opinions march side by side?

Romney’s lies are no excuse for the president’s lackluster performance, but you would think they would temper the exuberance over the challenger’s so-called victory. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the case. The main stream media have widely congratulated Romney for his skill, vigor and aggressiveness, and, if we can believe recent polls, the public feels the same way.

What does it say about a nation when falsehood is celebrated as it is in the United States? It suggests to me a perverted sense of winning in which coming out on top is admired, regardless of the methods used, even if they involve lies, thorough flouting of the rules, and vulgar ostentation. In other words, in America, winning is everything. And the only measures of winning Americans appear to recognize are overt power and money (when I make statements like this I always feel constrained to modify them by confessing they don’t apply to all Americans but to a large enough percentage to canker our public life).

When lying becomes the chief means of political victory the idea of democracy has been crushed.

Democracy, as it has been employed in American political discourse, has a definite political goal. That goal is made up of widespread well-being among the people, equal opportunity to reach personal aims, fair and equal treatment for all citizens under the law, and commitment to every citizen’s possession of the basic means of life.

That democracy is not faring well in the United States is attested by a recent study from Arthur Howard Stern, a statistician and health economist at the United Nations. In a book titled The Measure of a Nation, Mr. Stern laid out a comparison of the United States with what he called thirteen competitor nations, that is nations that are thought to be similar to us in modern achievements. The countries he used were Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom. In most of the categories associated with flourishing democracies, the United States ranked near the bottom.

In life expectancy, for example, a measure clearly indicative of general well-being, the United States was last. In the rate of imprisonment, a gage of how confident the citizens are in being treated fairly, the United States not only had the highest number but a figure four times greater than the next highest nation. The people of the United States are charged twice as much for medical care as any of the competing thirteen and have at best, mediocre results. In political participation, which is surely the best measure of democratic vitality, the United States was dead last.

The American people, for the most part, are not aware of these facts. They almost never make their way into political debates. And why not? If they were raised, they would be attacked with such a flood of lies that the candidate who brought them up would be slathered by the media as wildly un-American. And in an ironic way, the media would be right.

It may seem a stretch to find a linkage between the untruths told by a candidate in a presidential debate and the withering of democratic virtue in the nation. But I don’t think so. As long as politicians are rewarded for avoiding the truth, the public will not address its problems realistically. As long as lies are the means for winning, the candidates who can amass the most money for spreading lies will be successful.

When the political classes are invested in lies to the degree they are now in America, political intelligence becomes ever more rare. After a while it will disappear. We see this clearly at work in the campaign of Mitt Romney. He has reversed himself so often, and twisted fact so often, and tried so often to dismiss odious comments by saying he made a mistake (what can “mistake” possibly mean with respect to a statement like his scorning of the 47%), that the idea he has a coherent plan for addressing the nation’s problems is farcical. He is the dead opposite of political intelligence. But for the moment lies will continue to mask that truth, and winning will be a matter of hucksterism during debate.

We need to get our critical apparatus in order, or else we’ll be not just at the bottom of a list of competitor nations but diving towards the bottom of the remaining nations of the world.

October 8, 2012

A friend sent me a clip of Pat Condell, the British atheist comedian, doing one of his rants on U-Tube. This one was directed at Islam and employs every hackneyed charge right-wingers have come up with against the religion so ridiculous it dares not to be Western. The problem for conservatives with respect to Condell is that he’s almost as insulting towards Christianity as he is towards Islam.

We need to keep in mind that Condell is a comedian, and his stock in trade lies in being outrageous. He is funny, in a way, and I don’t find his sophomorism personally offensive. But he works as hard as he can to offend people who see themselves as directed by faith, and it seems to be the case that he’s eminently successful. He is reported to have received numerous death threats.

The difficulty posed by a personality like Condell is that many people view him as a genuine social and political critic when he has probably never had a serious thought in his life. His mind is possessed by high-schoolish quips and scarcely anything else. He has nothing to offer for dealing with the murderous conflicts that continue to torture humankind.

Religion in the sense of belief in a transcendent authority to whom we must submit ourselves is an ingrained human habit which has continued to flourish for thousands of years. Vast and complex speculations have been devoted to it and powerful institutions exist all over the world to maintain its legitimacy. It is, in short, a significant element of what humanity is at the moment. It will not disintegrate simply because some people think it’s silly.

No one has the ability to predict what will happen to religion as the human race ages. It has been thought by many that religions will simply fade away as their fantastical elements are exposed. But I suspect that’s far too simple a process for settling something as integral to humanity as religion has been. We can say this, though: religion has attempted to address a puzzle which is an inherent element of human thinking. And that puzzle is not going away.

It pretty much takes the form of the questions, is there meaning? and where does it lie?

Religion has proclaimed that there is a meaning-giver, whom we generally call God, and that he, or it, is the source of answers to our most anguished questions. There is a great body of writing called theodicy which attempts to explain why God really is God, really is the source of all good and all meaning, and our security against the seeming horror and chaos of the world. None of it is convincing to my mind, but the fact that it exists and continues to be produced is evidence that humanity is desperate to find God or some adequate substitute for God, and that this desperation will keep the quest going as long as humans resemble the creatures they are now.

I, obviously, don’t know how the search will work out. I hope that serious efforts to modify our concept of ultimate authority will continue to be made, and that, over time, some of them will begin to offer the kind of solace religious people say they have already.

My point here today is that none of this will be helped along by juvenile quipsters like Pat Condell. The best they can offer us is a few moments of humorous respite, which is something but, actually, not very much.

The danger in such people is that in their childishness they ramp up hatred. There is an argument, to which I pretty much subscribe, that the seeming religious conflict in the world doesn’t really have much to do with religious belief. Rather, it arises from ordinary oppressions, selfishness, and unfairness. In other words, if everyone in the world had the means to comfortable and healthy physical life accompanied by the opportunity to develop their minds and get a stimulating education, religious anger, especially of a murderous nature, would disappear.

I realize there are quite a few arguments against that thesis but, so far, they strike me as being mistaken.

At the moment, we need to learn better how to address the depredations of shallow thought, whether it comes from comedians, media pundits, politicians, or ordinary people who think of themselves as sincere patriots. In their floundering ineptitude they lead us into hideous blunders. They cause millions of unnecessary and torturous deaths. They accelerate the pollution of the planet and the exhaustion of natural resources on which human life depends. All this is to say that though I don’t get severely riled up by clowns like Pat Condell, I find myself getting more weary of them than used to be the case. It’s not only that they are not helping. I realize we can’t expect help from them. But they may be muddling minds, and that really is a bad thing.

October 9, 2012

As each day I puzzle over the news I become more convinced that humanity is suffering from ancient habits of thought which in the modern world are transitioning from dysfunction to insanity. Primary among these are the various forms of tribalism.

The most functional definition of tribalism I can discover is the notion that one can help one’s own group by hurting or weakening other groups. It’s an idea that once may have had utility -- if marginal morality -- but in the modern world, stitched together as it is, that concept has become harmful for everyone. In order for tribalism to work it has to be possible for the group one is seeking to strengthen to exist distinctly to itself. In a situation in which two moderately sized tribes were both living on a large plain, and one of them drove the other away, the victor could gain more ample and easily attained food supplies -- at least for a while, until somebody else came on the plain. I doubt there’s any place in the world now where such a condition exists. Clearly it doesn’t exist with respect to nationalism, which is the most potent form of tribalism still operating. Modern nations are so variegated by race, background and cultural identity that any attack on one nation by another is to some degree an attack on the self. The blowback is almost always stronger than the advantage.

Despite this, nationalistic tribalism still rules the political systems of most nations. And in the United States it is hyper-dominant. It stains the brains of Americans like a big dose of cocaine. It turns them into perfect objects for manipulation. There is no way else to explain the placement of between seven and eight hundred U.S. military bases outside the borders of the nation, or the violent incursions we have made into the Middle East over the past dozen years. A population aware of modern conditions and behaving rationally wouldn’t permit such wastage of its resources.

On Sunday, Jonathan Haidt published a fascinating essay in the New York Times in which he argued that intuition always trumps reason in decision-making. He seemed to be using “intuition” in an unusual way, to mean immediate emotional impulse, but whatever term one uses, the basic idea remains that humans have little capacity for changing their behavior through factual analysis. They either can’t, or won’t, think carefully about their difficulties; they simply react to them. Such automatic response might serve reasonably well in an era of minor change. But in revolutionary periods it can be disastrous.

If Haight is right -- and I hope he’s not as right as he thinks he is -- we are in for rocky times ahead. Instead of using our energies wisely, we will continue throwing them away in a manner that will compound our difficulties. The idea that we can dominate the entire Muslim world militarily -- basically the program that Mitt Romney put forward in his recent foreign policy speech -- is the policy of retrograde fools.

The hope I see is that increasing numbers of Americans are perceiving such blather for what it is. They are certainly not yet approaching a majority. But there are enough of them to make quite a bit of noise. If you pay attention to the threads that appear after most substantive analyses, you’ll find large numbers of people who not only grasp the problems being discussed, but have the ability to deepen the examination of them. I don’t know what percentage of the population falls into that category, but it’s not insignificant. On the other hand, it’s not large enough yet to gain the attention of politicians who are, for the most part, the most hidebound minds among us. We do not have a political class who think.

So the issue becomes -- even more than it is normally -- how a discerning minority can influence a majority dominated by shopworn concepts. It’s not by screaming but it’s not by being quiet either.

One move that’s essential is to stop being intimidated by charges of elitism and  arrogance. If you know there’s a big hole in the road ahead, and you’re talking to people who don’t know it, there’s nothing wrong with saying so.

Another is consciously and steadfastly to seek out facts and make them a major element of your conversation. If you do that, you’ll find that many of your neighbors have never heard of conditions you thought were obvious to the whole world. Most Americans, for example, don’t know that U.S. driven sanctions against countries in the Middle East, supposedly designed to put pressure on governments, have done virtually nothing to undermine those governments but have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent persons. If that truth alone were widespread in America, the criminally naive wonderment about why they hate us would disappear.

There’s little doubt that being frank among a propagandized population will win you some hostility. But you can moderate it by manner. Never appear angry. Always appear factual. And if your facts are challenged check them to make sure they’re right, and if you find you’ve been mistaken admit it.

No one can say, for sure, what’s enough to make a difference. But if someone doesn’t try to make a difference, it’s clear we’ll sink deeper into the swamps of stupidity. Ancient habits of mind are not working anymore.

October 11, 2012

I have a conspiracy theory which nobody will believe. But I don’t care.

Before I explain what it is, though, I have to note that my theory of conspiracies generally is somewhat different from the norm. I don’t think they have to be overtly conscious. I perceive a conspiracy as something that can percolate out of the unconscious mind and so long as it achieves its effect, the conscious mind will latch onto it and employ it just as if it had been dreamed up in a think tank.

Now for a second note: I’m not sure whether the conspiracy theory I’m about to lay out is conscious or unconscious. I’m just saying it’s in existence and it’s working.

So much for the preliminaries. Now on to the thing itself.

The religion of America is business, and like all other religions it seeks to dominate the mind exclusively. So, how can business completely take over the mind? It purposively complicates business transactions so that in order to do even simple things one’s mental energy is exhausted. The worn out mind loses the ability to do anything other than concentrate on completing the business transaction.

Here’s an example. This morning I tried to buy a plane ticket. I went through the processes that before have worked fairly easily, and I discovered that they now will no longer function because of a requirement I had never before encountered. To use my bank card to buy the ticket, I had to supply a new security code, which I had to apply for. In applying for it, I discovered that the new codes will not work with bank cards but only with cards in which debt is compiled, in other words, with what’s called an ordinary credit card. Just to discover this took me more than an hour. Supposedly, this new requirement is being imposed to protect me, but I know that’s nonsense. Business does not do anything to protect anyone but itself, and to add to its profit. Profit is the only good business can recognize, which in itself is a form of insanity. Business wants us to purchase only through credit because it can then not only make money off the transaction but even more off the interest it will subsequently charge.

I was told by the new security operation that if I wished to use my bank card, in other words, to spend money I possessed, I couldn’t do it online, I could do it only by calling the vendor. So, I called the vendor. I was thereby led into a maze which required almost another hour. I did, finally, manage to get the ticket, but it took me altogether about two and a half hours.

It was a trite episode but when you consider that such episodes occur in the millions every day, the conspiracy begins to emerge.

I got up this morning intending to read an essay by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. But after the plane ticket travail, I don’t know if I have either the time or the energy to carry through with my plan. This is where the conspiracy comes in, which you won’t believe, but still.... Business doesn’t want me to read Mr. Vattimo. It will do almost anything it can to prevent me. And you know why? Because reading him will prompt me to think and thought is the bane of business. If you think, it is almost impossible to conclude that business provides the meaning of life. And if you conclude that, then you won’t subject yourself to business in the way business wishes.

Furthermore, you will be on the lookout for lies, and lies are the modus operandi of business. If you pay attention to the commercials on TV you’ll see that they’re virtually all lies. We have many politicians -- such as Mitt Romney -- who regularly proclaim that government should be conducted in accordance with business principles. You know what that means? It means that the government would start to lie even more than it does already. Why does Romney, himself, lie with such blithe indifference? Because he’s a businessman. It’s the way he’s always operated. He can’t imagine doing anything else. Why would you not lie? That’s the way to make money, isn’t it?

Business can’t stand to have people think because then they would begin to grasp what’s being done to them. And what’s the best way to stop people from thinking, and questioning, and analyzing? Don’t leave them any time for that sort of action. Keep their noses to the wheel. Make them work, incessantly. This is the admirable mode of life proclaimed by business regularly. Make people work, i.e., attend to business, so incessantly they all get headaches. Then sell them pills, which creates more business.

This is not a conspiracy, you’re saying? Well, it’s a pretty damned good facsimile. To my mind, when one thing carries out exactly the same actions as something else, it’s not far-fetched to see the two as identical.

October 12, 2012

You know why democracy in the United States is failing?

The answer is actually simple. Right now we can’t seem to get a significant portion of the population to pay attention to the conditions that are shaping their social lives.

Suppose you were to ask the average man on the street what the ratio is between the complete derivative debt being traded in markets and the gross domestic product of the entire world. It’s not hard to imagine the response. Yet there’s scarcely any figure more important for grasping our financial straits.

The answer is more than seven to one. In other words, a small class of financial speculators has created a mass of documents which, on their face, are worth more than seven times what humanity produces in a year. The members of that financial class get immensely rich skimming money off the trading of those documents. And where does that money come from?

Despite what people are increasingly being led to believe, money doesn’t come from nowhere. Ultimately it has to emerge from the value created by human labor (I know, that’s a Marxist idea, but it’s true nonetheless).

So, if we have a class of people getting rich off the production of paper that’s intrinsically worth nothing, those riches come from the genuine work that other people do. The more wealth that flows to a class of financial manipulators, the less well-off the mass of the people will be. We see this process working out now in the United States through the accelerating disappearance of what can reasonably be called a middle class.

I am not claiming that what used to be thought of as ordinary banking does not produce a social benefit. It does. But what the largest banks in the United States -- and all over the world, for that matter -- do is not ordinary banking. It is something being done on a scale that has never been done before in history, and it is creating plutocracy. The nature of true plutocracy is that it can buy anything it wants and, right now, it is engaged in buying the governments of the world. The deal is not yet complete, but it is moving pretty fast.

Another thing plutocracy buys is the propaganda machinery of the world. It is designed to convince people that the plutocracy is engaged in a holy mission, spreading the gospel that the market is not a human invention but a mechanism descending from God. The market -- especially the market in derivatives -- is God’s engine for regulating human affairs. To tamper with it is heresy and deeply sinful.

In a vital democracy, the reasonableness of what the plutocracy claims would be debated vigorously. The issues in the debate would become widely known. The majority would make up its mind about how to proceed based on fairly accurate knowledge of who benefits from what. That’s not what’s going on in America now.

In the United States we have two major political parties. One has bought in completely to the new financial religion; the other has bought in about half way. That doesn’t produce fully informative debate. We saw the weakness of our political discourse in last night’s joint appearance of the two vice-presidential candidates. By the standards we have come to accept it was a pretty good debate. Yet it left out more than it took in, and it left out some issues that are critical to our future social condition.

Although the current vice-president made the point that the wealthiest class in America should contribute more to pay the government’s bills, he said nothing at all about the system that produced that wealth and what that system is doing to us. He was seen as being strong in challenging the program of his opponents yet he didn’t even approach the foundations of that program. And why not? Perhaps because he doesn’t even know what they are, but it’s more likely because ninety percent of his audience doesn’t know there is a foundation to the plutocratic thrust and would be thoroughly confused if someone tried to point it out to them in a brief television appearance.

We can’t expect politicians to be brave enough to try honestly to educate the public. That’s not in the nature of politicians. All they can do is take positions on the issues the public grasps and say where they stand with respect to them. Joe Biden, and those of his ilk, will not admit that your social health is endangered by a rapacious and devious plutocracy unless that that argument is already alive among the population, and is recognized by a sufficient portion of the people to give it a political foothold.

At the moment, though there are people and organizations working energetically to inform the people about what’s happening, the slack appetite of most people for learning coupled with the timidity of the major media systems continues to tip the debate in the direction of deception and away from openness. Unless we can find a way to reverse that process, politics will become more and more a tool of people who want to use us rather than to serve us.

October 13, 2012

I have tried to take something from modern thought without getting mired in the swamps of abstruse terminology. Even at this late date I’m not sure if that’s possible.

I’ve been reading Gianni Vatttimo’s little book, A Farewell to Truth (which, of course, doesn’t mean what it implies). It is to a considerable extent a discourse on the ontology of actuality, a term which Vattimo admits he got from Michel Foucault but which he wants to use in an “autonomous sense.” I guess that means  he wants to use it differently from the way Foucault did, who, though he coined the term, doesn’t seem to have used it much at all. If “ontology of actuality” doesn’t enter instantaneously and crystal clear into your understanding then you and I find ourselves in the same fix.

Ontology, of course, is speculation about the nature of existence. As far as I can tell, so far, “ontology of actuality” means living in a way that you respond to each moment as it really appears to you and not as some theory that’s being imposed on you from outside says you should. For example, if you were a soldier projected into a situation where people were trying to wipe you out, you would say to yourself, “My God! What in hell am I doing here?” rather than intoning, “I must be brave and stand ready to sacrifice myself for the good of my country.”

The way Vattimo expresses this is to say that the ontology of actuality has a twofold significance: “making oneself aware of the paradigm into which one has been thrown yet suspending its claim to definitive validity and heeding Being as that which remains unsaid.” From this you can see that Vattimo is much under the influence of Martin Heidegger, but not, I think, in a way you should hold against him.

If I were translating that into my own mode of expression I would say: “Always keep in mind how society is trying to use you and remember that social prescription, from the perspective of what’s actually good for you, is often a pile of garbage.” 

I don’t know how Vattimo would respond to my translation, and for the most part I don’t care. I am reading him for what I can get from him and not out of a desire to make sure that I have understood him perfectly. I’m pretty sure Vattiomo would agree with the latter because he doesn’t think there is any such thing as perfect understanding. Furthermore, the belief in such perfection keeps us locked up in boxes somebody has built to contain us. As he puts it, there is no more real doubt that truth-as-object isn’t good for us. That’s the reason for his title. He wants to say goodbye to truth as it has been conceived in the past and come to see it something we construct for our own good. It should go without saying that he doesn’t mean we can just make up any fantasy that seems pleasing and try to live in it. If the truth doesn’t actually benefit us, then it’s not truth in his definition. From this you can see that he has affinities with American pragmatism.

One of the strong thrusts of modern thought is an attack on truth as correspondence with reality. I think that’s because modern thinkers have figured out that much of what’s put forward as reality is no more than a scheme of manipulation. In that respect, I very much agree with them. But I think they sometimes go too far. As far as I can tell there is something we can call practical reality -- practical in that it almost always works for us. I can, for example, conceive the thought of going to the grocery store and buying a can of beans. And, then, I can do it, because my conception does correspond with a practical, physical reality. I know where the store is; I know that it generally has beans for sale; I know how to walk or drive there and pay the money for them.

I understand there are complicated arguments which say that even this sort of reality is a human construction and not something that exists independent of us. Maybe. But in ordinary, everyday practice, I can rely on Shaws grocery store really being on Main Street, and that’s good enough for me.

Where Vattimo’s and other theorists’ arguments have their serious force is in respect to abstractions which people have been induced to believe are realities. That’s where manipulation comes in. If somebody tells you that “democracy” will always do such and such, or that the “market” will always produce in a certain way, or that “freedom” demands certain things of us, then you can be sure that person is trying to persuade you to do something that may well not be in your own interest. Whenever you hear talk of that sort it’s healthy to be instantly suspicious.

I wish our political discourse could take more account of the manipulative use of abstractions, but I realize that so many people have bought in to the reality of things that aren’t valid, the practical politician can’t break through that boundary.

There was a time when if I read a book with terminology which escaped me, I felt I had failed. That was the consequence of a false notion of learning my schools had attempted to impose on me. Now, though I still do try to understand the terminology, success with a book means that it helped me think, and, perhaps, gave me a stronger vocabulary for expressing my thoughts. These are so far more important than perfectly grasping the author’s meaning, the latter doesn’t count for much. That means I can now read authors like Vattimo more eagerly than I once did, probably understand them better than I once did, but use them in a way that doesn’t worry overly about the understanding.

It’s a happy way to read, and I recommend it (though I caution, it’s not a justification for laziness).

October 14, 2012

If this presidential campaign has made anything clear, it ought to be that politics is not, primarily, a process of choosing means to achieve an agreed upon end. The media haven’t yet caught up to the actual social situation in America, and that’s why they can’t tell you what’s really going on in political contests.

Politics is not as much about means as it is about ends, and it’s more so that way in American now than it has ever been before. The American people do not all want the same kind of world to live in. Truth is, they are sharply divided about the worlds they prefer and that difference in desire has split the population into two nearly equal portions.

We don’t have names for those portions yet. That’s one of the tasks the media should have accomplished. But because they don’t know what’s going on they can’t to do it. If I tried to do it, I would probably be engaged in futility. But since most attempts to influence public opinion are futile anyway, I’ll go ahead and say the best definitions I can discover for the two parts are “authoritarian” and “self-deciding.” And since saying so places me in the swamps of futility, I’ll wade in deeper and argue that these divisions have been largely created by philosophical developments hardly anyone knows about. Philosophy generally works behind the scenes, producing effects from causes few recognize.

The big shift in philosophy during the 20th century was a step away from foundational truth. The latter has been viewed as something “really” valid out there which tells us how we ought to behave. It relieves us of the responsibility of deciding for ourselves. What philosophy, in the main, is arguing now is that there’s no way to avoid that responsibility. The best the journalistic mind has been able to say about this move is that there has been a growth of “secularism.” But that’s such a tepid way of explaining it, it confuses more than it clarifies. It’s like accepting Bill O’Reilly as a thinker who can tell you what’s going on.

The difference between “real” truth and truth as a human creation is a complicated subject about which hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of books have been written. I certainly can’t lay it out in a few sentences here. But I can say that difference parallels the difference between the two major political movements in the United States. On the one hand you have people who want to live in a chain of authority in which there are people -- or things or abstractions -- above them and people below them, and everybody knows who or what he should obey and who he has the right to order around. The dreams of those people involve, mostly, moving up the chain of authority. And the political base of these people is the Republican Party.

By contrast, there are people who admittedly are confused about the complexities of the modern world. They don’t have definite rules by which to sort them out, but they’re pretty well convinced that the rules people on the other side profess are, in one way or another, instruments of oppression. They don’t want to be commanded by rules; they want to develop the ability to figure things out for themselves, and to respond to each situation in a way that’s healthy for themselves and not harmful for anyone else. They, in short, hope to develop intelligence that takes the place of rules. I can’t say that the political base for these people is, necessarily, the Democratic Party, but it’s definitely not the Republican Party. For the most part they vote Democratic because they can’t stand the thought of voting for a Republican.

In war, it’s true, the people who are certain they are right have a some advantages over those who are always willing to ask whether they are right or not. And in the United States politics has become, mostly, war. Still, the people who are sure they are right are generally willing to march off a cliff. This is a disadvantage which renders the contest between them and the people they consider wishy-washy fairly even.

Whether it will stay even, or tip to one side or the other, is the big political question for the nation right now. I’m no prophet so I can’t say which way things will go. I know, however, what I hope. If I could have my way, the critique modern thought is making of the notion of foundational social truths which come from someplace outside human decision-making would grow stronger and spread. We would move ever farther away from belief in human nature, the laws of the market, the inevitable consequences of certain forms of government and so forth. We would develop confidence in our ability to see the world in front of our faces and use our intelligence to shape that world more to our liking. Most of all, we would stop being ashamed of not knowing what we don’t know and give up pretensions to transcendental knowledge.

I’m well aware of the charges modern conservatism would bring against such a transformation. I’m not respectful of them. Conservatives have had ample opportunity to show that their system can produce justice and freedom, and they have failed. What we get from them, instead is manipulation, oppression and unfair privilege. I’m not sure that a world of open human intelligence will produce anything grand, but I’m more than willing to chance that it will deliver something more healthy than we’ll get from the promises of privilege. It’s true that we need guards against egotism and human overreaching, but we’ll get them less effectively from the wise, rich, and wealthy than we would from sane democracy.

And what’s to keep it sane? one might ask. Well, that’s a large element of our duty. If we can’t learn to behave sanely, what’s the use of anything?

October 17, 2012

I was glad to see President Obama respond energetically to Mr.Romney’s dubious propositions last night. I hope the positive reaction the president has received will convince him to be even more energetic in the third debate. There are, though, features of the debates that continue to frustrate me. Seldom does the president, and almost never do the media, point out that Romney’s supposed plans for boosting the economy amount to no more than a list of desirable outcomes. Merely announcing that you’re going to cause something good to happen is not a plan. You have to say how you’re going to do it in order for a proposal to make any sense. Romney almost never says how he’s going to do anything. The closest he comes is saying he will cut taxes and that alone will produce jobs. It is the Republicans’ basic proposal and in the past it has not been valid. What’s going to make it right in the future?

Another fatuity Romney regularly gets away with is claiming that only profit-making operations create “real” jobs. I don’t know what “real” means in that instance and neither does anybody else. If you take Romney literally, then no teacher, no fireman, no police officer, no soldier, no public health worker, no inspector who ensures we have clean water, no governor, no legislator, no judge, no district attorney, no clerk at a city hall has a real job. Presumably, the salaries they earn do not go into the economy. When they go to the grocery store and buy a bag of blueberries it doesn’t have the same effect as when a guy who makes hula hoops buys that same bag of blueberries. This is complete nonsense and yet it gets accepted because it fits with the capitalist mythology that is supposedly the essence of America. If you work simply to make money, then you’re real. If you work merely to sustain a decent society then you’re unreal.

I suppose politicians think the mythology is so infused into the public mind they don’t dare challenge it in any way, even when it makes assertions that are purely absurd. But that’s a misguided timidity. If Obama would summon the courage to ask Romney, “Are you saying no police officer has a real job?” he would do himself, and the country, considerable good.

Our political discourse has got so hemmed in by unexamined assumptions which have mimicked the character of religious precepts, we can’t even talk about our most pressing problems. It is very hard, and very dangerous, for a politician to lay out a plan for widespread fairness and decency in society because in doing it, he or she would have to bang up against near-sacred homilies which function mainly as mental strait-jackets.

When you hear politicians professing to tell you the absolute truth about social affairs, which Republicans do incessantly, they are demanding from you unquestioning submission. They are announcing you have to go down the paths they lay out for you because those are the only paths consistent with some sort of natural law. It’s the biggest con game going.

When Romney announced last night, for example, that government can’t create jobs, only private enterprise can, he spoke as though he were a prophet rather than as a man struggling to help us think through our difficulties. I don’t know of any politicians who are prophets, and if I did I certainly wouldn’t vote for them.

In the days leading up to last night’s debate I listened to dozens of pundits propounding what the president had to do into order to win the contest and regain the initiative. Mostly they all said the same thing: that Mr. Obama had to be more active than he was in the first debate but not so active as to appear aggressive. Apparently the “Center,” whatever that mythical monster is, doesn’t like aggression. Not a single one advised the president to criticize the foundations of Romney’s social vision. It was as though they couldn’t imagine such an action.

I’m happy to give the president credit for going outside the advice. Early in the debate he said that Mr. Romney doesn’t have a five point program as he claims. He has only a one point program, and that is to do everything he can to help rich people get richer. The president is right. That’s it. That’s the totality of Romney’s social and political vision. When rich people are as rich as possible, that’s the best condition the Republican nominee can imagine.

When I was a young army officer, one of the principles of war I was taught was that when you have the enemy on the run you should pursue him to the point of exhaustion. I don’t like war, but if it’s taking place, that’s a good principle. Obama’s assertion that Romney has only one point does put the GOP on the defensive. So Obama should push it with all the force he has. Let them scream class warfare all they want. It would help the president break out of the cage political convention tries to keep him in, and not only promote his success but open up our political conversation.

The latter would be the more significant achievement.

October 19, 2012

I’ve been asking myself why the election of Mitt Romney strikes me as such a horrible possibility, and the more I ask, I realize I may have been telling myself tales.

It’s true, I think, that a Romney presidency would be bad for the country, or at least bad for the country I want to live in. He would try to increase the power and influence of the very wealthy and I think they already have far more dominance than is good for the rest of us. But, at the same time, I need to ask how successful he would be.

There’s little doubt that Romney in the White House would energize opposition to him and his view of things more than his candidacy has. He probably couldn’t get away with nearly as much as he promises. It seems likely the Senate will remain in the control of the Democrats and if they are firm they can neutralize most of what Romney would try to do. Still, the president does have powers, especially with respect to the appointment of judges. So I have the right to some horror at the thought of his throwing his weight around.

The truth is, though, I’m probably not as much motivated by his policies as by his pure ickiness. The thought of his popping off on TV over the next four years gives me the creeps. I don’t like some of the things Obama has done. But Obama himself doesn’t make my stomach crawl. There’s something about the crazed look in Romney’s eyes when he speaks which gives me the sense that his election will push us even farther into insanity than we are already. And I’m really getting out of sorts with insanity.

I have to face the truth that my emotional response to Romney is similar to the feelings of Obama’s opponents. But since they are driven by a partially subconscious racism and a goofy notion about what real Americans are, I don’t see that I need to extend them a great deal of sympathy. Every time I get in a mood to try to empathize with anti-Obama people, the picture of John Sununu comes to mind and then all empathetic tendencies disappear.

I read Frank Rich’s column last Monday in the magazine New York, where he argues that Tea Party sensibilities have completely captured the Republican Party and that they’re not going away anytime soon. Despite demographics which indicate trouble for the GOP in the future, Rich says the shift of white, fairly affluent suburbanites towards Tea Party impulses will ensure that the Republican Party will remain strong and will have a good chance of capturing the government at some point in the near future, if not in November. I don’t like that prediction but I have to admit, it has some credibility.

I, myself, have argued on this page that the United States is a severely divided country and hopes that intelligent and generous policies will gain an ascendency any time soon are probably fanciful. There are simply too many nasty mythologies at work in the American mind to permit non-violent and tolerant attitudes to find a secure majority. I doubt there’s any way to avoid an ongoing and bitter struggle.

There’s far too much consolation in the thought that we’re good and they’re bad to allow turning the nation’s attention to thwarting possibilities which actually threaten decent human life on this planet. Cities will have to be flooded, epidemics endured, and vast economic dislocations set loose before anything of that sort can take place. We are not going to start working together tomorrow, regardless of what any politician may say. And many of us will continue to harbor the delusion that if we have a big enough military and enough bombs we can kill all the people who are causing us trouble.

So, to return to the nauseating thoughts of a Romney presidency. It would make things worse, yes, but perhaps not a lot worse than they are going to be anyway.

I don’t think it’s overly pessimistic or defeatist to face the truth that the world we are marching into can’t be re-shaped without time and great effort. There are simply a lot of destructive forces on the loose, Republicanism being only one of them. There are good things going on in the world too. And they have their chance.   We shouldn’t give up on them just because they don’t win out tomorrow. Though I would prefer to live in a kinder and more placid society, I suppose there’s a certain vivacity in the thought of the demanding struggle.

None of this is intended to say that I think Romney will win the upcoming election. I don’t. And I’ll go to bed happier on the night of November 6th if he has been defeated. But if by some weird chance he hasn’t, I’ll go to bed all the same, and get up on the morning of the 7th prepared to work against the things he supports. Come to think of it, I’ll do that regardless of whether he’s going to be president or not.

October 21, 2012

I’m gradually being forced to face the necessity that if I want to keep this site as active as I’d like, I’ve got to write more on what I actually think about and less on what I think about only secondarily, as I have mostly up till now. I’ve been reluctant to make the change for two reasons. The first is that politics and social behavior are seen as issues requiring comment and, therefore, have a chance to attract readers. The second is that if I write about what I spend most of my mental effort on, it will be harder.  That’s because the subject matter will be generally unfamiliar and will require, if I’m going to express myself about it in the way I want to, that I'll have to struggle to find  language to make it interesting to the only readers I care about,  the sort of “common” readers that Samuel Johnson and Virginia Wolff brought to our attention.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. A few days ago I got in the mail Gianni Vattimo’s Nietzsche: An Introduction. It was written about twenty-five years earlier than the book of Vattimo’s I was just finishing, A Farewell to Truth. Consequently, the ideas in the latter were more fully developed than they were in the book on Nietzsche, where Vattimo remarked, “our reading of Nietzsche is part of a ‘hermeneutic ontology’, though this thesis cannot be expanded upon here.”

Lordy, I thought. Hermeneutic ontology! How can I even mention such a term without scaring away everybody I want to reach? And yet, I do think what Vattimo was getting at is important, not only in the world of ideas but also in the world of practical decision-making (actually the two ought not to be thought of as separated).

So what can I do? Is there any way of explaining that “hermeneutic ontology” is not as impossible as it sounds?

I’ll take a shot at it, so you can see what you think.

Ontology is simply the branch of philosophy that has to do with being, or existence. It’s speculation about what it means to be. Over time the notion of legitimate, or genuine being has sprung up, as contrasted with false or empty being. So most ontological discussions nowadays are about trying to clarify the difference between the two. How can you live, really? How do you live that’s flat, or empty? Obviously (at least it’s obvious to me) there are no definitive answers to these questions, there’s just an ongoing conversation about them.

This is where the hermeneutics comes in. Hermeneutics is -- or was -- simply the interpretation of texts. The word was applied mostly to religious texts, often to the reading of the Bible. It had to do with explaining what Biblical texts mean.

Over the past half-century, though, hermeneutics has transmogrified from a method into a philosophy. And that philosophy announces that all conclusions, however they were arrived at, are simply interpretations. Hermeneutics, as philosophy, tells us that we need to start thinking about truth differently from how we once did -- as absolute certainty. That’s because there is no such thing as absolute certainty; it doesn’t exist. In the absence of certainty, truth has to be modified from what it was once thought to be. It has to move towards a basis in what works, and what groups of thoughtful people agree upon.

Therefore, hermeneutical ontology means the acceptance of existing in a world of interpretation and being creatures who interpret because that’s all we can do. Vattimo would probably say it’s more complex than that, but, still, I think what I’ve just said gets at the heart of it.

Making use of all this, of course, is easier to advise than to achieve. A different notion of truth than the one proposed by hermeneutical ontology is built into our language. And as Nietzsche, himself, said in numerous ways, our language is our philosophy. It proclaims what we believe -- or what we think we believe -- whether we know it or not. Changing language is a lot harder than changing abstract thought.

I recognize that what I’ve said here scarcely touches the implications of the concept I’ve been trying to define. That’s because the implications are complex, stupendous, and not anywhere close to being all laid out for investigation. Mainly, what I wanted to say is that there are concepts alive in the world, which most people remain unaware of but which are affecting their lives in numerous ways.

The people who deal in these concepts live in segregated colonies cut off from the great majority of humankind. They speak mainly to one another, and usually only for the purpose of professional advancement. The result is that the implications of their speech spread only accidentally, and often erroneously.

We need language that can give developing concepts life among greater numbers of people. Searching for that language is torturous. But, then, I ask myself, what else have a got to do? Surely, it’s better than trying to straighten out Tom Friedman or David Brooks.

October 22, 2012

I realized after I posted my reflections yesterday that they needed a sort of postscript.

I mentioned two books by Gianni Vattimo and then proceeded to discuss a passage from the earlier one. But I didn’t explain, explicitly, what the second one had to do with what I was discussing.

I meant to imply that A Farewell to Truth -- the later work -- had further developed the concept of a “hermeneutic ontology” in the way I was attempting to explain in the body of my remarks, but in a language more accessible than Vittimo employed.

Furthermore, I should have emphasized that Vattimo is now presenting the hypothesis he terms “hermeneutic ontology” (I’m sorry to have to keep using such an abstruse designation) as the dominant conclusion serious thinkers have now arrived at about the nature of truth and of human mental existence. I don’t know if that’s the case, or not. I have no sure way of announcing who is and who is not a “serious” thinker. All I can say is that Vattimo’s stance about human mental life strikes me as more convincing than the more traditional arguments I encounter.

So, what is that stance again? It’s the position that our only way of reaching conclusions about anything is through interpretation. Everything we think we know, we first interpret. Even the conclusions of scientific investigations are ultimately interpretations  -- though I would argue that they’re interpretations which deserve a wider assent than most interpretations do.

And what does this mean? It means that our entire mental universe is a body of interpretation. We are (note the ontological implication) interpreting animals before we’re anything else.

The practical consequences of this way of thinking are vast and eminently practical. I’ll just mention a few fairly obvious ones here today.

The notion that there is some ultimate reality to which we can look for answers about who we are and who we should be -- whether that reality is God, or nature, or the laws of the universe, or anything else -- is itself an interpretation.  There is no direct link between the human mind and any of these things. Whatever we think we know about them comes from someone’s having engaged in interpretation.

Let’s say a prophet believes he has received a clear message from God. That’s simply his interpretation of certain sensations he has experienced. Another person may have had the same sensations and not brought God into it in any way. In order for a mind to assume that God did anything at all it must have encountered the interpretation that God exists. And it’s almost for sure that the mind which declares God’s existence didn’t originate that interpretation; it got it from someone else.

If someone says that democracy is the best form of government possible, that’s obviously an interpretation which derives from scores of other interpretations about history, about human behavior, about what “best” means, and so on.

If people hold that every group of humans is equal to every other group, then the first interpretation we have to grapple with is what “equal” means.

All this leads us to the two important questions. Who cares? and so what?

The answer to the first is easy. Gianni Vattimo cares, I care, and thousand of thinkers around the world care. They all, myself included, think that envisioning a mental universe composed of interpretations is important.

So what? is a little harder. But when you get down to it, the answer is fairly simple. When we talk about, and argue over, interpretations we implicitly agree, at least for the period of the conversation, that we need to pay attention to what the other person is saying. We have to find out where he’s coming from, so to speak. And when we’re genuinely paying attention to one another’s arguments, we aren’t killing each other. The talk goes on and the killing stops.

The purpose of discourse is not, primarily, to convince somebody that someone else is right (‘right” is itself an interpretation). It is rather to keep itself going. When we engage in conversation we create a living thing, and its purpose becomes to keep on living. People who say that’s all just talk are dismissing the essence of humanity (“essence,” another interpretation).

I watched a clip yesterday of Bryan Fischer, an official of the American Family Association, explaining that in all affairs having to do with basic belief and public order, women should defer to and be submissive to men. The reason he gave was that the Apostle Paul said so. My first impulse when I hear something of that sort is to say, “Oh my God! What an idiot.” But when I think about it, I realize that taking such a stance is wasteful. Think of all the interpretations Mr. Fischer is relying on to make this controversial argument. Think of what could be learned by setting each one in the open and trying to trace its roots. I’m not under the delusion that in doing so I would cause Bryan Fischer to change his mind. But I do think I could learn something, and I know I would have a lot of fun. Wouldn’t that be better than just screaming at him (it depends on what you mean by “better,” I guess).

I’m convinced that a mental world composed of interpretations would be less violent than one composed of metaphysical certainties. I know, I know; that’s an interpretation. But I don’t see anything stupid in trying it out. We might find ourselves signing on to something new that pleases us more than what we have at the moment.

I’ll conclude with a P.S. to the P.S. : the two items dated October 21st and October 22nd need to be read together if they’re going to make whatever sense they can make.

October 23, 2012

I suppose I’m obliged to regress back into politics today. The debate last night was less than a lackluster affair. To call the questions from Bob Schieffer inconsequential would be to compliment them. The answers from the candidates were predictable, with the remembrance that Romney is predictable when he contradicts himself. Like almost everything else on television, the presidential debates descend to formula.

The president was sharper than Romney, yes, but that’s like saying a trained circus animal is smarter than an ameba.

Chris Matthews, no less, had the most intelligent comment of the evening when he noted that the people who are going to vote for Romney don’t care what he says because they don’t care what his policies will be. They are voting purely out of hatred for Obama, and they certainly don’t hate Obama for anything he has done.

Now and then, I recall Susan Sontag’s quip of several decades ago that the white race is the cancer of history. I thought then it was a bad thing to say. Now, if I could modify it to the male members of the white race, I might almost be willing to agree. Were it not for white men in the United States, the presidential race would have been over a long time ago, as it should have been the instant the Republican candidates were announced. The majority of white men don’t hate Obama for anything he has done, because they don’t know what he has done. But they hate him all the same. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

Virtually everything about the debates frustrates me, but the feature that frustrates me most is that no one in the media picks up on Romney’s habit of saying he has a detailed plan to accomplish this or that and then proceeds to list a series of desirable outcomes without mentioning how he’s going to bring them about. It’s like saying his economic plan is to have a thousand dollars every day deposited into each citizen’s bank account. Keep on the lookout; that may be on the way. But if it came it would have no effect on Romney’s support.

Another prissy habit of Romney’s is to defend his policies by bragging about his abilities. If you tell Romney his budget numbers make no sense, he answers that of course they make sense because he once ran a business, and he’s smart, and he knows arithmetic.

The most specific of Romney’s foreign policy proposals was that he would be careful about Pakistan because it has a hundred nuclear weapons and will soon have two hundred. He didn’t say how he would be careful about Pakistan, nor did he say that Mr. Obama wasn’t careful. The implication was that he would be more careful than the president and that he would sit down with the Pakistanis and thrash things out. He’s good at that, you know, because he once managed the winter Olympic Games. These are, presumably, the sort of arguments that appeal to his supporters - that is those who support him because they hate Obama.

Mr. Romney wants to have more ships in the navy. He said nothing about what kind of ships or what he would want those ships to do. He just doesn’t like to see numbers go down. His proclivity for numerous ships gave the president the opportunity for the most quotable response of the night, which, in turn, gave Mr. Romney’s running mate the chance to say he didn’t understand what the president meant.

Mr. Romney is angry at the president for not visiting Israel more. He says people notice things like that, but not so much people in the United States as foreigners, who will take the president’s visitational slackness as a sign of weakness, and will therefore push ahead with their plans to be even more wicked than they are already. The number of people in the world whose only motivation is wickedness skyrockets when Republican candidates get to talking about their plans for American dominance of everything. 

After the debate was over, I watched an interview with George Pataki, the former governor of New York (Why did I do such a thing? you ask; I can only suggest that my mind had been benumbed by the previous proceedings). It gave me a certain solace by demonstrating that Mr. Pataki is even more vacuous than Romney is. So, if Romney wins the election, at least we won’t have the most vacuous man on earth as our president (assuming that Mr. Pataki survives until after the inauguration, which I certainly hope he will).

I found out later that during the debate, Ann Coulter had twitted that Mr.Obama is a retard. The latter is a term many people find offensive, which is the reason Ms. Coulter used it. She makes a very good living employing words of that nature, an economic bounty made possible, in part, because most of the people who hate Mr. Obama don’t hate him because of anything he has done. But, then, you know: anything to boost the economy.

Escaping from the debate, I returned to the baseball game between the Cardinals and the Giants, and was pleased by the outcome. It reminded me of an ancient comment from Sam Huff, who after retiring from the NFL was induced to run for Congress from West Virginia. He lost. He was then asked by a reporter whether he liked politics or football better, and he replied instantaneously, football. The reporter pushed on and inquired why. And Sam answered, “Because in football (and presumably in sports generally) the good guys get to play.”

October 24, 2012

I’ve been reading this morning about the disposition matrix. In case you haven’t heard, it’s the network of information and cross-references which allows the U.S. government to decide how people are to be disposed of. It was needed because, as one security official explained, “We had a disposition problem.”

The disposition network is closely linked to a data collection system which is pretty nearly identical to the Total Information Awareness Program, which raised such a fuss during the Bush administration. At that point it was so controversial it had to be discontinued. But now things have changed.

It seems to be the case that virtually everyone in the United States is in the data collection system. Whether that means that everyone is also in the disposition matrix I don’t know. Maybe there’s a technical distinction between them. But it seems clear you could be moved from one to the other with the click of a computer key. If you want to find out whether you’re in the matrix, you won’t be successful unless you have unusual resources of the sort depicted on television melodramas. You certainly can’t find out by asking anyone. If you called up Joe Biden and asked him, he wouldn’t tell you. He might even say he wasn’t aware of the disposition matrix. But that, almost certainly, would be a fib.

One of the main purposes of the disposition matrix is to help the government decide who it should kill. Killing people, you see, is one way of disposing of them, and one that’s growing more popular with the government.

If I were ever in a public meeting where I had a chance to ask the president a question, I would ask how many people are in the disposition matrix. He would undoubtedly say that was classified information, but then I could reply that I wasn’t asking who was in it, just how many. I don’t know what he would say then. It might be the case that my writing this will go into the data bank, and thus insure that I will never get to ask the president any question at all. I don’t know if it will put me into the disposition matrix. I guess I hope it doesn’t (assuming that there is some difference between the data bank and the matrix).

Presumably, at the moment, there has to be some interaction between the disposition matrix and human beings before final disposition is settled on. But I don’t know how long that will continue. It might be seen as imposing a crippling inefficiency. Why not just set up some parameters within the matrix itself that would decide when a disposition decision had been reached? Then it could be carried out without anyone’s knowing the cause of it and therefore relieve everybody of responsibility. If some question arose about a certain disposition, then a spokesman for the government could say, “Well, that was determined by the matrix. We can’t do anything about that.”

A further advance could allow the matrix to instigate the disposition with no need for human involvement at all. That would be cleaner, of course, and do away with any possibility of human error.

Right now, I think, the disposition matrix is supposed to be connected to security. But I see no reason why it shouldn’t be linked to other desirable social goals. I’ve read quite a bit about the expense of keeping people alive when there’s not much possibility of their living another six months, or so. Deciding what to do about that seems like a perfect function for the disposition matrix.

It is regularly asserted that patterns of behavior offer us accurate predictions about future behavior. If we had a pattern which firmly indicated sociopathic inclinations, you would think information about it could be fed into the disposition matrix. And, then, it could do its work.

During the current presidential campaign, influential figures have asserted that though most Americans are givers and producers, a considerable portion are nothing but takers. Surely there must be data which tells us which persons fall into the latter category. Simply program the distribution matrix to suck it out of the data bank, and then let the matrix proceed with its normal activities.

Increasing use of the disposition matrix should diminish the need for government expenditures and, thereby, reduce taxes to the lowest possible level. This, as everyone knows, is the essential American aspiration, a nation with scarcely any taxes at all. If we had that, we could show those Chinese then.

I wonder if the disposition matrix could be applied to elections themselves, and decide which voters were casting ballots intelligently and in line with the American way. I don’t know why not. Assign that duty to the matrix and then we could have perfect democracy.

The number of applications is almost endless and gives me hope that we may have found the means to the life our most thorough patriots have always dreamed of.

October 28, 2012

This morning, reading in a book by an author I respect, I came on this statement: “The impoverishment and death through starvation of millions in the Third World is a direct result of collusion between Western governments and corporations in maximizing exploitation.”

By itself, it wasn’t particularly startling. I’ve read similar judgments dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before. But it got me to thinking.

There is probably no way fully to assess the accuracy of the statement. But I know this: many intelligent people who study the effects of corporate profit-making assert that it is harmful to vast numbers of people. For example, the political scientist Susan George has written:

Every time weaker nations have attempted to reallocate their resources
and undertake land reform (to feed starving populations) powerful interests
emanating from the rich world and its multilateral bodies have thwarted
their efforts.

Yes, I know that Susan George is seen as a committed activist for the poor of the Third World, and that may, to some degree, skew her findings about corporate activity. Yet she is respected by large numbers of people who have worked with her, and her sentiments are echoed by hundreds of other scholars. Are they all crazy?

Most of the time when I mention assessments of this kind to my friends (and I don’t do it often), they become defensive. They don’t want to think they are supporting systems which kill little children every day. So instead of asking themselves whether they are actually doing so, it’s easier to look away, and scoff at people like Susan George as ideologues. It seems intolerable to them to confess that they are implicated in anything of the kind many social scientists say is the primary economic process in international relations today (and, for that matter, in internal relations also).

I wonder if it might be useful to stop being so squeamish about our moral purity and make at least a small attempt to face the elementary unfairness at work in the world today. The price would be surrendering our sense of unstained goodness but the benefit might well be improving the conditions of life for some of the people being trampled by social forces.

Suppose we said to ourselves, “I know that my privileged life comes at some cost to suffering people. I know that my political support goes to some indefensible institutions, which work to exploit and kill people. But I also know this about myself. I’m not willing to give up all my privileges in order to help, perhaps only marginally, the unfortunate people of the earth or the people who will come after me and suffer because my generation gobbled up too many natural resources, and polluted the earth in order to remain momentarily rich.”

If we had that thought firmly in our minds, what might we do? It seems to me there’s a chance we might say, yes, I’m selfish and I have no reason to preen myself over my super morality. Yet, I can give up a little, that won’t radically affect my comfort, in order to give others and the future a better chance for health (I recognize this is a radically non-Republican notion, but maybe Republican sentiments are another thing we might consider sacrificing).

We might ask, would I really be hurt by driving a Prius rather than a monster pickup, like a Ford 150 (or 250, or 350)?

Would it really ruin me to start recycling as much of my waste as possible?

How much self-esteem or safety would I really have to surrender, if my nation didn’t spend more on military activities than the next ten nations put together?

Does the pride I feel over having lots of billionaires in my country really do me much good?

How miserable would it make me to set my thermostat two degrees lower in the winter (or perhaps more important, two degrees higher in the summer)?

Would the glory I gain by singing “God Bless America” really be much diminished if I occasionally thought, in the inner chambers of my heart, “and, also, God bless Thailand and Lichtenstein”?

Is the promotion of economic growth really the purpose of education?

Do I really want to kill innocent people in return for the remote chance that killing a hostile person near them might make me safer?

Is the time and effort I save by consuming packaged, processed food, really worth the cost and effects of eating it?

Would it be too agonizing to read an article a week (or a month) about what government subsidies to corporate farming in the United States are doing to agricultural health around the world?

How many pairs of shoes do I have to have in order to be comfortable and reasonably presentable in public?

One could go on with such a list for days. But supposing you took just ten items from a list like this and considered adopting the presumptions in them? How much would it diminish your pleasure and sense of prestige? Even five percent?

It surely wouldn’t make you pure. You would still be implicated in lots of nasty stuff. That’s probably inevitable, unless you want to become a saint. And, even then....  But it would make a difference.

I doubt we can do any better than that. We shouldn’t tell ourselves tales about what noble people we are, or are capable of becoming. But a difference is a difference. And once you saw that ten little changes weren’t devastating you, who knows?

October 30, 2012

Mitt Romney’s tale about the movement of Jeep production to China is in the tradition of the great lie. This is a political philosophy which says that no matter how blatantly false a statement is, if it can be backed up by endless repetition and vast expenditure it can be used to vanquish an opponent. Evidently, prominent members of Romney’s campaign staff have admitted that is precisely their strategy.

Some observers, particularly those who enjoy politics in the mode of a horse race, view this as admirably hard-nosed play. It’s what the big boys do. Mitt sees himself as a very big boy.

For those who perceive politics -- as distinguished from government -- as nearly the whole of life, and especially those pundits whose only function is parasitic, the great lie achieves a grandeur surpassing any other tactic. And one has to admit that if your existence is completely encompassed within the bubble of campaigning the great lie will come across as stupendously audacious.

There are, however, other ways of looking at it. The feature of it that interests me now is as a test of the electorate. Obviously, if a country is genuinely democratic, the great lie descends to pathetic stupidity. Everyone will see it for what it is, and the people who push it will be relegated to Donald Trump status, i.e., clownish foolishness. I don’t, however, know of any serious analyst who thinks of the United States as any longer primarily democratic. The reason we have the kind of politics that formerly would have been thought absurd is that democracy is waning. I’m not saying it is completely gone, but it is quite weak. It has been replaced by garish spectacle, which is a strong tool for those who wish to purchase the government. There is no show too vulgar or too expensive for them to produce.

What it comes down to is that politics, like most other human endeavors, is a matter of taste. So what’s being tested now is the taste of the American people. That’s not a thought to swell the hearts of those who care about a healthy society.

There are many interesting questions which can’t be answered. What percentage of the American people, if they fully understood the nature of Romney’s great Jeep lie, would applaud him for it? How many would see it as a pretty cool thing to do?

I confess I have little confidence in any guess I might make. If there were a transcendental power which knew the right answer and offered a great reward for picking the right number, I’d probably enter the contest with 26%. Considering the other less-than-noble motives at work in determining how people vote, 26% becomes quite a potent force.

Since we don’t have the transcendental power, we are thrown back on complications. What percentage would reject the great lie except in cases where it was being used against persons of a certain race? What percentage would relish it only in instances where their financial condition would be boosted by its use? What percentage would appreciate it aesthetically as a prime example of political art? What percentage would say that in this case winning is so important we have to use it although most of the time it’s a really disgusting practice?

Politics is the arena where rationalization reigns supreme.

Here’s one thing I think we can say with a fair degree of confidence: the great lie is almost never employed to benefit a majority of the people. It is the weapon of privilege.

When we examine the instance of the great lie we’re discussing here, we can discern a number of its basic characteristics.

It is, by definition, working against the very thing it proclaims it’s trying to support. The Romney camp wants to whisk Ohio away from the Obama total for the purpose of enabling the super wealthy to do the very thing Obama is falsely charged with doing.

It is designed to appeal to very stupid people. Though there are quite a few who will appreciate the lie for what it is, those people are already going to vote for Romney. The target population consists of those who would vote for Obama unless they came to embrace a charge which is obviously false (about as clear a definition of stupidity as one can imagine).

It wallows in a sentimentality none of its promoters feel in the least. The notion that the Romney people care a whit about the well-being of families that would be hurt if the lie were true, is so silly I suspect the Romney campaign organizers sit and chortle about it.

It is designed to operate for a limited time and then simply disappear. If the lie were to work in this case, and then, after a Romney victory, should continue to be discussed in the press, it’s easy to imagine how the Romney people would respond: “Oh well, the information we had at the time led us to think it was true, and, besides, that had nothing to do with our victory; the people simply recognized our superior plan for America.”

The test of the electorate is clarified this time by the opportunity the Obama campaign has to respond. Over the next week we’ll see hundreds of refutations, by people with clear and credible evidence about the falseness of the Jeep tale. So if, despite all that, the lie works, it will tell us a good deal about who we are.

©John R. Turner

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