Collected Thoughts

November 2012
November 2, 2012

Public Policy Polling has reported that more than two-thirds of Republicans believe that demons can possess human beings. This GOP conviction is not about addiction, or character weakness, or bad habits. It’s about the real thing: agents of Satan.

For all of my adult life, Satan has struck me as a curious conception. He is evidently immortal and has great powers which God, for some reason, permits him to retain (that is, unless God can’t do anything about it, which pretty much runs counter to the definition of God).

Satan is not interested in anything but being mean. As far as I can tell, he has no other motives. Why he would be that way almost defies imagination, but there he is, at work in the belief structures of modern humans.

I can see that the world, being a place where lots of harm occurs to biological creatures, might suggest that there’s somebody behind it all. But that’s the sort of momentary impression that tends to fade away after slight reflection. But not for Republicans, it seems. Republicans want to pin it on somebody. They don’t like the idea that bad things come about from chance, or inattention, or changing conditions that people have a hard time adjusting to. They like the idea that all harm is caused on purpose.

Actually, I’ve stated this somewhat incorrectly. It’s not so much that Republicans think Satan causes all evil. It’s that people who think evil is always intentionally produced become Republicans. The GOP is receptive rather than initiative. Political parties don’t cause things as much as they enable them.

This psychological orientation wouldn’t be as troubling as it is, if it stopped there, if Satan and his supernatural minions were the sole executors of evil. The thought would cause some people to be more fearful than they need to be and go around spooked all the time, but otherwise they could go about their lives. But that’s not the way the idea works. Since all evil comes from Satan, and since many people are involved in actions Republicans don’t like and therefore see as evil, those people must be, themselves, in some way or another, agents of Satan. Perhaps they’re not literally demons but they are pretty close facsimiles. And you know what you’re supposed to do to demons or their facsimiles. People who are perpetually at war psychologically will find some literal war in which they can become engaged. They will be focused on slaying their enemies. It’s hard to get along with them unless you join in their raiding parties.

I suppose all this can be explained in evolutionary terms. But single causal chains don’t beguile me as much as they used to, which is just another way of saying I don’t feel any longer that I’m obliged to believe in them. Belief should be guided -- that is reined in a bit -- by abstruse reasoning but there’s a sane option for choosing it, within limits. So even though you can find in human history explanations for human behavior I see no intellectual duty to make those ideas into a prison. In other words, simply because there were psychic forces pushing and shoving people in the past we don’t have to give into them now or perpetuate them into the future. I know that, philosophically speaking, that’s a controversial notion of human freedom, but it’s good enough for practical purposes.

So, we can say, “Satan, be gone!” And that’s what I do say.

If we all said that, I’m not sure exactly what it would do to political parties but I feel reasonably confident that it would make them less dopey. Surely that’s a development worth willing.

And what it would do to parties it would do double to religions.

When I think about Satan, I can’t see that he does any good at all, which is exactly consonant with his reputation. For centuries he’s been seen as good for nothing. So why keep him around?

It has been a human practice to hold on to too many things just because our grandparents held on to them. I certainly don’t want to get rid of everything our grandparents cherished because that would be to break too much with our past and leave us feeling groundless. But it’s not only our privilege, it’s our duty, to sort through the heritage and eject some things from the house out to the backyard shed, where they can wait to be dragged out for festivals and pure entertainment. They don’t have to be lived with as though they were vital equipment. Think how silly it would be if we were still eating the brains of our enemies because we thought they would give us fearsome powers.

The notion of a single producer of evil in the universe is worth nothing, and it leads to misbehavior. So I think we should get rid of it except, perhaps, for the occasional Halloween costume.


November 4, 2012

As we approach the end of a long and tiresome presidential campaign, I’m driven to think about the tragic aspect of democratic politics at the moment.

Men and women who aspire to hold public office have to consider the character of the electorate they’re trying to persuade. That’s as it should be. But they also feel pressed, in one way or another, to flatter attitudes no one should support. That leads to falsehood.

I sometimes think the choice for the voter lies between the candidate who knows he’s being less than straightforward, and does it regretfully, and one who remains unaware of his own lies. The main reason I support Barack Obama over Mitt Romney is that I can at least hope that Obama falls into the former category whereas Romney almost certainly falls into the latter.

Wait a minute? you may be asking. Romney has told so many outright lies he has to know he’s telling them. I wish I could believe that. If I did, I would be less disconsolate at the thought of Romney in the White House.

I do think the people around Romney know he’s lying, and for cynical reasons they’re glad he is. But Romney himself tells falsehoods out of a certain hideous innocence which makes anything he says true at the moment he says it. Remember when Dick Nixon said that if the president does it, it’s not against the law? Romney, I think, is afflicted with an even more serious version of that syndrome. He actually thinks that if he says it, it can’t be untrue. Those who think it’s impossible to be that warped haven’t given enough attention to the strangeness of the human mind.

It’s time we faced the truth that the political system we’ve constructed and continue to accept is designed to attract manic personalities. And though not all manic personalities are psychopathic, the border between then is frighteningly narrow. Turning campaigns into gigantic spectacles has not been good for the country, but what’s been worse is reaching the point where we can’t imagine not doing it. That, in turn, means we will have an ever-larger percentage of candidates who perceive themselves as heroes in a video game.

I can’t say, for sure, how Mitt Romney would behave as president but I can say I don’t regard him as a sane person. Our having no idea what he would do coupled with a near-majority who are willing to find out makes our own collective sanity less than a sure thing. People who can watch Romney’s face as he makes a speech and then say he seems like a nice and sensible guy are models of non-perception. They’re not willing to see what’s right in front of their faces. They may be willing to agree with Grover Norquist that it doesn’t matter what he thinks, since all he has to do is sign what he’s told to sign. But that requires assuming that Grover Norquist is sane, which strikes me as a big stretch.

I suppose we could argue, in our own defense, that world conditions have altered so rapidly it’s not fair to expect democratic politics to keep up with them, or to deliver reasonable candidates in the face of them. That’s a sweet excuse, but it doesn’t modify the consequences of our lack of nimbleness. Conditions, at any given moment, are what they are, and if a political system can’t find leaders who will promote stability of life for the electorate, then it has failed, and one might say, failed tragically.

Respectable pundits remind us incessantly, and jovially, that people in the past have predicted dire results from elections, conveniently forgetting that some elections have brought dire results, and that the world has never before faced a tipping point when human ambition and activity has created the potential of setting off a maelstrom of famine, disease, and war that could deprive a majority of us of the means of life. I’m not saying that’s going to happen but that we have allowed ourselves to get to the point when it might happen is ample evidence of the failure of politics. We have major political figures now who will not address how unstable conditions have become; they are too caught up in winning the next election.

These are doleful thoughts, I know. I would prefer not to be doleful but when I think of the process we have been through over the past year in trying to select a president, I don’t know how not to be doleful. The difference between this election  and the election just sixteen years ago, when Bill Clinton contended with Bob Dole, is tremendous. It mattered then who won but the victory of either candidate would not have brought -- and did not bring -- disastrous consequences. I don’t think we can say that now.

I’ve heard people argue that it doesn’t much matter who wins, that actually the candidates are not all that different. I’ve even toyed with that idea myself. But when I did, I was wrong. I was thinking too much about policy and not enough about sanity. That the Republican Party has presented us with Mitt Romney as a possible president is not a little thing. It might not be too much to say that it’s tragic.


November 8, 2012

Now that President Obama has secured his second term, I have some advice for him (which I’m pretty sure he will not take).

For the next couple months, or so, go on a quasi-vacation. Spend time talking with reporters about basketball, and making public appearances on “The Ellen Show” and so forth. When members of Congress, and particularly Republican members of Congress, call up about talks on the upcoming Grand Deal, tell them that you’re very busy at the moment, that you have to see to the seeding of the White House lawn, and that you’ve noticed some cracks in the ceilings of upstairs rooms. If they begin to scream about the danger of going over the fiscal cliff, remind them that it was they who constructed the cliff so they must have thought it was a good thing. Why, otherwise, did they build it?

When everyone’s tax rate rises at the beginning of next year, sit down with your trusted advisors, including some new ones (I would be happy to join if you would like my help) and make plans for the best way to spend the increased income. If you decide to do nothing more with it than pay off some of the national debt, that would be far better than anything that will happen by making a compromise with Congress.

If John Boehner keeps calling, tell him you’re going to check your calendar and try to find time for a quick lunch with him in the spring. Be gracious; invite him over to the White house for it. Promise him he can have almost anything he wishes to eat.

Appear happy and calm every time you meet with reporters.

If the Republicans try to play chicken by threatening to refuse to extend the debt limit, set up a public address to the nation and explain to the people what’s going to happen if the GOP carries through with its refusal. And then say you regret it very much. Look grave as you say this but, then, at the end, smile.

In all likelihood, none of this will cause serious economic slowdowns. If it should produce some disruptions, go on the TV again, explain that you have a plan to take care of them, tell the people what the plan is (and be honest about  it), and then say you wish you could get cooperation from Congress to alleviate the difficulties.

Never, never, never let the Republicans maneuver you into thinking they have you in a box. They don’t. Keep in mind who, and what, you are. You are the president of the United States and you never again have to run for public office. Personally, you are a reasonably wealthy man, so you can provide for your wife and your children. You are dealing with people who have consistently, incessantly, told lies about you, maligned you, made up fantastic tales about you, and accepted payments from people who wish to hurt the majority of the people of the United States. You owe them nothing.

You have a voice that can reach throughout the nation in a way none of them can. When they, as they almost assuredly will, begin their campaign of lies again, use your voice to point out their falseness and what their motives actually are. You have a greater ability to get your points across than they do.

There is nothing more important you can do as president than to flush out of the body politic the kind of toxins the Republican Party has injected into it over the past two decades. If we cannot free ourselves of these poisons, there is no way we can have a healthy society. It is your primary duty to protect and promote the well-being of the people of the United States. Nothing else even approaches that duty. Certainly, achieving bipartisanship with greed mongers, has no standing whatever compared with the general welfare.

There is no need to be afraid. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself (you may recall that one of your predecessors used that phrase).

Activate you mind sufficiently to grasp what actual compromise is. It is not the same thing as agreeing to be compliant with an assailant in return for his agreeing not to hurt you are badly as he might. People compromise rightly over priorities among a series of helpful actions. One person wants to do this good thing first; another wants to do that good thing first. This is the situation of compromise. Giving way to foolish things because greedy people want to impose them on you, and offer you a few sweets for not resisting, is not compromise. It is caving in.

When you go on “The Ellen Show,” remark to her, offhandedly, that you’ve been thinking things over, and have concluded that compromise is not giving way to bad things, and then, immediately, smile and ask her opinion about recent popular music.


November 9, 2012

I’ve noticed that there are numerous explanations for why Mr. Romney lost the election.

Karl Rove says it’s because Barack Obama suppressed the vote (so much for all that blather about it’s being the other way around).

Bill O’Reilly says it’s because the country no longer has a majority of white men, and all those other people want stuff.

Rush Limbaugh says more or less the same thing O’Reilly says, but in a nastier tone.

Mary Matalin says it’s because Obama was incredibly mean to Mr. Romney, who is a gentleman.

Ann Coulter says it’s because Western civilization is collapsing.

The Wall Street Journal says it’s because Mr. Romney didn’t have enough money to conduct a proper campaign.

So far, I haven’t read anyone who says it’s because God sent Sandy in order to give Obama a boost, but I guess that’s obvious because God didn’t want Obama to win.

There has also been a good deal of comment to the effect that now the country can come together and rally around its common goals. But nobody says what those common goals are. Details like that are immensely paltry in the face of grand emotions.

If I were asked about the reason for the outcome, I think I would say it was because more people voted for Obama than did for Romney. It wasn’t a lot more people, but it was sufficient.

Some voices seem to be discounting the numbers because the people who voted for Obama live closer together than do those who voted for Romney. I’ve read that Romney clearly won the most square footage, and I don’t guess anyone should deny that. Back when the Constitution was drafted, people (or men, I guess I should say) thought there was so much square footage it could never become an issue. Consequently, they were short-sighted and failed to provide for its representation in the Congress, or the presidency, or even on the Supreme Court. This is testimony to their lack of prescience, and might be used by persons with twisted and perverse minds to argue for taking more than what the founders intended into our reading of what the Constitution says to us now. But, as we say, that’s all water under the bridge.

I read one guy who announced that only dumb people voted for Obama, or for any other Democratic candidates. But even if we accepted that revelation, and moved, as we clearly should, to rescind the votes of dumb people, we would be left with the problem of a device for separating the smart from the dumb. Other than party affiliation itself, we don’t appear to have a device of that sort at the moment. It might be wise for wealthy men, who sank a lot of their money into insuring the victory of Mr. Romney, to shift their contributions now to research on a dumb/smart separator, and to do it fast enough that the device could be patented before November of 2016, and thus block more appalling results.

I also saw a suggestion that we should separate the western states, and the upper mid-western states, and the northeastern states from the real America and palm them off on Canada. I’m unsure how the Canadians would feel about that, but I suppose if that’s what America really decided they would have to acquiesce. I drew an outline of the new country (or as you might say, the old country augmented), and though all its parts were contiguous, the shape was a little bizarre, kind of like a severely swaybacked table (or cow). But, then, there’s nothing to say that the shape of a country defines its nature. I was wondering if someone would need to build an impenetrable barrier along the new border, and whether there might come to be a problem of people trying to cross from the southern side to the north. But since none of those people would be white men, it wouldn’t much matter.

It’s clear that the outcome of a national election sets off immense and subtle speculation. That’s as it should be and we have to be patient and allow the discourse to sift through the proposals and explanations in order to come forth with true American wisdom -- as it always does. There is something, though, we dare not wait around about, and that is the incipient civil war within Fox News. This is one of those disruptions that could actually rupture the pillars of the nation. It has to be repressed and order has to be restored. Otherwise we won’t know what’s fair and balanced, and therefore won’t be able to distinguish between good and evil, which, as everyone knows, has been the driving purpose of the United States since its inception. Other nations may be content to exist simply as attempts to provide decent life for their citizens, but America must never be allowed to subside into anything that small.


November 10, 2012

Suppose there was a fairly populous society living near a large lake which was filled with something we might call SS -- stuff of sustenance. Suppose also that the flow into the lake was fairly equal to the amount society had to pump out in order to provide healthy and comfortable life to all its members. In other words, there was enough SS but there was not an over-supply. If the society began to take out more than it needed, it would move towards the depletion of the lake and therefore towards misery and death. To do this would be insane, wouldn’t it? What possible reason could fuel such an insanity?

It would require a myth. You might call it the myth of darkness.

To maintain itself, this myth would have to posit a phony morality. It would have to preach that some sort of transcendental force conferred upon individuals the right to take as much SS as they could possibly get. And it would have to go even beyond that. It would have to proclaim that persons who did take a lot more SS than was needed for their own comfort were the superior beings of the society, the persons to be looked up to, the persons to be projected -- because of their natural talents -- into positions of leadership.

If anyone raised questions about the truth of the myth, he would be dismissed as a kook. The leaders would say that although, to short-sighted people, the flow into the lake appeared to be finite, it could actually be made infinite, and that they knew how to make it infinite. If they were asked how, they would give no specifics but revert to large abstractions, which they would claim were backed up by even larger abstractions. They would nod their heads knowingly and say they understood things lesser persons did not understand.

If anyone suggested that, just to be on the safe side, there should be laws preventing people from taking large amounts of SS out of the lake, the leaders would first scoff, and then point out that the sacred principles of society provided for the right of enormous withdrawal. Consequently, all those who wished to put the safety provisions into effect were monsters of oppression.

If an ingenious person invented a machine, that provided well for human needs, but consumed only half as much SS as previous machines had, the leaders would mount stirring campaigns to support the continued use of the old machines, including colorful, exciting television commercials which employed moving terms like God, Guts, and Glory. And if anyone were bizarre enough to plead that use of the new machine should be mandated, as a measure of public well-being, the howls of suppressed freedom would mount to the heavens.

If the lake level began to decline, at first there would be simple denial of the facts. But when the shrinkage became so obvious people could not help but acknowledge it, the leaders would explain that the lake was going down not because too much was being taken out but because not enough was. The people would be told that extraction ginned up the engines of resupply, so that the answer to the lower level was to increase the usage.

When the subsidence caused the price of SS to increase beyond what many people could pay, the leaders would tell them to tighten their belts, and that any effort to alleviate the suffering was a violation of the laws of nature (nature being one of the big abstractions the leaders had frequent recourse to) and that the best way to help the people was for them to use even more SS in order to get it out of the lake and into society. There would be the implication that having more in society, originally in the possession of the leaders, would result in some of it leaking away to persons less able than themselves, but exactly how this would take place would not be made clear.

As hopelessness about the distribution of SS took hold among certain sectors of society, a small portion of the persons there would begin to steal it or to acquire it in ways the leaders disapproved. This would result in the construction of massive prisons to hold these persons, and these institutions would themselves require large inflows of SS.

The persons who were using about ten times as much SS as was consumed by the average person, fearing unreasonable resentment, would begin to inhabit enclaves protected by complicated electronic devices and increasing numbers of security personnel. Being largely cut off from the majority of people, they would construct a view of reality sharply divergent from that held by their more numerous fellow citizens, and that perception of reality would itself demand ever greater use of SS.

As I think about it, I’m really glad this myth is merely an imaginary supposition which isn’t related to the way things are, because if it had even a tincture of reality we would be in a gigantic mess.


November 11, 2012

I have steeled myself in order to make another horrendous confession. I can’t see that David Petraeus’s leaving his job at the CIA is a tragedy. Setting aside etymological objections about the way “tragic” has been transformed into a synonym for “a little bit sadder than usual,” and accepting the watered-down journalistic version of the word, even then, I don’t think Petraeus’s departure was tragic.

He is not going to be killed, is he? Or tortured? Or compelled to stand at attention naked in a small cell? As far as I can tell he will continue to sleep in a comfortable bed, have anything to eat he wants, be able to go where he wishes and read whatever attracts his curiosity. Where’s the tragedy?

Yet, as I recall the stricken expression on Andrea Mitchell’s face as she announced the latest big scoop, I realize that what some people may be saying is that it’s a tragedy for the nation. Is that right? Will we not be able to get along without the wisdom of Petraeus guiding some essential function of our government?

I’ll grant that he’s probably in an uncomfortable personal situation which will require some decision-making for himself and his wife. They will have to determine whether his becoming enamored of a young woman who wrote a biography portraying him as a saint is a sufficient reason for them to separate from one another. I don’t doubt that will be hard, and they have my sympathy as would anyone else in that situation. But the tragedy as it has been widely discussed in the media doesn’t appear concentrated on that aspect of the story. Virtually all of it has been directed at the anguish of his no longer being the head of the CIA.

I have only the most general sense of what the CIA Director does. It seems likely he sits in rooms with other people and talks about who will be spied on, and who will be killed, and what methods and techniques will be used to do either. I realize my own distaste for that sort of activity shouldn’t be projected onto others but even if Petraeus found it delightful, surely there are other delightful experiences he can seek out. Can thinking about how to kill people be the only pleasant experience for a rational man?

There is, of course, the wrenching thought of no longer being a big deal. I understand that many people get caught up in seeing themselves that way, but having the opportunity to learn how to escape the clutches of big-dealism can scarcely be seen as truly tragic. If a person is sane he can use his new status to discover even better -- and certainly more healthy -- ways of being.

We need to think our way to the heart of this matter. The only reason I can discern for finding tragedy in Petraeus’s placement outside the core of the national security state is if we view work in that sector as some kind of sacred, soul-saving vocation. If that’s what’s going on -- which I fear it is -- then we actually are approaching something tragic, something which goes far beyond anything pertaining to David Petraeus. When an entire nation -- and a big one at that -- makes a religion of its military, and priests of its generals and top spies, it is descending into a hellish perception of life. Since I wrote just last week about my disbelief in Satan, I can’t say such veneration transforms the United States into one of his servants. But if there were a Satan of the conventional conception, he would be thrilled by the sense of awe accompanying the Petraeus story.

When Paula Broadwell, the biographer mentioned earlier, went on the Daily Show last January, Jon Stewart told her that the main question raised by her book was whether Petraeus was awesome or super-awesome. There are times when Stewart can be almost irreverent. He, however, can wrap himself in the shield of comedy. If someone other than a comedian were to say, “Look, Petraeus is a man with at best a mottled record. His initiatives haven’t been nearly as successful as they been portrayed. The public notion of them is more the result of a skillful publicity campaign than of anything else. His time at the CIA was spent trying to turn it into one more army, and it didn’t win him much respect from his colleagues, who are probably happy enough to see him go. So getting rid of him is a good thing,” if, as I say, someone were to suggest  that, he would be committing heresy, wouldn’t he? He would be in violation of the national religion. He would be hinting that generals, among whom Petraeus has been for more than a decade the most notable and famous example, are not always savior heroes to be worshipped.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could think such a thing. Go figure.


November 12, 2012

The Washington Post had an extensive article this morning by Eli Saslow about a woman from Hendersonville, Tennessee who is distraught because Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Her name is Beth Cox, and according to Saslow, there was probably no Romney supporter who was more devoted to the cause. She was indefatigable, confident, prayerful. Now she is crushed.

The purpose of the article was to proclaim that Red America is now going to be forced to rethink what it knows about the country. I don’t think it does a good job in that respect. There’s little evidence that Beth Cox is going to rethink anything.

The danger in writing about persons like Ms. Cox is that one will be seen as condescending. It may be inevitable, if you’re going to say that someone has been misled and propagandized, you will give off an air of superiority. It’s a price, though, that has to be paid because Ms. Cox and those who think as she does are important elements of the United States at the moment. They are the people who don’t understand who the leaders of the Republican Party are, or what they want to accomplish.

I was amused this morning to see a clip of Joe Scarborough waxing indignant because the major donors to the GOP had been lied to. I wanted at that moment to be on his panel so I could say, “Joe! Joe! Of course they lied. They’re Republicans.”

Scarborough doesn’t have as much excuse as Ms. Cox does for failing to understand that the entire purpose of the Republican Party is to suppress a majority of the people in this country in order to give financial advantage to a small minority. Since that’s all the GOP is about, its leaders, Karl Rove, et al, are forced to lie. If they told the truth about what they’re trying to achieve, they couldn’t win any elections.

I have less sympathy for Scarborough than I do for Beth Cox. I don’t know exactly what makes him tick. It could be he’s just not very bright. But he has had far more opportunity to observe who calls the shots among Republicans than people in Ms. Cox’s position have. She lives in a regional bubble which is more sealed off from diversity of information than any place Scarborough has inhabited lately. 

I grew up in the kind of society Beth Cox lives in now and because many of my friends and family members continue to live in that world, I keep on visiting it. So, though I can’t be perfectly sure about this, I’m fairly confident I have some sense of the assumptions which rule that society and I’m even more confident that those assumptions are almost never examined critically.

It would take many volumes to try to lay out what those assumptions are and to trace where they came from. But it’s clear that most of them rise up from the notion that certainty is what we should be seeking and what we should base our lives on, rather than on questions.

I have no evidence about the books Beth Cox reads or has read. But it wouldn’t be a bad wager to bet that she’s more familiar with Rick Warren than she is with James Joyce, or Marcel Proust, or Michel Foucault. Rick Warren, you see, will tell you exactly what’s going on whereas the others, and many like them, will confuse the hell out of you.

Without doubt, Mitt Romney is far more like Warren than he is like Foucault, and that’s why people like Beth Cox are drawn to him. Romney told her, without a hint of hesitancy, that he knew how to create jobs because he had been a businessman. He didn’t say much about the nature of his business, nor did he explain why knowing how to make money in that business would fit him for creating widespread employment. But that was okay, because there was the simple certainty that business knowledge translates into job making. And simple certainties are what Beth Cox’s society has told her are the answers to life. Evidently, she believes it with all her heart. That’s why she has trouble imagining that the world we are moving towards is astoundingly complex, and that no simple certainty can tell us how to deal with it.

I have argued, at times, that all social problems rise out of educational problems, and though that’s doubtless too much of a simple certainty, I think it continues to have some usefulness. It is education -- in its broad sense -- that fashions our assumptions. It can tell us that the purpose of learning is to find the certainties and latch on to them with all our strength. Or, it can tell us that there are no certainties and that we have to be ready to use our minds to confront whatever conditions rise up in front of us, in short, that we have to think.

There are no guarantees in thinking. We might think the wrong things. But there is a guarantee in believing we have the certainties, and that is that we will become more and more inept in dealing with complexity.

I wish I had a chance to talk with Ms. Cox about these issues. But that’s exactly our difficulty at the moment. There’s no talking with her. She is shielded from it.


November 13, 2012

Howard Fineman had an interesting comment yesterday in his article about the David Petraeus flapdoodle. Here it is:

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the comical hypocrisy of our leaders, especially
those lionized to the point of canonization by a credulous media in search of uplift.

It’s the final four words of that passage that are most fascinating: “in search of uplift.”

There must be persons besides myself who find the search for uplift, in both news broadcasts and popular melodrama, icky to a degree they feel repulsed by their televisions. Last night I watched two programs which I normally find mildly entertaining: Bones and Hawaii 50. Both were so saturated in sentimental solemnity about September 11, 2001 that the only possible sane response was either nausea or hilarity (I assume neither was intended). You can watch them if you wish, but if you do, I warn you to be ready for such anguished expression of deep emotion you’ll need to have a dishrag at hand to bite on.

Earlier, over the weekend, every sports contest I dialed up was preceded by tributes to the military that left me feeling it was a sacrilege to take in the games. I should have spent the afternoon on my knees worshipping our heroes around the world who are keeping me safe from what I don’t know but which, I am assured, is really horrendous.

I get it that people enjoy sentimentality. But it’s like candy: too much of it and you’ll end up with a roiling stomach ache. When it comes in tsunamis, like it has to us lately, you begin to wonder what’s stirring it up. Why do we need so much self-administered uplift? Why do we require being told, incessantly, practically every moment, that we’re great?

Might it be -- I tremble to hint at this possibility -- that we’re worried we’re not?

The frantic American drive to discover supermen amongst us can be seen as defense against the reality of our own pathos. General Petraeus, for example, was set up to be exactly what we are not. That’s why the revelation that he’s pretty much the same sort of comic dupe we encounter in our daily lives has sent tremors of fright through society, and especially through the popular media whose principal function is to flatter us.

Why do we need to think that general officers in the military have transcendent powers? What is it about their paths to promotion or the way the way they spend their days that leads us to confer grandeur on them? The answer is, nothing. Most people don’t know anything about how generals get to be generals, nor anything about the atmosphere in which they live. We don’t consider them great because of evidence but rather because we need them to be great, in fuzzy, ill-defined ways. Their principal function is to assure us we have a deep well of magnificence from which we can draw buckets to dump over our petty selves. That’s how we get uplifted.

Your life and my life are significant not because they’re connected in some mystical fashion with the likes of David Petraeus, but because they are our lives. They’re what we’ve got. They become worthy by our making good use of them, not by sloshing them over with something called Americanism.

The great sickness of American society at the moment is the belief that our purpose in being is to be Americans rather than being ourselves. It’s the belief that we gain our meaning by squatting in awe before someone or another -- a general, a CEO, a rock star, a bishop, a big name TV personality. That’s what the media labor incessantly to convince us of. And why? Because then we become instruments rather than persons. We sit around asking what we can do for our country rather than asking how we can make our country function for all of us. We think sacrifice of self is the most noble thing, rather than living well. We bow down rather than stand up.

I know: the evidence tells us that America is a nation of selfish pigs. But keep in mind the evidence speaks to us mainly of people who make big splashes in the newspapers. It regales us -- in both senses -- with tales about Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, and the hedge fund manager who piled up a couple billion in the last year. When’s the last time you made a big splash in the newspapers? If we were all living to be the best, and strongest, and most healthy persons we can be, regardless of what religious, or nationalistic, or economic propaganda tells us, there would be fewer clowns making splashes in the newspapers. Of course, we are addicted to them. And the first step in freeing ourselves from addiction is to face up to it.

The Petraeus tragedy, or scandal, or farce -- what ever you want to call it -- will titillate the media for another few weeks. But it’s only significance will lie in what we learn from it. Right now the signs aren’t promising.


November 15, 2012

I have a genetic deficiency. It functions to cut me off from the glories of hero worship. But as many have noted, even illness has its assets, and in this case it allows me to voice an opinion that’s forbidden to most of my fellow citizens. John McCain is perhaps the most mean-spirited twerp ever to pollute the halls of Congress.

Evidently, he can’t bear the thought of a certain historical event. The people of the United States chose Barack Obama over him to be the president of the United States. McCain is convinced that he is astoundingly superior to Obama -- without ever giving two minutes thought to what “superior” means -- and, therefore, that he has been subjected to a cosmic injustice. So he’s decided to right that injustice by spending the remainder of his existence tearing Obama down.

As he goes along he gets ever more absurd. You might think that his recent attack on Susan Rice is the silliest thing a human can do. But just wait. McCain will surpass himself even in this instance. I don’t know how he’s going to do it. But I’m confident he will. He’s very close to moving into the Pat Robertson orbit.

McCain has decided that the violence in Libya on September 11th of this year was near the top of the list of the worst things that ever happened to the United States. On TV last night he said it was more significant than Watergate and implied that it was more harmful than the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why do you suppose he’s giving it that status?

It’s true that when four people are killed it’s a sad thing and we should all regret it. But the nature of the world is such that people are being killed regularly, and the amount of attention we pay, publicly, to particular killings has almost nothing to do with the human suffering they cause. The motives for attention lie elsewhere. McCain represents a state where the number of people killed by guns every year is greater than the number killed in automobile accidents, and the rate of death in the latter, in Arizona, is 158% of the national average. I don’t recall McCain gritting his teeth in anger and announcing that something has to be done about that. Yet the annual number of violent deaths from those two causes alone in Arizona exceed American deaths in Libya by a factor of more than four hundred to one. Is McCain saying that a death he wants to focus on is more than four hundred times as important as one he wants to ignore? If he is, I’d like to hear him explain why.

All sane persons know that McCain, and his petty little sidekick Lindsey Graham, are not worried about the misery that comes from loss of life. They are concentrated on revenge -- in McCain’s case a small bit on revenge against the people who carried out the attacks in Benghazi, and to a gigantic extent on his personal revenge against Barack Obama. With respect to the latter there appears to be almost nothing McCain won’t do.

The poor man is being consumed by anger and hatred before our eyes. It’s not hard to imagine seeing his head explode during a television interview. He deserves our sympathy, I suppose. Something is eating him alive. No one should want to see that; no one should wish it to occur. Yet if we step back, for a moment, from McCain’s personal anguish, and ask ourselves about the effect of his hatred, we can only conclude that it’s toxic for American political life.

McCain’s exploding temper and vitriolic resentment wouldn’t be of much significance were it not linked to similar displays by thousands of deranged persons all across the country. The much publicized secession movement is just a surface manifestation of something deep in American life. I would feel better if the tens of thousands of signatures calling for Texas’s withdrawal actually came, as Conan O’Brien announced last night, from outside Texas. But a clever joke is not reality.

It’s naive to expect that a national election can lay to rest pathological emotions. The people who thought before November 6th that Barack Obama was a devil still feel the same way. Truth is, their passions are probably intensified by the discovery that more than half their fellow citizens don’t agree with them. The sort of hatred they are experiencing, and expressing, is a serious element of the American character. It’s one we need to face, analyze, and talk through. Where does it come from? What’s its basis? What does it tell us about ourselves?

Watching John McCain’s behavior as a new Secretary of State is chosen wouldn’t be a bad way to get started on that investigation. I hope he gets the attention he’s seeking. But I hope, even more, it will be the kind of attention he has a hard time imagining. That he probably is sincerely self-deluded by faith in his own patriotism is no reason not to want to find out what’s really happening.


November 18, 2012

Now and again I get to thinking about intelligence as it applies to public policy (I mean “intelligence” as a human attribute and not as piles of spy stuff). You would think it’s a topic that should engage people’s interest, but it’s rarely discussed. It’s a fairly common thing, actually, to rank abilities and attributes in other activities. We have no difficulty in saying that someone is a better football player than someone else, or a more skillful surgeon than the generality of surgeons. Yet, when it comes to discussing public policy, we tend to act as though differences have nothing to do with ability.

I just watched the Chris Matthews Show on NBC. The guests this morning were Dan Rather, Katty Kay, Jodi Kantor, and Sam Donaldson. It was a fairly typical quartet (or, if you include Chris himself, quintet) for appearing on a Sunday morning talk show, perhaps slightly more intelligent than average, but in the general range of what you would expect. So, I asked myself, “What level of intelligence do these people represent?”

It’s fairly obvious to me that they’re not idiots. They’re pretty well informed about the topics that appear in newspapers. They have opinions that don’t, right off, strike one as absurd. They occasionally hit a shrewd and humorous note. I guess I could say -- though about this I’m not sure -- that if they were given the job of making political decisions for the country they would do better than is being done now.

Even so, they are severely limited -- all of them.

I’m occasionally told by my friends that I take a purist attitude toward politics, that I fail to understand what it is to be in the arena, that I don’t grasp how genuine politicians have to operate if they are to be effective. I don’t know if my friends are right, or not. I think I do understand some of the things they say I don’t. When, for example, Mr. Obama intones that there are no blue states or red states, there are only the United States of America, I don’t fault him for that sort of rhetoric even though I recognize that it’s pretty much nonsense. I see that politicians have to talk in ways that would be silly among a group of thoughtful companions. What I have a harder time seeing is why politicians have to think that way. Perhaps it’s the case that what we say fashions our minds more powerfully than anyone recognizes. If you talk simple-minded trivia most of the time it may capture your intellect more completely than you ever expected.

I do know this: quality of mind is influenced by the intellectual company one keeps, including the company he gets from books and journalism. No matter how inherently bright a person may be, if he’s always surrounded by mediocrity, his mind will be pushed in that direction.

I don’t know the reading habits of my quintet from this morning, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that not one of them has read what I would call a serious book in the past year. When I think of the lives they probably lead, what actually happens to their hours, it’s hard to imagine they have either the opportunity or the inclination for thought which stretches beyond the mundane.

If throughout history we had recourse only to minds of the quality you find in television journalism -- that is minds which are considered solid, grounded, practical -- we would right now be sitting in caves communicating solely through gestures and grunts.

Over the past week, some of my friends have shared thoughts about Sheldon Wolin, a writer who not many years ago was widely mentioned as one of our more astute political theorists. Recently, Mr. Wolin has pretty much disappeared from the popular media, some say because he has now been tagged as a kind of extremist. In one of his books, Wolin brought forth the concept of “inverted totalitarianism,” meaning a system of thought control which dispenses with the widespread, physically brutal practices of past dictatorships -- the kind associated with Stalin and Hitler -- but which achieves just as thorough dominance as the older systems did. Mr. Wolin thinks such a process is moving towards hegemony in western capitalist societies.

Suppose something similar to inverted totalitarianism is beginning to dominate society in the United States. How might we try to protect ourselves against its dangers? I assume we would have to know about it, and think about it, and talk about it before we could do anything effective. But you’re sure not going to hear about it on the Chris Matthews Show.

I am arguing that there’s a difference in quality of mind between Sheldon Wolin, or George Kateb, or David Bromwich, on the one hand, and Dan Rather, or David Ignatius, or Kathleen Parker, on the other. I’d also be willing to defend the proposition that the quality is finer among the former trio than among the latter. But that’s not my main point now. Rather, I want to say that if we don’t have thought of the kind we get from Wolin, and Kateb, and Bromwich included in our public discourse, we are unlikely to alleviate our political difficulties. I don’t think saying so is too purist, or too high falutin, or too anything.

I don’t want to be snotty about the Dan Rathers of the world. They have their good points. They can be quite likable. But if I’m told that I need to accept their intellect as the maker of the society my grandchildren are going to inhabit during their adult lives, I can answer only that I’m not willing to do it.


November 24, 2012

I’ve been reading Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, and though I’m not yet a quarter way through it I’ve concluded that it’s even a more provocative book than I had anticipated. Its value lies principally in its analysis of the subtlety involved in developing the upcoming political system for America, which Wolin has decided to call “inverted totalitarianism.” His thesis is that we’re moving towards programmed political and social control that’s genuinely oppressive but which won’t be seen for what it is by most of the population. It’s not that average citizens won’t feel its effects. They will be dragged down by it. Their lives will become increasingly drab and other-directed. But they may never understand what’s doing it to them. 

Meanwhile the privileged, a tiny portion of the population, will continue to use the majority for their own rapacious purposes. 

The mechanism enabling this new system will not be, as totalitarianism has been in the past, the submission of all social activity, including the economic, to the government. It will be, instead, the submission of everything, including government, to economic power. With the government in thrall, the people will have nothing to protect themselves against the plutocratic managers. And though there will be ostensible freedom of speech, the voices that actually try to employ it will be drowned out by the propaganda blast of the emerging system.

We saw how that can work over the Thanksgiving holiday when the TV channels were filled with sentimental commercials depicting young military people in heart-gripping situations as the most noble and beloved figures of the nation. Setting such images as the face of a gigantic military/commercial network turns notice away from what the system actually does, and how much it costs. The message being delivered is, “These fine young people couldn’t possibly do anything wrong and, therefore, the organizations which bring them to you must also be grand and glorious.” A first take might view this merely as using people’s taste for smarmy emotionalism to boost a product. But it’s far more than that. In a system in which government behavior has become subordinate to corporate control, a fabled portrait of approved government behavior (that is, militarism) rises beyond a come-on, and is transformed into national meaning. All of us together must stand behind this because this is who we are, this is why we exist. The average person doesn’t perceive such messaging as manipulation. More often than not it’s accepted as a depiction of truth.

In an inverted totalitarian state, it’s the “more often than not” that matters. It doesn’t take great intellect to see what’s going on. But it does take attention, and that’s what’s generally lacking. The system pumps so much distraction at the people, through control of the commercial media, only a small portion of them manage to brush it aside. The number is sufficiently small that the system has no need to suppress their expressions of alarm. They can normally be ignored. And if, occasionally, warnings began to gain traction, there is always recourse to the traditional devices of totalitarianism. The system pretty much controls the courts, and if they don’t have to be used frequently, they can be relied on to squelch disturbing information by classifying it as a threat to national security.

Inverted totalitarianism is actually more stable for not having to rely on overt brutality, though the latter is always in reserve.

Another of Wolin’s coinages, the “power imaginary,” explains how people’s attention can be diverted from their ordinary concerns. The system concocts a set of powers which are imagined to be necessary for carrying out a supposed primary mission. In the United States now the mission is to protect the people against the depredations of terrorism. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with the required powers because they are essential to the success of the mission. If they appear to violate the Constitution, that’s regrettable, but still necessary. In fact, any sacrifice that will advance the mission is required. If the people have to give up decent roads, or an efficient electrical grid, or first rate medical care, or functional schools, in order to spend energy on the mission, they just have to do it. The mission is all, and it permits all. In actuality, the mission becomes the nation and the people are merely its servants. You know how it is: “Ask not what your country can do for you.” The power imaginary is what must be preserved.

If anyone should dare to raise questions about whether the mission is, in fact, the most important thing, he at first is met with incredulity and, then, if he persists, he can be charged with perverse interference with the mission. He thereby becomes a threat to national security, and in current parlance pretty close to being a terrorist himself. And it’s clear: no one wants to be a terrorist.

As the mission establishes itself as a religious quest, questioning of it becomes a sin. Consequently, the power imaginary is transfigured from a practical safeguard into the world’s bulwark of righteousness.

It sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But look around and ask yourself what’s going on. At the very least, we have to admit that Sheldon Wolin is a scholar who calls attention to underlying developments that are almost never mentioned on TV or in the newspapers. And they fit our current history fairly well.


November 26, 2012

There was a moderately interesting essay in the New York Times this morning by Yorham Hazony titled “An Imperfect God.” Mr. Hazony’s main point was that the idea of a perfect god is incoherent. That’s because the idea of perfection is incoherent.

Every time the idea of heaven came up when I was a boy, I would try to imagine what it would be like. I was never able to do it. Every notion I came up with was deeply flawed. The main reason all the concepts of heaven I entertained, whether I concocted them myself or got them from somewhere else, were unsatisfactory was that each one of them was deadly boring.

I should have learned something from that faster than I did.

The reason for my tardiness was that I was immersed in a culture obsessed with the idea of making things perfect. That, I was taught, was what life was about. Even if I fouled up most of the things I tried to do, I could still, I was informed, perform an act which would lead to perfection, though I wouldn’t get to enjoy it till after I was dead. It was a nonsensical assurance but I was dumb enough to believe it for a while.

According to quite a few religious thinkers, the reason we don’t bring God’s instructions to perfection here on earth is that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary. The trouble with that notion is that if our perceptions are fragmentary we can’t tell the valid elements from the erroneous ones. Pat Robertson said before the recent election that God told him Mitt Romney would be selected to be the next president of the United States. When things didn’t turn out that way, Robertson said he had misunderstood God’s message. It wasn’t that God was wrong, of course. That would be impossible. But Robertson’s interpreting mechanisms were deficient.

If we humans are stocked with equipment which can’t tell the difference between God’s lessons and other inputs, then it’s hard to see how divine direction can be employed. If an insight you are sure came from God turns out not to have come from God, where does that leave us with respect to the next godly command you receive?

The truth, sad or not, seems to be that we inhabit a world in which perfection has no reality. It’s like a miracle. We don’t have it here. So telling ourselves it exists, and that we can interact with it, will, at the least, lead to confusion and, more likely, to monstrosity.

There’s a clear link between perfection and certainty. The claim to have achieved either of them places one on the border of cruelty. If a person is perfect, or certain, then others ought to submit to him. And when others fail to submit they should be forced.

Another bad thing about perfection is it leaves us nowhere to go. Once we’re perfect, what are we going to do then? The basic defect of perfection is that it’s akin to death. It leaves us no opportunity for action. If you were perfect, any change you made would cause you to move away from perfection. It’s the same difficulty we have with the conventional notion of God. There’s no reason for him to function. It would be absurd for him to do anything. Remember, he’s complete, total, perfect.

Yorham Hazony says the Biblical depiction of God is not perfection, which is true. He wants a more plausible conception of God than that. But to the degree he suggests what that plausibility might be, he digresses to human hopes about God rather than speaking of a God independent of humanity. In fact, once you bring hope into the definition of God you come close to dispensing with him altogether.

Humans can hope for all sorts of things. We can hope to get smarter. We can hope to be less cruel. We can hope to love more fully. We can hope to reach understanding of ourselves. I don’t know how God can play into those hopes other than as the possibility of coming closer to them. I suppose you could say, “I can hope to get better and the possibility that I can is God.” But that’s not very close to the common notion of him. Also, I doubt there’s much emotional bang in substituting the word “God” for “possibility.”

People are always trying to make up new definitions of God. It’s very much like trying to write a new description of heaven. I don’t have anything against people’s trying it -- in either case. But I doubt it will take them anywhere.

The most likely thing I can figure is that now we are, with respect to God, more or less as a four-year-old is to Santa Claus. It’s a sweet thing, the four-year-old’s faith in Santa Claus. But the four-year-old will grow up and see Santa Claus in a different light. So maybe we will grow up too, and see God in a different light, perhaps as the symbol of humanity’s early striving.

In the meantime, though, my best advice is to get off the perfection kick.


November 29, 2012

The older I get, the more I realize that my stance on politics now comes most strongly from having grown up in the segregated South. I think I have, earlier on this site, noted that until I was in my late teens I never met an adult who expressed any criticism of the system of race relations that was in force in the Southern States. All my supposed mentors -- my teachers, my preachers, my parents, my relatives -- thought it was fine.

This is not to say I was raised among bad people. But it is to say that the adults of my society, with respect to a particular political condition, were extremely short-sighted. They were incapable of imagining the consequences of what they approved. And from this I learned that this is not an unusual situation. In fact, it’s more normal than otherwise. In almost every society, some portions of conventional habit are dysfunctional and yet they continue to be accepted and promoted by virtually all the respectable people. Consequently, I became convinced that conventional opinion needs to be scrutinized carefully and critically.

By the time I reached middle age, anytime I found myself in agreement with the sense of things being laid out on the evening network news, I began to be worried. It’s not that the sensibility of the network news, and, hence, of the general society, is always wrong -- or, to be more precise, shortsighted and imperceptive --but it is often off the mark in serious ways. That’s mainly because it is shaped, far more than it’s willing to acknowledge or recognize, by hidden and powerful propaganda sources.

If we consider the ruling dicta of the respectable voices in the United States today, it’s easy to see how the system functions.

  • The government of the United States works to promote democracy around the world.

  • The United States itself is a constitutional democracy, ultimately ruled by the will of the people.

  • Capitalism is, without doubt, the best system for providing people with full and happy lives.

  • People of vast wealth deserve what they have because they have earned it.

  • The people we designate as terrorists have no real grievance against the U.S. government. They do what they do simply because they’re bad, or as our officials are more likely to say, evil.

  • The degradation of the environment may be a problem but it is certainly not as important as jobs.

  • It is essential for the military forces of the United States to be not only more powerful than the military of any other nation but more powerful than any combination of possible adversaries.

  • The economic system of the United States, when it is in the hands of entrepreneurial innovators, provides a better life for the people of the United States than any other people experience.

  • The money spent by government on domestic improvement is neither as useful nor efficient as money spent by corporations (there may be a few dissenters to this view who hover on the edge of respectability).

  • In the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and its detractors, Israel is almost always right, and this is because the Israelis are good people whereas their detractors are not good people.

It’s not that the opposite of these dicta are necessarily true. But it is the case that each of them is so simplistically stated and simplistically believed in our public discourse that we are left with a distorted and seriously mistaken perception of where we stand and where our stance is leading. As long as we hold to them in the way we have been holding over the past four decades, we will not approach any significant alleviation of our difficulties.

The question of whether respectable people are capable of stepping outside their respectability in order to gain a broader view of what’s actually happening is probably the most vexing issue of politics. We may not be able to answer it. But without an answer, we won’t be able to know whether democracy has a reasonable chance of persisting. If it doesn’t, we’ll either have to find something else or let chance determine how we’re going to be managed. And if it turns out to be the latter, I don’t think we’ll like it.

As for myself, I retain enough affection for democracy that I’d like to see us try to repair it, both through electoral politics and enhanced social discourse. Maybe that’s just because I’m too unimaginative to think readily of something better. Yet, it does seem to me there are inklings of a new discourse which could elevate public understanding. If it’s going to take hold, though, conversation has to be energized outside the boundaries of respectability. That’s why I’m -- reluctantly -- willing to risk making my friends mad at me, and why I hope others will be willing to take the same risk.

My grandfather used to tell me, “Niggers can be okay people, as long as they’re kept under control.” In saying this, he was sincerely -- even ardently -- convinced he was representing the highest levels of kindliness and common sense. As I hinted above, he was not a bad man. In many ways he was a good man. But he was always eminently respectable.



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page         Word and Image of Vermont Home
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover