Collected Thoughts

December 2012
December 1, 2012

My friend Kevin Ryan has informed me that I have drifted totally outside the ranks of the very serious people. As I consider his judgment I see that I have no way, whatsoever, to refute it. This is regrettable. Yet even in the midst of agonizing over my loss of any prestige, any standing, I begin to detect whiffs of compensation.

No longer is there any reason to hide my weirdness. No longer do I have to worry about my genuine opinions getting out. No longer is there need for furtiveness. I’m already outside so there’s nothing else to lose.

I was thinking about this when another friend sent me a photograph of Lloyd Blankfein coming out of the recent meeting at the White House between the president and persons who have been designated CEOs (whenever I see those initials I can’t help wondering how many people know what they stand for).

Mr. Blankfein triggers a thought that has grown evermore compelling with me over the past couple decades: which is that anyone who spends portions of his life accumulating more money than he needs for living in decent comfort is a vulgar fool. You can see why I would, once, have wanted to keep that opinion sequestered within myself.

Here’s how I think about it. In a life of eighty-four years, which is about normal nowadays, there are 735,840 hours. It seems like quite a few, but when you begin to enumerate the things you need hours for, you perceive that all of your needs together require more hours than you have. Consequently it becomes important to spend your hours carefully, to spend them on the right things, so to speak.

I’m quick to admit that it’s hard to know exactly what the right things are. We spend quite a few hours trying to sort that out. But, surely, some of the decisions in that assessment are obvious.

Let’s say it takes 38 hours to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Then, using ballpark estimates, we can compare that accomplishment to the amount of money Mr. Blankfein acquires in the same amount of work-time, i.e., about a quarter-million dollars. . Now let’s move to a view of Mr. Blankfein on his deathbed (which we hope will not be any time soon but probably will arrive someday). Which would be better, to have read War and Peace or to have an extra $250,000 in his money pile?

I’m not interested in how Mr. Blankfein might answer this question. What I want to establish is the reasonableness of saying that anyone who would choose the quarter-million over the reading is a vulgar fool. Using language as it’s ordinarily used, I think that’s clear.

I’m not overly concerned with calling Lloyd Blankfein, or Donald Trump, or Mitt Romney, or David Cote (he’s the CEO of Honeywell), or any other of the obvious candidates vulgar fools, though I’m not shy in admitting that is indeed my opinion of them. What I want to introduce, and, perhaps, eventually help establish is a reputation for a certain sort of behavior and attitude. And why? Because that behavior, and its accompanying attitude, is laying waste to the world.

The more people there are who care about piling up money rather than experiencing the richness, diversity, and sustainability of the earth and its human culture, the faster those features of the earth will be destroyed. I want them around for my grandchildren to enjoy, and their grandchildren too. One can say, of course, that Blankfein, et al, want the money so they can experience what the earth has to offer. But the evidence doesn’t support that contention. They want it because of a mental addiction, and out of extreme bad taste. They want it because their minds are so cheap they believe money establishes and testifies to human worth. They want it, ultimately, because they are too stupid to know what counts.

You could say that’s just my opinion, and if you did, you would certainly be right.

It’s not, however, just my opinion that if a certain behavior begins to be scorned and held in contempt, the instances of it will become less frequent. All human history tells us that what’s prized is sought and what seems pathetic is avoided (and this despite humanity’s overall, and seemingly ineradicable, insanity about sexuality).

I want Lloyd Blankfein to be seen as pathetic. I want people to feel sorry for him rather than envying him. I want people to giggle whenever he walks into a room. And this, I hope, is not because I’m cruel, but because I want what he stands for to vanish from the earth. I wouldn’t even mind if Lloyd Blankfein, himself, escaped his condition.

You can say that’s never going to happen, that getting into Blankfein’s position is what humans have wanted ever since there have been humans. But I don’t care. Wanting and working for what’s never been the case is the privilege of those who have been shoved beyond the boundaries of the serious and the somber.

December 3, 2012

Yesterday I got on an airplane in Burlington, Vermont and made my way to Los Angeles. Like any day I spend in airport world, I disliked it. Airport world is the worst of American culture, or, at least, the worst I have experienced. Everything is overpriced. The food is bad. The officials you generally encounter are rude. The accommodations on the planes themselves are uncomfortable. And the language you hear blasted at you incessantly from loudspeakers is ghastly.

Going through the security line in Burlington, I committed the hideous sin of touching my own head. I hadn’t known before that it was a sin. Certainly no one from the TSA had told me. But as a result of doing it, I was pulled from the line, made to stand on a bad person’s pad, subjected to minute physical inspection, and glared at by a man whom I shortly came to regard as a sadistic cretin. As a result I started my trip in an even worse mood than I do generally.

On the flight from O’Hare in Chicago, a film I wanted to see was played. I was invited to plug earphones into the unit on my armrest. But when I tried, I discovered that the receptacle for the headphone plug-in had been gouged out of its section, so there was nothing there for me to plug in to. I watched the film nonetheless, about a boy with green leaves growing out of his legs who showed up mysteriously one night at a young couples’ house and stayed with them for the remainder of summer, and then disappeared mysteriously again. It seemed like a pretty good movie but I have no idea whether what I got from it comported with what the dialogue might have suggested.

The plane from Chicago to Los Angeles was said to have 183 seats to service 181 customers. I had an aisle seat about two-thirds of the way back, and the man assigned to the window seat in the same row came in shortly after I sat down. Then, for a long time, no one else arrived. I began to think I might be next to one of the two empty seats on the plane. But then, just as the doors were closing, a large man in wheelchair was hustled down the aisle and dumped, rather unceremoniously I thought, into the center seat beside me. The ride for him turned out to be torturous. He couldn’t move his legs at all and they were clearly uncomfortable during the four and a half hours we were on the plane. There were many other seats on the plane where a person in his condition could have sat more easily. You might think the airline would have reserved one of them for him, rather than putting him near the rear of the cabin. But no. I suppose the great God Capitalism must be served in any instance.

Anyway, we made it to Los Angeles and got away from the airport in a van which took us to the JW Marriott Hotel in the section of the city called “L.A. Live.” Though the van was crowded and the seat was uncomfortable, I was grateful for it because it extricated me from airport world.  The JW Marriott, as I’m sure all sophisticates know, is not just any old Marriott but one designed for elite customers. There are just twenty-one of them in North America. Arriving there, I discover that:

No two places on earth are exactly alike, and neither are any two JW Marriott
luxury hotels. Each offers understated elegance that perfectly reflects (not just
reflects, but perfectly reflects) the authentic art, architecture and cuisine of its
locale. That’s what makes every stay unique.

Somebody actually wrote that, which if not unique, is astoundingly bizarre.

When we tried to go to our room on the 11th floor, we were told by an ominous voice coming from some place in the elevator that we had requested a floor that was restricted. Other people on the elevator tried go other floors and were told, also, that they were restricted. So we all trooped off that elevator and tried another one, which took us all to where we wanted to go, restricted or not. 

In the room, it required only a quarter hour, or so, to discover how the light switches worked. But then I reflected that this is a luxury hotel, so I shouldn’t expect just any old ordinary light switch.

I have to admit that our bathroom, though I can’t see that it perfectly reflects anything about Los Angeles, is quite pleasant.

It’s an amazing thing, I guess, to be able to go from one corner of United States to another in a single day. Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect it could be done without discomfort or confusion or humiliation. The JW Marriott publication in my room (on the 11th floor), which is said to be “the magazine of passionate pursuits,” has an answer for the disadvantages of traveling as I did yesterday. An article quotes Leonardo as saying that once you have tasted flight you’ll forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward.  Then it continues, advising that, “This is especially true on a private charted plane where the onboard experience is as important as getting there.”

Damn! Why didn’t I think of that? Next time, that’s probably the way to go.

December 4, 2012

Political philosophy is a vexing pursuit. I suppose that’s because it deals with units no one can understand, that is, individual persons. What do they want? What do they care about? What do they mean when they use terms like high and low, valuable and despicable, wise and foolish? No one knows for sure.

One of our problems in the past is that many have claimed they do know, and on the basis of that knowledge they have the right to tell others what to do. But no matter how abstruse and complex their supposed knowledge, it is all based in dubious supposition. There have been many who argue that the “people” are not sophisticated enough to know what’s good for them. If they are left to their own devices they will foul things up stupendously. But who are these persons who are not part of the people and thereby understand things the people don’t? I have lived a good while on the earth and I have not yet met them.

If there could be such a thing as a genuine democratic election, when each voter consulted his own desires and his own sense of right and wrong before he cast his vote, maybe the will of the people could provide the system democratic enthusiasts have cheered. But it seems clear there cannot be an actually free and open election. The forces of propaganda are too subtle, too entrenched and too ruthless to permit anything of that sort. At best we can have only a poor imitation of that process. And perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.

One thing is sure. The elites who in the past have posed as disinterested managers of public well-being have been faking it. There may be, occasionally, a genuinely disinterested person. There can be no such thing as a disinterested group. The definition of group forbids it.

Any class of public servants is out for itself first. This is true even if its members don’t know it.

Yet, we do have to manage our public affairs. So how is it to be done?

The best I can imagine at the moment is a system in which everybody has a real chance to refute everyone else. That would require two possessions: the ability to refute and the means of bringing one’s refutation to public notice. Right now both of them are in limited supply.

Deficiency in the first comes from bad education. I continue to be amazed by how often people who have spent a great deal of time in reputable educational institutions will fall for pathetic arguments. They have not learned what an ancient professor at Oxford said was the university’s prime mission: to teach the boys to know when someone is talking rot. We see this inability most notably in the acceptance by intelligent people of weak polemicists put forward by the mainstream media. I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that David Brooks is a smart guy. How this phony propagandist maintains his reputation for intelligence is a phenomenon I can’t grasp. Read his column in this morning’s New York Times to see what I mean. It’s a dreadful example of an argument based on how politics can be righted by persuading a major party to refurbish its weakened position by pursuing policies it has no intention of promoting. Why on earth would they do that? And, yet, I’m sure there will be thousands who will read the piece and say, “This is a sensible centrist position.” As long as our public gurus are people like David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will, active and healthy refutation is unlikely to take place.

The second necessary possession is even more difficult than the first. What means do we have that will allow active intelligent discourse to weed out fallacious and dishonest arguments? The internet is a start and I have hopes for it. But it’s far from enough. The people have to change their habits if sensible and healthy public behavior is going to become more normal. They have to take up, as an ordinary part of life, pursued by all competent adults, a vigorous conversation about how we should behave collectively, in which each participant is required by his conversational partners to come clean about the kind of society he wishes to inhabit. In short, hypocrisy has to be flushed out. People have to teach each other about where each person’s preferences lead.

There are no guarantees that would produce a glorious society. But it might give us a chance to move closer to one. It would certainly be better than what we have now, when the average person has little idea of what he means by what he says, and even less of what his preferences would produce if they were activated.

Is this just pie in the sky theorizing? Maybe. But unless we take some steps towards a better informed democracy, some elite, or other, will take us over. And if you’re not part of it, get ready to live on the drippings, material and otherwise, they see fit to grant you.

December 6, 2012

Yesterday I went to the LA Auto Show. It’s in my neighborhood, and I was taking a walk after my morning bagel at Starbucks, so I said to myself, “Why not?”

Truth is, I was more curious about the interior of the Los Angeles Convention Center than I was about the cars inside. I had already walked through the Center parking garage and seen more cars than a reasonable person could ever wish to see. But I knew the cars inside would be more shiny than the ones in the garage, and the shiny-ness of the whole thing plus my desire to walk around inside the building was enough to entice me to lay out eight dollars (the old folks’ price).

The Lincolns were the first set of cars I happened to come on. I spent a few minutes inspecting a Lincoln MKS, which, outfitted as this one was, cost $58,860. It mystified me. I could discover nothing about it to prompt a person to pay more than twice as much for it as one would need to pay for a car that in all respects seemed just as serviceable. The only word for it that came to me was “cumbersome.” Yet I don’t suppose Lincoln would make it if there weren’t a market for it.

I walked around for about an hour and a half looking at lots of shiny cars. Now and again I would come on a circular platform -- with a sign warning me not to get on it -- which displayed a trim young woman with a microphone talking about some car or another. One of these ladies was named “Tiffany.” That made me happy. At one point I found a curved stage -- I think it was in the Cadillac section, but I’m not sure -- where five young women were dancing to music being beamed out from the background.  They weren’t dressed in dancing outfits but not in ordinary clothes either. It was more like a fashion show. I watched their faces and they displayed no happiness. I went away feeling sorry for them and hoping they got good salaries for the dancing. I was not able to tell what the dancing had to do with the cars.

The one promotion I saw that was moderately interesting was in the Toyota section. There a man on a circular platform was standing beside a car painted with a color so new it doesn’t yet have a name (I learned that later). This was Toyota’s car of the future, not a car that’s for sale anywhere. As the man adroitly pointed out it has no door handles. If you want to get into it, you simply press your finger inside a small circle on the door, whereupon it doesn’t merely open; it “floats” open. The floating was demonstrated. Furthermore, it has no mirrors anywhere. Cameras give the driver a view of everything around him, and allow him to see behind him far more clearly than if he rolled down the window and stuck his head out. Someone in the crowd noted that he couldn’t see any windshield wipers. The Toyota man explained that there are windshield wipers which are hidden somewhere, but that you wouldn’t usually need to use them even in the heaviest rain. That’s because the whole car is coated with a hydrophobic shield which causes water to bead up and then fly away almost immediately. There were other features also which I can’t remember. The Toyota man gave away small prizes to anyone who had a Toyota key. I reached for mine, but then remembered that I don’t carry it with me in Los Angeles because my Prius is in Vermont. So, I got no prize.

The buildings housing the cars were stupendous but not lovely. Along wide connecting corridors which seem to go on forever, there are an immense number of concession stands at which you can purchase a wide variety of food, most of it less than nutritious. One of the useful things about the show is that in order to visit all the “halls” and walk around in them, you can get more than a day’s exercise. I felt almost trim as I emerged.

At the exit, a young lady with an ink pad offered to stamp my hand so I could return later in the day if I wished. But I decided I would be unlikely to do that, so I thanked her and declined.

Before I went into the show, I strolled all around the Convention Center, and was greeted by literally hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of signs promising that if I did go in I would have a “world class experience.” Not being sure that I had had a world class experience before I concluded I had better take the advantage (I don’t think we have world class experiences in Vermont). I guess it must have been a world class experience (who am I to say no?) but, all in all, I think I can get by without experiences of that character, which was a good thing to learn. Still, it wasn’t terrible. I’m even more sure now than I was before that I won’t be shopping for a Lincoln.

December 9, 2012

If I were younger, had more energy, and were smart, I think I would dedicate my life to reforming the language of politics. I’m convinced that as long as we continue to talk about our public affairs in the dopey ways we use now, we are not likely to improve governmental behavior. 

The latest locution bugging me, one the president employs incessantly, is “asking the wealthy to pay a little bit more.” We are not “asking” anyone to pay more; we are engaged in setting tax rates that will make for a healthy society and not be punitive on anyone. The I.R.S., after all, doesn’t ask people to give it money. It demands it, with the threat of imprisonment for anyone who tries to escape the legal rates. Why should politicians wax silly in speaking of this?

Republicans continue to use the term “small businesses” for financial enterprises which turn over tens of millions of dollars a year. At one point during the recent campaign I heard Bain Capital described as a small business. We should reach a collective agreement that when anyone applies the words “small business” to an operation making an annual profit of more than a $100,000, he should be instantly met with derisive laughter. The notion that any family “needs” more than a hundred thousand dollars a year is both absurd and destructive. Many families, of course, have more than that and most of them spend the excess in foolish and environmentally harmful ways. I’m not suggesting there should be laws against that sort of living, but as long as wealthy operatives are spoken of as “small businessmen” we will be held back from moving towards modes of life that will provide for sustainable decency so far as material goods are concerned. Furthermore, young people will be subjected to scorn because they decide to use the days of their lives in pursuits which don’t generate vast piles of money. We could certainly benefit from a larger portion of the population willing to live modestly in return for the freedom of non-money-dominated time. The things we do when not much money is involved are far more significant than big financial transactions. The larger portion of our population which cultivates the former, the better country we will have

The use of “national security” is almost always designed to allow government officials to get away with behavior which is constitutionally suspect and to use tax dollars wastefully for the purpose of enriching so-called defense contractors. It has virtually nothing to do with the safety of American citizens. Were it regularly responded to as what it actually is, we would find it far easier to allocate public funds reasonably and to avoid being hoodwinked. It’s a term that should be relegated to satire, and seldom be heard outside of late night TV shows.

The argument over whether “social issues” should be included in political debate has become not only meaningless but dreary. What is a social issue, anyway? Does it always have something to do with the existence or non-existence of God, and what his opinions are about how we should interact with one another? If that’s it, then politics need not address it.
Politicians can leave God’s policies to God’s devices.

Perhaps the most foolish argument of all is whether “entitlements” should be trimmed. Where did that ghastly word come from?  It implies something nasty, about people getting stuff they don’t deserve, and don’t really need. If each of the programs grouped under that label were discussed on the basis of what they’re supposed to provide, and how they can be sensibly financed, and how vital they are to the persons eligible for them we might begin to rate them in accordance with the contribution they make to society overall. And that’s how each one of them should be discussed. The only reason to group them under one name is to engage in demagoguery.

Finally, I come to the great nausea-maker: blabbing about “class.” How many times in the past election season did we hear the claim that a politician was devoted to the welfare of the Middle Class? Surely enough to make us all sick at our stomachs. Why should a politician be caught up in boosting one class rather than another? Government is not about class; it is about citizens. Every citizen has certain basic needs regardless of his or her income, and it is these needs government should address. Everybody needs adequate food, a comfortable, clean place to sleep, a non-toxic environment, medical care when sickness strikes, an infrastructure which permits going about one’s daily affairs. If government works to make sure these are available to everyone, it can leave class warfare to the classes. Rich guys can sneer at the sartorial tastes of people who buy their clothes at Wal Mart all they want, so long as those peasants have their human needs met. And the rest of us, who are neither plutocrats nor peasants, can pay attention to such nonsense as much as we wish.

These are simply a few of the rhetorical habits polluting our public discourse. But I hope they make my point. If we can start talking directly about what government can and should do, we can dissipate the hot air strangling public conversation. We can smoke out agents who are serving not the public but special interests. We can stop squandering our common resources. We might even begin to step away from our rising reputation as a nation of fatheads.

December 17, 2012

I haven’t written here for several days because public events have been so unsettling I’ve scarcely known what to think, much less having anything coherent to say.

The murder of twenty-six people at a school in Connecticut is, of course, the most obvious element of this sense of confusion, but as I’ve tried to think about it I’ve realized that it fits into a pattern of developing revelation that’s even more disturbing -- if that’s possible -- than the slaughter of first graders.

If I had to label this revelation succinctly, I would have to call it: “Facing the fact we don’t live in the country we have told ourselves we do.”

I suppose I should preface continuing remarks with the acknowledgement that most of the residents of the United States are generally kind-hearted and reasonably generous people. But that doesn’t tell us much about the character of the nation we inhabit. It certainly doesn’t speak to the adequacy of Americans as democratic citizens.

If we start with the recent horror in Newtown we have to link it to the truth that Americans own more guns than the people of any other nation do. Furthermore, guns are objects of more fervent worship here than anywhere else. Why is that? What does it tell us about ourselves? Guns, after all, have a distinctive purpose. Though other tools can be used to harm people, they are not made for the purpose of killing. Guns are made for the purpose of killing.

I’ll admit that I don’t know whether more careful regulation of gun purchases would substantially reduce the number of deaths caused by guns. I suspect it would but I can’t be sure. The nation is so awash in guns that even if we were to ban the manufacture of new ones for a decade there would still be plenty left to carry out thousands of murders. The problem is not alone the existence of guns; it is more how we think about guns. We see them as tools for resolving problems.
Given how weapons are used by the most powerful and respectable people of the nation is it any wonder that emotionally disturbed persons would regard them as answers to their difficulties?

Probably the most prominent lesson preached by the nation’s moral arbiters is that guns (and comparable instruments) are more essential for the things we care about than anything else. I, myself, see that as mass insanity but I can’t deny that it is the settled opinion of my country. And that, in turn, takes me back to what my country is, actually, and not to the self-congratulatory myths we spin about ourselves.

I realize it’s probably inevitable for any group to tell itself, “We’re better than other people.” But I also realize it’s possible for that sentiment to take on such a maniacal character that the group can believe it’s justified in doing anything it chooses to other people. I’m afraid we’re just about at that state in America now. It is the application of that belief that’s primarily responsible for the behavior we saw in Newtown last Friday. Other nations have emotionally disturbed people, filled with anger, bitterness and resentment. But in no other nation do such persons use guns and go on mass-killing sprees as often as they do here. Why is that?

We say that we’re grief-stricken by the murder of twenty children. But are we? Are we grief-stricken enough to face ourselves and ask ourselves hard questions? Or will we just muddle along, reflexively telling ourselves that we’re obviously the greatest people who have ever lived, and writing off horrors as aberrations even though they occur regularly?

Of all the hopes I have for my country and the people of my country, the strongest is that we will come to see ourselves as human beings, no more, no less.

Yet if anything in that direction is going to happen, questions have to be addressed.

Why do we have to have more nuclear weapons than anybody else? In fact. why do we have to have nuclear weapons at all?

Why do we have to maintain more than seven hundred military bases all around the world when no other nation has anything approaching that number?

Why do we spend vastly more on military stuff than any other nation, many times the amount spent by nations with a greater number of people than we have?

Why do we regard as sacred an element of our constitution passed in the 18th century for reasons that were not in any way comparable to the reasons that people profess to worship that constitutional provision today?

Why do we have a murder rate many times the level of the rate in any other Western Democracy?

Why do we, supposedly the bastion of freedom, hold more people in prison than any other nation does, some of them imprisoned for decades for misdeeds that are scarcely crimes at all? Why, in short, are we so wildly punitive-minded?

Why over the past half-century have we launched far more military invasions of other countries than any other nation?

These questions are all related -- I think intimately -- with why last Friday there were the dead bodies of small children spread on the floor of two schoolrooms in Connecticut.

I confess, I can’t get the imagined picture of those bodies out of my mind.

December 18, 2012

How can there be minds as freakish as those of James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, and Bryan Fischer? Over the past few days all three have suggested that children at the school in Newtown were murdered because God removed his protection from them and thereby caused them to die. And why did he do this? It was because Americans are not being sufficiently attentive to him. Leaving aside the question of whether there is any such thing as God exercising agency in the world, what kind of monstrous egotism would it take to allow the killing of children because it is not being soothed by peoples’ adoration?

The egotism at work here is not God’s. It’s that of men who claim to be his representatives on earth and thereby acquire the authority to speak for him. You would think God could speak for himself without having to employ Mike Huckabee -- that is if God is a speaking being.

The pious belief in American respectability is that it’s not permissible to criticize religious belief. If someone were to approve of the slaughter of children, we could criticize that. But we can’t criticize approval of a divine agency who causes or allows -- actually identical actions -- the killing.

The reason we can’t is that we can’t acknowledge that people have gods of their own making -- or of their own adoption. After all, there are all sorts of gods in the tales of the world. You pick the one you like, or you supinely go along with the one your mother and daddy liked, because they went along with the one their parents liked. But however people get their gods, there is human responsibility in the choice. Each man, each woman is responsible for the god he or she worships. If one is not responsible for that then the whole idea of responsibility is out the window.

Consequently, your god -- as far as others can be concerned -- is not something outside yourself. It is rather the essence of yourself. So when Mike Huckabee’s god withdraws his protection from first graders in their classroom and allows them to be riddled with bullets, we know who Mike Huckabee is. As Steve Benen noted on the Rachel Maddow web site day before yesterday, Huckabee isn’t a nice guy.

I suppose such a judgment could be seen as a compliment. It implies, after all, that Huckabee exercises his mind in a way that can be called thinking. God only knows whether that’s true. But the issue when we encounter such proclamations as the ones proceeding from Huckabee, Dobson, Fischer and their like over the past few days is not their mental health but ours. How should we respond to their notions of divinity?

I suppose everyone has to make up his own mind about that. I’ll admit that my first response involves some anger but that fades away pretty quickly. There’s no profit in being mad at Mike Huckabee. Scorn takes a bit longer to dissipate but it too goes away in a few hours. Then what’s left? Sympathy? I wish I could claim to be sympathetic with Mike Huckabee over his sad condition of mind but if I did I wouldn’t be honest. What’s left is an object of study and the need to address the reality of a certain frame of mind. What do we do about it?

The first thing, it seems to me, is not to pussy-foot. There’s too much embarrassed timidity in America. You don’t have to scream, or get red in the face, to say firmly that a statement makes no sense to you. And that’s what you should say when something makes no sense. A lot of bizarre sentiment circulates in America, and draws people into its orbit, simply because we, collectively, lack the gumption to describe it for what it is.

The set of mental attributes Mike Huckabee calls his faith are a stew of arrogance, irrationality, and bigotry. It doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously other than as a pathology. It’s entirely possible to say politely, and even cheerfully, “Mike you have packed yourself with nonsense and you, along with the rest of us, would be better off and more decent human beings if you would get rid of it.” That’s close to what I would actually say to him if I were ever in his presence and he started pontificating at me about his God and his faith and so forth.

Would it do any good? I don’t know. Would he get mad at first? Probably. But so what? I think I do know this: when people are told in a moderate tone that what they are expressing is foolishness, it activates their minds in ways that are different from most other responses. I know that's the way it works with me.

I can’t see that activating Mike Huckabee’ mind, or James Dobson’s, or Bryan Fischer’s would be a bad thing. It couldn’t make their thoughts any worse than they are already. And it might just generate some improvement. Any kind of genuine activity should be an advancement over the torpor they describe as faith.

December 19, 2012

About six months ago, I conceived the project of writing something extensive -- maybe even book-length -- about sanity. I haven’t made much progress so far. But the idea continues to tickle my brain.

The first task in discussing an abstraction is to determine if it relates to anything real. In this case, the question becomes, “Is there any such thing as sanity.” It’s not an easy question. I confess, I’m not yet sure how to answer it. Still, for some reason, I continue to suspect that that the word “sanity” does point to a collection of attitudes and practices that can be coherently grouped and that, taken together, are our best hope for a healthy life. If my suspicion is valid then it is possible to be sane.

Our first big problem, of course, in trying to think about a topic like sanity is that each of us is trapped within his or her own brain -- or at least within a perceiving apparatus, however it’s constituted physiologically. This means we can know or understand only what our makeup allows us to know or understand. And this is a grievous handicap. Yet it’s one we can’t lay aside -- or, at least, I can’t think of how we could do it.

It’s entirely possible for one person to say to another, “That may be sane to you but it’s not sane to me.” Such a statement implies that sanity is just a matter of opinion. If that’s the case, it’s not a very useful concept; it’s just another way for a person to assert his preferences. I hope it’s more than that, and if I can force myself to write the sort of thing I had in mind, I will have to offer a hypothesis about how sanity can transcend opinion.

In America at the moment there is a widespread discussion about Adam Lanza and what went wrong with him. There’s hardly any doubt among the general public that something did go wrong, and that whatever it was, it pushed Lanza outside the boundaries of sanity. I wish that judgment could withstand careful examination but I’m afraid it can’t. I, obviously, have no idea what was going on in Lanza’s thoughts when he performed the acts that horrified the nation. But it’s not hard to imagine rational motives behind what he did. Quite a few respected philosophers, after examining human history and the nature of the universe, have concluded that human life is a cruel condition, so that the sooner it is ended, the better. I doubt that notion was in control of Lanza, but it might have been. And if it was we would have to say not that he was insane but that he held an opinion widely, and hideously, at variance with the sensibilities of most people.

I confess, I would like to see the evolving etymology of “sanity” push the word’s definition towards a linkage with the sanctity of human life. If I am able to pursue my ambition, I’ll work to glue “sanity” together with that expression of worth. But I have to face the truth that “sanity” and “the sanctity of life” are not yet bonded. If they were, we would have far different political policies in effect than we do at the moment. In the United States right now, the group of people most admired, and considered the most stable and honorable portion of our population, are those who spend their careers studying how to take life away.

At this stage in my halting thought I assume that sanity is something that cannot be discovered through scientific investigation but rather something that has to be created through human discourse. We have some elemental strands of its makeup but they certainly are not yet firmly woven together. The sanity that we might come to embrace, a whole and cohesive thing, would honor its vestigial beginnings but would have to be a richer and more complex compilation than anything we have now. That means the study of sanity must be both a historical examination of meanings and a creative effort to imagine what will cause life to flourish. At the very least it will have to escape from being considered staid, prosaic, and boring and reach out towards all the emotions that give life vibrancy. Yet, at the same time, it will need to be nauseated by pure cruelty and destruction.

I’m aware some people believe that cruelty and vibrancy are necessarily connected. There’s a lot of talk in the world about breaking eggs to make omelets, and so forth. I think I understand what such voices are proclaiming, but I can’t say I find them thoroughly sane, even at this point of my immature grasp of sanity and what it might become.

I very much like the idea of it. I want it to evolve towards what I think it can be. I’m not sure it will, of course. That will depend on who we choose to be and how we choose to behave. I’m also aware that’s there’s a big belief that we can’t choose, that our destiny is written in the stars. That’s a topic for another day, but I’ll end by saying I don’t think it’s completely sane either.

December 21, 2012

Once, in the distant past, when I was a candidate for the presidency of a small college I was interviewed by the selection committee in the conference room of a large airport hotel. I mention the setting because I understand now that its sterile ambiance provided a perfect accompaniment for what took place there.

Early in the meeting one of the interviewers, a member of the board of trustees, asked me what was the main thing a college should try to do for its students. I answered that it should give them a start towards grasping the appeals and dangers of the three approaches to life they would encounter, and which would be likely to shape who they would become. The obvious follow-up was what those approaches are, and I answered, classicism, romanticism and modernism.

That was clearly a bad thing to say so far as the success of my candidacy was concerned, and I knew it was at the moment. Yet I was still in that youthful condition that would, occasionally, prompt me to say what I thought rather than to speak prudently. The committee members were irritated because they were seeking a president who would tell the students what they should think and what they should value, which was, of course, identical to what the committee, itself, viewed as proper thinking and righteousness. It was a providential moment for me. It relieved me of the threat of being projected into a position that would have been an unmitigated personal disaster.

In the brief conversation following my mistake, I tried to explain my sense that no single one of these approaches was likely to undergird a sound or intelligent life but that each of them had elements which needed to be blended into a life of that kind. In my fumbling, inept way, I was trying to argue that education is a process of choosing among the attitudes, tastes, and actions that are pushed at us by our surroundings, and, then, having chosen, attempting to shape them into something not only coherent but, to some degree, graceful. It’s not an easy thing to do. I told the committee we should help the students understand it wasn’t easy.

Here we are, some decades later. I have moved away from some of what I thought then, but I have pretty well held onto the concept that education is a perpetual process of seeking the healthy blend. I see now that each of us will always be farther away from it than I perceived then, but I still think we have the ability move closer, that is if we’ll try. Nobody is hopeless but many are discouraging.

It seems to be the case that over the past three decades, our nation has moved away from strong standards of education rather than towards them. We clearly now have an unbalanced, poorly blended political establishment. There has been a rise, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, of the Manichaean notion that there can be no such thing as good for all. Rather, we have numerous voices proclaiming that we have to live in a perpetual state of war in which our good is protected always by smashing someone. This is fundamentally a romantic notion in which heroes rise up to smite the enemy, and where anyone who does smite the enemy is automatically transformed into a hero. If we had had a population aware of how, and when, romanticism is appropriate -- in situations, where individual feelings are paramount -- we would not have fallen into the absurdity of viewing a man like George Bush as a hero, nor would have permitted him and his circle -- in this case, his circle was probably more responsible than he was himself -- to lead us into disastrous behavior which will require decades to repair.

President Bush did not have a balanced view of life, or of public policy, because he was poorly educated. He lacked the ability to seek out the appropriate thought process for a particular situation. That was doubtless because certain important thought processes never occurred to him. He was never encouraged to encounter them. Almost every time he opened his mouth, he professed his ignorance.

We stumble along beguiled by the childish notion that something we call “good-heartedness” is all that’s necessary to make sensible decisions. So when we are presented with a person who appears to be good-hearted we are willing to go along, at least for a while, because we think that a guy we wouldn’t mind having a beer with -- as Chris Matthews used to put it -- couldn’t do anything really terrible.

I’m not using George Bush as an example of the rampages of ignorance and poor thinking because I see him as the worst case to be found. He’s clearly not. I use him because he’s fresh in the public’s mind and the consequences of his intellectual condition are still very much with us.

What I’m trying to argue here is that education does make a difference. It’s not the only characteristic that counts. Temperament matters too. But without the ability to recognize the principle approaches of life revealed to us by history, and to know something of how they work and how they fail, decision-making will be seriously flawed.

This is why it’s important to stop describing education as something it’s not -- the ability to make money, for example -- and to see that a start on genuine education is nothing more than a start. Those were the two points I thought anyone who aspired to head a college should keep in mind. It was naive to assume that a selection committee would react favorably to those thoughts, but as I think back, I doubt that I could have avoided revealing my loyalty to them.

P.S. for Christmas Eve
I note that Wayne La Pierre has said that those who think it’s crazy to have more guns in schools, should call him crazy. I want to accommodate Mr. Pierre. I consider him to be one of the looniest public figures we’ve ever had. But the degree of his nuttiness is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the how and the why of it.  Those are the questions I hope will motivate our discussion of the gun-related murders in the United States.

December 26, 2012

Recently several things I’ve read and several TV shows I watched have reminded me of that perennial question: how much lying do we need from the functionaries of our government? My answer continues to be: a good deal less than we get.

Winston Churchill is often quoted to the effect that truth requires a bodyguard of lies. I’m not sure I know what he meant by that nor am I sure he knew (he is regularly given credit for being more intellectually acute than I suspect he was). But the most charitable interpretation to be placed on it is that governments which are essentially honest and open have to deceive their enemies now and then by telling fibs to protect their society and their people. We, of course, don’t want to let our enemies know what we’re up to, except in those rare cases when we do.

I once had a security clearance, which meant that I was regularly escorted into a room and reminded how important it was that I never spoke of the secrets I knew, other than in the presence of authorized persons who had “a need to know.” Most of the time I merely transcribed these secrets from one document to another, and was never tempted to speak of them because they were so boring nobody would be interested. The men who sternly warned me not to reveal secrets to anybody were very sincere and the least intelligent persons I ever met. Their mental stature provided me - perhaps erroneously, but I doubt it -- with the assessment of the sagacity of security agencies, from top to bottom, that I have held ever since. To be blunt, I don’t think security people have good sense, but that’s just an opinion.

They tend to be obsessed by infinite threats, which the nature of the world does not permit. In that obsession, they do much harm. They are not strongly averse to killing people in their service to it, and, in fact, they do kill people, steadily.

I’m peculiar in that I don’t like killing. It takes away things that can’t be replaced. It’s also extremely irritating to those who are emotionally affected by it, and can lead to thoughts of revenge. I suppose that’s why governments sometimes want to hide the killing they carry out, though the possibility of political advantage will always cause them to brag about it.

Genuine security issues, however, account for only a small portion of the lying that governments do. Most of it is done for two reasons, which often overlap.

The first is that officials lie to benefit themselves rather than the nation. You can say this occurs in all organizations and isn’t limited to government. That’s true, but it seems to be the case that government provides a more fertile field for lying than almost any other activity. This is why an intelligent public will assume that much of what they hear from the government is false, or, at least, strongly twisted, and will always demand incontrovertible evidence to back up government assertions. We don’t have a public of that character now, and that’s why our political affairs are severely cankered. Much of the public, including the journalistic community, will believe anything the government tells them, and will believe it without reservation if it fits their inclinations and is accompanied by flattery.

The second main reason for governmental lying, which may be just as potent as desire for personal advantage, is a kind of arrogance which asserts that those versed in government have an understanding the common people can’t approach. The people have to be lied to for their own good is the way this argument goes. It is often wrapped in fancy philosophy, so-called Platonic wisdom, which may, or may not, be actually related to the writings of Plato. Over the past couple decades in the United States most of this sort of palaver has been connected with the influence of so-called Straussians within the government. There’s a gigantic fuss in narrow but influential circles about whether the persons called Straussians are actually disciples of Leo Strauss, or even understand what he was trying to teach during his years at the University of Chicago (1949-1969). Mr. Strauss has been dead for almost forty years, but the question of his heritage is not only alive, it is vibrant.

Strauss is regularly accused of being an advocate of Plato’s “Noble Lie,” that is a tale told to the people for their own good which they are too-dull-minded to pursue without being deceived. Consequently, the Straussians are perceived as being decidedly anti-democratic, a charge which most of them deny (a stance one would adopt if he were, indeed, a devotee of the Noble Lie).

I don’t know what to say about this. It’s complicated. Some of the people called Straussians, like William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, are creepy jerks. But whether that’s Strauss’s fault is another question. I can’t go farther with it right now, though I’ll admit it’s an issue I want to delve into more deeply as I go along, and if I do I’ll tell you what I find.

My point today is that the blather about pro-democracy and anti-democracy, and the accompanying issue of whether the majority need to be deceived, is rendered virtually meaningless by the gigantic abstractions usually employed. What is a democracy, for goodness sakes? It can be all sorts of things, some that we could applaud and some that would be disgusting. We need to keep on talking about what we mean by democracy, and see if we can make the meaning more precise. But, in the meantime, we need to address the question of whether, in the government we have right now, the degree of lying by officials is doing us more harm or more good.

I’m not sure the people will always react sensibly to the truth. In other words, I’m not a super democrat. But I’m pretty sure that over the next few years we would, collectively, be better off if fewer lies were told by the political classes. There needs to be a cleansing of people’s minds in America. And facing reality is more antiseptic than living in the atmosphere of our and somebody else’s ideas of grandeur.

December 30, 2012

Andrew Sullivan, who sometimes writes intelligent columns and sometimes veers close to lunacy, had a piece in the Daily Beast yesterday which addressed something more important than he probably understood. It’s titled “The Broken American Polity” and it pushes the thesis that America is a country in the midst of a “cold Civil War.” He concentrates on the right-wing of the Republican Party and its willingness to cause “permanent, chronic insolvency of the American government.” Because the leaders of this faction have ensconced themselves in bunker districts, where the electorate is ignorant and embittered, and often both, they are unlikely to be dislodged by majority public opinion, no matter how strongly it turns against them. They exist and they are going to continue to exert considerable political influence, according to Sullivan. And I think he’s right.

What Sullivan did not do was push ahead to point out that the Tea Party (as they continue to be called) is merely the most publicized segment of a changed America in which there are many elements of the public who are strongly divided from mainstream opinion, if, indeed, there still is such a thing, other than in the sentimental reveries of certain journalists.

The idea that the United States is a country in which most Americans want pretty much the same things, and stand for the same principles, has become maudlin, flaccid, and inaccurate. We are a divided people in more ways than the journalists have even begun to consider.

All you have to do is read the threads appended to political columns to see how wildly divergent the American public has become. At least a third of the opinions I see expressed in these chains strike me as virtually insane, and another third come across as abysmally stupid. In America it’s not just that we disagree about what’s true; we disagree even more vehemently about what’s good.

If you take just the issues that became inflamed during the Bush administration, and ask what the public thinks about them, it is hard to find anything you can call a general view. Torture, indefinite detention, political assassination, the suspension of habeas corpus, warrantless searches, state killing of apprehended criminals, the need for a government-supported pension system, the duty of the nation to provide medical care for all citizens, the importance of protecting the environment, the rights of same-sex couples, the requirement of adhering to a separation of government and religion, even the usefulness of scientific investigation: all are topics of passionate disagreement. These are not arguments similar to what road needs to be paved first, or whether the high school should have a new stadium or a new chemistry laboratory. We are now flooded with concerns which some people are willing to kill over.

When you add such issues to a media which makes money by inflaming public fears, we reap an explosive situation. At the very least it seems to be shoving people we might call unbalanced over the edge, and that raises another fervent argument about whether most citizens should do their daily business while carrying loaded firearms.

The single issue of slavery a hundred and fifty years ago led us to kill three-quarters of a million of ourselves, and that was when we were only one-tenth as large as we are now. I’m not saying any one of the current contentious issues has reached the kindling potential of slavery. But when you take them altogether, I think we do have to face the truth that a generally unified democracy, which can conduct its affairs through widely respected rules, will be beyond our grasp for decades to come.

Our two major political parties are pathetic when it comes to managing these difficulties. They are both so beholden to one of the fanatic segments -- the one that measures human worth by the pile of money each person has heaped up -- that neither can begin to take a dispassionate and humane perspective on future behavior.

I just finished reading Sheldon Wolin’s book, Managed Democracy, which, at least indirectly, addresses these problems. He is not optimistic. The only positive avenue he can imagine is concentrating on the local, and hoping that decent solutions arrived at in limited constituencies will receive wide notice and spread beyond themselves. It’s a noble notion and I hope it has potential. But clearly, I can’t be sure.

I do know this. When I return to Montpelier after a stint in Florida and a sampling of the opinions expressed in the Lakeland Ledger, I always breathe a sigh of relief. Vermonters are not perfect people by any means, but we do seem to have created a polity which can manage itself without flying into murderous rages. The political atmosphere here, the way people treat each other and think about each other, is what I would wish for the rest of my country. It wouldn’t make the United States perfect, but it might make it more livable, and it would definitely arrest our march towards being considered by the rest of the world a ruthless, militaristic empire.

But think about it. Vermont as a model! Am I out of my mind?

December 31, 2012

Recently, we did something of a sort that’s rare for us. Over the course of four days we watched all the episodes on Homeland over its first two seasons, that is, 24 programs in all, averaging six a day.

You might say that’s insane, and you would be right to some degree. It left me feeling a bit crazy and even more exhausted and nauseated.

Homeland has been one of the most widely publicized series ever, so I suppose most of you know something of what it’s about. But for those of you who don’t, I’ll explain that it’s the story of a Marine sergeant, captured in Iraq, turned over to al-Qaeda, held captive for eight years, then “rescued” (there’s something phony about the rescue), and returned home to a hero’s welcome. Over the course of the series we find out what happened to him during his captivity, how his thoughts changed, and what he did with his modified attitudes once he was back in the United States. The plot involves taking us into the innards of the CIA, and their efforts to thwart and kill the al-Qaida leader who was the principal captor of the Marine.

I think that’s enough of the story to allow me to make the points I want to make here.

First, as melodrama, the series is well made. The acting is skillful, the plotting taut, the emotional conflicts wrenching. It’s the kind of story that makes you want to know what’s going to happen next. I think most people could get caught up in watching it, but telling you that is not my main purpose. Rather, I want to speculate about the questions it raises, purposively in most cases but perhaps not in all. The questions deal with falsehood, morality, and the capacity of the human psyche, quite often in a mixture of all three.

Socrates is frequently quoted to the effect that it is better to suffer evil than to do evil, an axiom honored more in the abstract than in reality. You might say that Homeland is a complex, dramatic examination of the Socratic dictum.

I mentioned above that my marathon viewing left me somewhat nauseated. That came mainly from being presented with the workings of a national security state, admittedly fictional but perhaps not far removed from actuality, and also perhaps more benign than actuality. Real or not, accurate or not, it was stomach-churning. I assume that was the intention of the producers. But who knows?

I’ve seen it argued that once two sides descend to war it becomes impossible to choose morally between them. I’ve tended to be skeptical of that position, though I admit I’m less skeptical now than I once was. And Homeland reduced my skepticism somewhat more. I can’t say whether the producers wanted to push me in that direction, but after watching the actions of the putative good guys, I became even less eager to employ the services of people of that sort than I was earlier. In fact, I’ll go farther and say -- though this will strike some as radical  --  that if the real CIA is similar to the CIA of Homeland, I would prefer to dispense with the protections afforded by the former and fall back on my own devices for staying away from terrorist mayhem. Maybe this is simply a way of suggesting that war rots everything it touches, regardless of honorable intentions.

It could be that acting ability had something to do with this, but the passionate declarations of the al-Qaeda operatives struck me as more sincere and forceful than did similar statements from the CIA folk. The latter, though supposedly devoted to defending the American public, came across as being more caught up in an addictive game than in defending anybody or anything. They were, in short, titillated and obsessed by the prospect of killing people and being praised for it.

In Homeland, virtually everybody lies to everyone else. Most of the falsehood is supposedly linked to honorable desires, but there’s a conflict here between tactic and motive which suggests that beyond a certain point, the lying takes over and the motive fades. Reality teaches us that such a development is a definite possibility. With respect to the drone assassination program of the United States, which figures strongly in the series, the government lies not only frequently but mechanically. This is supposed to keep the enemy off balance but, of course, it does no such thing. It simply destroys the legitimacy of the government’s word all around the world. Yet the government is so addicted to the process it can’t stop. This is the way incessant falsehood cankers the brain.

The series offers surprisingly little conversation, especially among American officials, about the morality of killing innocent people in order to kill supposedly bad people. There’s a good deal of such action, but as soon as it occurs the only thing that occupies the minds of the CIA and the FBI is how to cover it up. The dead are just dead and therefore no longer of concern.

Brainwashing is one of the central themes, particularly with respect to the American Marine. One of the more interesting features of the series is that viewers can never be sure to what degree he has been manipulated, or has thought his way through to legitimate decisions. The show almost suggests there’s no difference between the two processes, which if it was done on purpose indicates an interesting post-modern twist in the minds of the producers. There is a great deal of ordinary rationalization, that is, justifying behavior, in the interest of self-promotion, that would ordinarily be thought odious. That appears to be the dominant leitmotif of the CIA, and, in fact, of the entire US government.

I think you can see that after twenty hours of this stew, you would begin to have a queasy stomach. I finished the final episode of Season II after midnight and went up upstairs thinking I needed a purgative for my whole system, mind and body. But as I settled into the warmth of my bed, I began to feel profoundly grateful that I have nothing to do with the CIA, the “war” on terror, or anything of that ilk. If someone were to tell me that I can enjoy a safe bed precisely because our security people are on watch, I can’t say for sure I would punch him in the face. But I can say that if I didn’t, it would take great restraint.

©John R. Turner

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