Collected Thoughts

January 2013
January 8, 2013

Last night I ate something that disagreed with me and was in fairly acute discomfort for about four hours. That’s no big deal, one might say. So what if you were nauseous and your stomach hurt for four hours? It’s easy to say that when the attack has subsided, but when you’re in the midst of it, the condition pretty well takes over your life. It’s hard to think of anything else.

This is not about a passing instance of food poisoning. Rather it’s about severe physical discomfort, and its persistence. And it’s also about the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Mr. Brennan is known for inducing terrible physical discomfort and maintaining it for days, even months, on end. He did this supposedly out of his patriotic sensibilities.

I’ve often thought that people who are in favor of torture lack the ability to imagine being the subject of it. Torture, for them, becomes something you do to somebody else. It is not something that one has done to himself. It’s similar to lying on a battlefield with your intestines dribbling out on the ground. When it’s not happening to you it can be viewed as a noble sacrifice someone is making for his country. But if it had happened to you, and you were actually there, on the ground, with your stomach ripped open, I doubt you would think about it that way.

We seem to be divided between persons who can perceive the reality of torture without experiencing it, and those who can’t. I know this: if I had to go for days and days with the pain I felt for just a few hours last night, it would do something unspeakable to me.

I’m opposed to torture because of what it is, and not with respect to arguments about its ineffectiveness. I don’t care how “effective” it is, whatever the hell that means. Mr. Brennan is on the other side of that line from me.

Does this make him unqualified to head the CIA? I can’t say for sure. It makes him a creep, in my estimation. But, then, maybe you have to be a creep to head the CIA.

Here’s what I hope will happen as a result of his nomination. I hope he will be quizzed relentlessly about the things he has done and how he justifies them. I don’t care how often he pleads national security as a reason for avoiding questions. I hope they just keep coming. I hope the hearings for his nomination will be prolonged for at least as long as he tortured any one. I want him to be asked how many innocent people he is willing to kill in order to kill someone he considers bad. I don’t want him to get off with vague abstractions. I want him to be forced to give an actual number. I want the Senate to say that unless he gives an actual number he will not get a single vote to confirm his nomination.

Then, after a number has been dragged out of him, I want him to be confronted with a list, containing an equal number of names of people he knows and professes to love, and asked if he would be willing to kill them, in order to kill the same bad guy. Subsequently, I want him to be asked if he would be willing to torture all those people for a month running, if there were some way that torture would lead him to a bad guy. I would force him to speculate about what those people he’s willing to kill might have done with the rest of their lives had he not killed them. I would inquire how he knows that what they would have contributed to society would not have counted as much as the elimination of the guy he has deemed to be bad.

I would want these questions to persist, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and to be able to watch his face as the questions kept coming. I would not want him to have a stomach ache during all this time. I would be content for him to go home every night and to sleep in a comfortable bed. I would be happy for him to have good food. But when he waked in the morning I would want him to know that he had a full day of questions in front of him.

In short, I would like for the nomination of John Brennan to lead to a thorough, exhaustive examination of the all killings, imprisonment, and torture that the United States government has indulged in throughout all the years of the supposed war on terrorism. I would like to see all of it laid out, in the open, and hear Mr. Brennan’s justification for it.

If that could happen, I wouldn’t care whether he were confirmed, or not. If that could happen, I might even be willing to endure another session of the sort I had last night, though about that, I’m not sure. I really hate stomach aches.

January 10, 2013

The most serious mistake most Americans make is thinking of their national government as a unitary thing, rather than seeing it for what it is, a conglomerate composed of many separate parts. Some of these are benign, even heartwarming. The Social Security Administration, for example, is an efficient bureaucratic system which allows millions of people to lead comfortable lives when, without it, they would find themselves in miserably straitened situations.

The part we can call the national security state, however, has become monstrous. It is maintained, mostly, by persons who see the nation as something distinct from its people, and who are more concerned with increasing the power of the nation than they are with the well-being of the populace. Many of them identify more closely with that power than they do with their fellow citizens. Their sense of self sets them apart from other people, and, in fact, for them, transforms the population into little more than a resource which they employ for their own schemes and ambitions. They want to rule the world, a desire which blots out interest in the health of people.

National security advocates are shrewd and ruthless. They have used political maneuvering and skillful propaganda to place themselves  at the center of those who distribute national resources. Naturally enough, they direct as large a portion of the country’s resources as they possibly can towards operations that benefit themselves and increase their own power. Right now they are amazingly successful in getting a gigantic portion.

One might ask, so what? Isn’t that what every interest group tries to do? Isn’t that the political story? An honest answer would be, yes. But there are these differences: other interest groups may want more than their fair share but they don’t claim an amount that would cripple everybody else nor do they lie as blatantly as the national security people do.

Anyone who examines the national financial structure has to recognize that continuing to spend as much as we do now on military hardware, the collection and examination of data about virtually everyone in the country and many other people all around the world, an international spy network, a widespread program of assassination, the imprisonment of thousands of people, the maintenance of hundreds of separate agencies and programs all supposedly devoted to the same thing, and a gigantic public relations campaign to make it all seem glorious will not permit adequate health care, a reasonable system of infrastructure, or decent care for those who are not able to care for themselves.

Choices have to made, and the national security network is devoted to manufacturing so much public fear that no matter how much we regret sacrificing a comfortable standard of living, or an effective educational system, or research in basic science, or what used to be considered fundamental freedoms, we just have to do it in order to give the security structure what they say they need. You see? When we get right down to it, it’s not really a choice. We have to do it.

And why do we have to? Because there are gargantuan dangers lurking “out there” which will completely destroy us if we don’t.

The existence of these dangers has become a background assumption that no longer needs to be examined or debated. They’re just there. And how do we know? Because all the experts say they are. That all these learned people work for the CIA, or some affiliated outfit like General Dynamics, or the Haliburton Corporation, or the Institute for Defense Analyses, or Kellogg, Brown and Root, or Fox News seldom enters the conversation. There couldn’t, of course, be any self-interest at work here. That would be unthinkable.

We don’t, any longer, even have to say what the dangers are. We just throw some vast abstraction at them, like international terrorism, and let it go at that.

I am arguing that when any interest group gains the propaganda control that the security staters enjoy in the United States now, it becomes toxic and malignant. It destroys the health of the country. It takes away all balance. Indulging it is like trying to exist on nothing but a diet of chocolate bars.

The dangers are not what these people say they are. And besides that, the dangers which do exist have been ginned up by the very people who are claiming to protect us against them. Kill a child with a drone in Pakistan or Yemen and you automatically create at least a dozen people who will hate the United States for the rest of their lives and wish to do it harm. That’s so obvious only a dolt could fail to see it.

The first step in regaining our sanity is to see the national security state as what it is, an interest group whose concerns barely overlap with the desires of most American citizens. Once we do that, we can begin to hold its spokesmen to some standard of veracity. We can ask them how they know. We can stop viewing them as voices from God. We can refuse to give them money we should be spending on other things, which would benefit us far more than anything the security staters can do for us. Who knows? We might even acquire enough gumption to give up calling them heroes in every other breath.

January 13, 2013

A personal peculiarity I’ve had since I was a child is an unwillingness to be a cheerleader for any group. I can’t take any credit for this propensity -- if it is creditable -- because it seems to have been ingrained in me before I ever thought about it. It’s not an attitude I achieved after intellectual struggle. And where it came from I have no idea.

Inclinations of this kind do, of course, influence one’s mature thinking. Once I began to speculate about the problems of the world, I was led to the conclusion that the vices of groupism outweigh the virtues. I doubt there’s any way to make a scientific calculation of the benefits and costs. Yet I suspect it is possible to try to make the most of personal predilections of this kind and to guard against the dangers they may involve.

For example, I think it would be foolish to refuse to stand up during the playing of the national anthem at a public event. It would draw hostile attention and produce no advantage I can discern. The Star Spangled Banner doesn’t cause in me the warm feeling of belonging it seems to produce in others. I don’t believe that the United States is the land of the free or the home of the brave any more than lots of other places are. Yet there’s no sense in signaling that judgment at times when others are feeling reverent. It would be an empty, juvenile gesture.

Yet when groupism leads to harm and oppression for persons outside the group, it strikes me as an intellectual duty, in certain venues, to point that out. To go along with it just because the group is cheering it is cowardice. When a U.S. drone kills someone deemed by government officials to be an enemy of the United States and in the process kills several other persons who happen to be in the vicinity of the target, I feel no inclination to cheer. It seems to me to be a duty to speak up for the lives extinguished, to speculate about what they might have achieved, to sympathize with the grief of those who loved them, and to remind anyone I can reach that acts of that sort generate long-lasting hatred which may bring terrible results. It is also my duty to express contempt for the opinion that the taking of innocent lives is, unfortunately, just one of the costs of war but that we have to do it in order to protect our group.

Nations, of course, are just one of the groups we are obliged to interact with. Since they are the largest and most lethal of groups, they probably should attract more of our critical attention than other associations do. But all groups present us with problems, and the way we resolve those problems, for ourselves, is probably the most significant determinant of who we are.

After nations, religions are the most potent groups affecting our lives. Religious affiliations are bathed in emotion and remembrance of childhood feelings. They are obviously powerful in affecting group behavior. They generally require some sort of loyalty to non-rational beliefs which function to separate the member from the non-member, to allow people to identify who’s on “our” side and who’s not. I don’t mind partaking of some of that emotion. I can enjoy going to church on Christmas Eve and singing hymns and carols, even though the lyrics of those songs often proclaim absurdities. But when religion slides over to denouncing others because they haven’t seen the true light or haven’t recognized the superlative morality, then, in my mind, they become toxic. That toxicity has always been destructive of life and shows fews signs of becoming less venomous as we move deeper into the 21st century. For that reason, I can’t have significant respect for the thought of persons who continue to argue that their religion is the best, or the truest, or the most in line with the universe, and, thereby, should prevail over all other religions. Even so, I need to keep on reminding myself that I may take that stance because I am temperamentally suspicious of all groups.

After nations, and religions, we go spiraling down the ranks: localities, ethnic associations, political parties, professions, economic affiliations, philosophies, civic initiatives and so on. Each doubtless has something to be said for it but each also has egotisms and self-promotions that makes it unworthy of complete devotion. I can’t see the sense in giving oneself completely to any group. And so, I don’t.

Still, if I step away from the emotional boost and the social support offered by unquestioning loyalty to a group, I am left with the question -- to go Biblical -- from whence cometh my strength? I clearly don’t have a perfect answer. On the other hand, I know from my inherent makeup that amalgamation with a group, however chosen, is not going to solve my fundamental questions. I am thrown back on myself.

The best I can do is to have recourse to the things I do know. I know who I love. I know what behavior I cherish. I know what intellectual principals I respect. I know which books I can read with a sense of meaning over and over again. Since that’s what I have, that’s what I have to protect. As far as groups go they have to get by without my allegiance. But that doesn’t seem to be a big problem for them. They have lots of people they can gather up.

January 17, 2013

I wonder how many Americans are as tired of gun freaks as I am. It’s not so much their desires that weary me as it is the frenetic tone in which they express them. They’re like spoiled children screaming for candy.

I don’t support laws for taking guns away from people, but on the other hand I don’t recognize any sensible need for them either. Guns are like Hummers, and 1200 calorie hamburgers topped with bacon, and mink coats, and 15,000 square foot houses, and gigantic diamond rings, and $3,000 coffee-making machines. They are, in short, the excesses of silly people.

The only valid use I can see for them is as objects in historical collections, like arrowheads from prehistoric hunters and lances from medieval crusades. I do believe in retaining artifacts from the past, because they teach us something.

Guns are ineluctably linked to the lust for killing. That’s what guns are: killing machines. That’s the only reason they came into being, and that’s what spurs their continued manufacture. I’m well aware that a considerable portion of my fellow humans regard killing as a grand and heroic thing. They cheer when certain persons are killed, and they celebrate killings in political rallies. Politicians brag incessantly about the killings they had a hand in. When people go out into the woods and slaughter animals, other people congratulate them for the size of their kills. The dead bodies of animals are strapped onto cars and paraded around as trophies. Sometimes those bodies are stuffed and hung on walls as literal trophies. When some person is to be killed by the state, crowds gather outside the killing place and applaud when they hear that the killing has been performed. You might say that humans, currently, are killing junkies.

Yet, surely, it’s not irrational to hope that this addiction will pass from us. And part of the process of curing ourselves of it is coming to see gun freaks for what they are. They are people who get juiced up by the thought of killing something. Who has not seen Alex Jones and James Yeager on television over the past few days practically salivating over the prospect of killing people? I’ll give them credit. They have the gumption to be the open face of the craving for life destruction that undergirds the expressed motives of all gun advocates.

Are they consciously aware of what their avidity is? Probably not. There are always pieties available to cover up the raw emotions that drive people to cruelty. And we’ve seen these phony rectitudes wheeled out in nauseating volume over the past month.

To be fair, there are wretched pieties on the other side also. Whence comes this reverence for the Second Amendment to the Constitution expressed by people who want stronger regulation of guns? Are they aware of the historical genesis of this supposed right? Do they know who it was put in place to suppress? Or are they simply being hypocritical as a matter of political contrivance? If it’s the latter then I suppose we can acknowledge and, to some extent, praise their scheming.

Ultimately, though, we can’t protect ourselves from gun violence until we get at what drives it. As long as a major portion of the population is caught up in a worship of killing as a means of solving problems and of producing heroes, instruments will be produced to give effect to that religious directive. I’m certainly not opposed to ameliorative measures, such as laws banning the introduction of machine guns into every venue of life, which the less restrained gun nuts would like to see. But on the other hand, I don’t have a great deal of hope for their effectiveness. You can say, of course, that if they prevent one horror of the sort that occurred in Connecticut last December they are more than justified. I agree with that. Yet I then turn to the hideous truth that guns are used to take life away from thirty thousand people in this country every year. I can’t find much solace in Ann Coulter’s teaching that it’s not as bad as it seems when we consider the complexion of the persons whose bodies are ripped apart by bullets. I guess I’m growing soft as I age, but I don’t enjoy the thought of anyone’s body being ripped apart by bullets, regardless of the color of their skin, or even of their religion.

There’s a grain of truth in the NRA’s argument that guns don’t kill people, people do. And when they do, it’s because of certain attitudes in their minds. Banishing some sorts of guns might make killing more difficult and, therefore, reduce it slightly. But the problem of killing is societal, not technological. As long we hold onto the idea that killing other people offers a means of making ourselves happy and secure, we will be ingenious enough to find implements to carry out that assumption.

I’m sufficiently blatant to present fondness for killing as a form of insanity. And curing ourselves of insanity is the best first step towards letting sanity reign. Also, it’s a way of escaping the boring arguments of gun freaks.

January 18, 2013

I used to approach the morning news with eagerness. Now that sentiment is much abated. I don’t know if that’s because of the news or me. But I think it’s related to my strengthening understanding that the prime function of journalism is to puff people up, to make them into demigods, in order that later they can be deflated to howls of amazement. Once you’ve watched that process carried out maybe twenty thousand times, it begins to grow old and somewhat less than surprising.

We are now being regaled with the story of college football player who during the past season was bathed in rhetoric which led us to think we were on the verge of apotheosis. Not only was he grand in himself, he was part of the resuscitation of a football team so grand that even mentioning its name was supposed to bring tears to the eyes of all sports fans, especially if they had some remote association with the Catholic Church or with Ireland.

This storied team ended the regular season at the top of the football polls -- Number One in the nation, as we say -- even though anyone who had even modest knowledge of college football knew it had no business being there. It’s not that it wasn’t a pretty good football team; it’s just that there were several other teams who during an actual game, on an actual field, would have prevailed over it. But the story was the thing. It was growing, it was swelling, it was becoming a item of such magnificent proportions that it seemed overwhelming.

The team and the player became part of a unit of transcendent meaning. They were marching together to glory. Nothing could overturn the iron will of either. Then three things happened. The team played a better team in the national championship game, and as any sane person should have expected, was soundly defeated. The player, who had been a dominant force against lesser teams, smashing them unmercifully, was not dominant against the better team. He was decently competitive but he was also, himself, dominated and made to look less than omnipotent on quite a few occasions. Lo and behold! He was a young football player who could at times be outdone by other young football players. How could this be?

Then, something else happened. The plaintive story about how he had loved a young woman with a mortal illness and had overcome crushing grief to continue to lead his team was revealed to be a hoax. There was no girlfriend of this description. She didn’t die because she didn’t exist. Exactly how much of her non-existence the player understood, seems somehow still to be a mystery. How that can be, I can’t fathom, but, all the same, the fundamental myth about grief overcome and duty raised to the highest level was nonsense.

This swelling and deflating of kids who are pretty good football players proceeds unremittingly. Why can’t they simply be what they are, young people who trained pretty hard and developed athletic skill? Why are they not permitted to exhibit all the inexperience, and foolishness, and callowness of other boys of their age? Why must they be made into icons? We know the answer. Journalism needs to exploit them for its own purposes. The larger question is why the public falls for this exploitation over and over again.

The other gigantic story in the news now has been running for longer than the saga of the football player. It involves an athlete who could pedal a bicycle faster and longer than anybody else. This he did year after year, so long in fact that people became astounded that he kept it up. Was he a superlative iron man or was there some surreptitious reason for his success? It was widely known that in the sport he dominated the top performers used supplements of various sorts to enhance their performance. In fact, people in the know said pretty regularly that a person couldn’t win unless he used these supplements. Still, the great bicyclist denied, for years, that he ever used them. And he was skillful in being able to pass various tests designed to detect the supplements. He became one of the most famous, and most suspected, persons on earth.

Finally, assiduous detective work determined that he had used supplements which had been banned. Why some are allowed and some aren’t is a topic not much reported by journalists. I guess it doesn’t involve a lot of drama. Evidently, it’s okay to eat spinach, but you can’t eat other things.

Now that the athlete has been discovered to have been deceptive, he is being denounced as virtually the worst person on earth. The clearly admirable things he did are thoroughly discounted because he did what many other people in his sport do. Journalism now demands that his fall be complete and abysmal. It’s not enough that he be deprived of his records and medals. It has to be something more monumental that that.

I’m not saying that it’s not a story worth reporting. But to make it into what it has become in a world where people are dying in great numbers everyday because of foolish official behavior is asinine. It’s not that important. It’s simply a modestly sad story.

Both these tales are far more about journalistic manipulation than they are about what happened, more about sensationalism than substance. So in that respect they become the same as all other journalistic accounts. Deification and subsequent deflation make up nearly all there is, on and on and on. Does anybody even remember now about General Petraeus?

A major feature of history is the process of enterprises devouring themselves through their own excess. That’s clearly what’s going on with American journalism now. It has become astoundingly tiresome.

January 19, 2013

An attitude I’ve noticed among a majority of people, which strikes me as somewhat bizarre, is the assumption that a private person, when discussing or commenting on politics, should take positions fairly close to those of the politicians he supports. That makes no sense to me.

Politicians are in a very different situation from persons in private life. An office holder is obliged, to some degree, to placate foolish or simpleminded members of the electorate. No politician can afford to speak with complete frankness about what he believes. If he did, he would rapidly push himself out of office. Consequently, we shouldn’t hold the obfuscations of politicians against them. Rather, we should recognize that they have no practical option other than to use fuzzy language most of the time. That’s the way the political game is played, and if one doesn’t observe the basic rules, he won’t get to play at all.

On the other hand, private citizens who have no plans to seek public office do have a duty to speak as precisely and sensibly as they can. If they fail in that duty many useful steps which could help people strengthen their health and security will never be heard. We can’t count on politicians to raise them.

We have a perfect example of this division of responsibility at work in the news right now. Politicians feel pressed to proclaim a devotion to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, regardless of what they actually think about it. If they don’t, they will open themselves to vulnerabilities which would undermine their effectiveness.

A couple nights ago on TV I heard Joe Carr, a looney member of the Tennessee legislature, proclaim that anyone not dedicated to the Second Amendment is carrying out an assault on the entire Bill of Rights. No practical politician wants to have to fight off that sort of absurdity. It’s easier to go through motions of fealty to the Second Amendment and then turn to the question of how it should be interpreted. But if you’re not a politician, and have a passing knowledge of conditions in the 1790s, you can assist your country by pointing out that none of the reasons for including the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights is operative today. If that brief provision could simply be excised from the Constitution we would be much better off because then regulations about the ownership and use of guns could be addressed through ordinary legislation, in which the needs and conditions of the present would be assessed free of semi-religious malarky about the sanctity of the right to own them. Guns would be like cars and real estate. They could be regulated in accordance with the needs of the present.

There are all sorts of things that should be said which politicians are held back, by practical necessity, from saying. A private citizen can point out that the amount spent on military operations by the United States is, at least, three times as great as the nation needs to defend itself.

A private citizen can note that capitalism is not any sort of natural economic operation but rather a system made up by human beings to reward some people and use others. Therefore, altering it in any way we see fit is not violating any laws of the universe.

A private citizen can point out that money is not something “made” by individuals but rather a social construct which is distributed not in accordance with fairness or hard work but rather to support the preferences of those who have gained political power.

A private citizen can warn that those who deny the findings of science through the claim of religious knowledge are always making absurd assertions, and more often than not are trying to cover up charlatanry.

A private citizen can explain that so-called military heroism does not, in any way, justify a vicious foreign policy.

A private citizen can assert that many of the most lucrative financial systems now in operation offer no social benefit at all.

A private citizen can remind us that schools which serve only to produce compliant corporate employees are doing nothing to help young people become responsible citizens in a democratic republic.

A private citizen can teach that the history of the United States, like the history of most other nations, is liberally marked by episodes of cruelty, vast bigotry, international bullying, and economic corruption and thus make the point that the nation state itself, whatever form it takes, is a dangerous concentration of power that needs to be watched incessantly.

A private citizen can state that “American exceptionalism” is simply a made-up element of self-praise and nothing more.

Any politician who came close to any of these points would be swamped by oceans of vitriol and probably could not survive in public office. Yet all of them clearly need to be a part of our political discourse. How are they going to get to where they ought to be if citizens do no more than follow along in the proclamations of their favorite politicians?

January 22, 2013

Great public ceremonies like the one we had yesterday are not bad occurrences. They offer momentary self-congratulations about how we conduct our affairs, and some romantic feelings about the nation. On the other hand, we shouldn’t make them out to be more than they are -- brief respites from the reality of politics.

In his inaugural address the president gave us some thoughts about where we should be going and, to a lesser extent, why we should be going there. This is what politicians are more or less required to do. In doing it, though, they seldom dig deeply into the “whys.” That would require them to project a defensible vision of social good and an explanation of why what’s good for some people might not be seen as good for others.

In America, we fight not only about who should get the good but also about what the good is. The latter struggle, in truth, is more fundamental than the former. We can more easily resolve issues of fairness in distribution than we can disagreements about what ought to be distributed. And we always live in uncertainty over whether it’s possible to arrive at a general perception of what is genuinely good for society. This is a problem most politicians don’t want to admit. They love soaring sentiments about what all Americans want. Political life becomes easier that way.

Avid democrats may announce that the good must be identified with the will of the majority. But when it comes down to actual choosing nobody believes that. It’s an assertion which can get nods in the abstract but has no followers when specifics come to bear. Even issues that seem obvious cannot attain agreement. It may appear clear that it’s more important for hungry children to be fed than for persons who receive millions each year to get additions to their income. Yet rationalization will always be employed to assert that the millionaires must first get more in order for the hungry to be fed. That’s nonsense, of course. It has been shown to be nonsense in numerous political units around the world But there’s no doubt that many Americans believe it.

Practical politicians generally flounder when they are asked to confront fundamental political issues of this sort. That’s because they have not thought about fundamentals. They spend their mental energy scheming about immediate advantage. Or, as Plato put it, they are more concerned with “politics” than they are with “the political.” They are Sophists in the classical sense. And their sophism is enhanced by ignorance of the past, and oblivion to attitudes we say we have got beyond but which linger in the back closets of the mind. For example, nobody will defend slavery anymore, but there are multitudes who covet the service of slaves.

If we go back to Plato’s Republic, we are instructed that:

The human race will not see better days until the stock of those who rightly
and genuinely follow philosophy acquire political authority, or else the class
who have political control be led by some dispensation of providence to become
real philosophers.

Guess what? There is no providence powerful enough to dispense a desire among the people who run things now to take up philosophic thought. That’s another way of saying it’s not going to happen.

Plato’s notion was that better days will come only when the leaders of society understand the things that are eternal and build political structure on those eternities. Mr. Obama, being somewhat a modern man, rejected that notion yesterday when he said that we probably can’t resolve the ultimate questions of governmental authority, but that’s no excuse for failing to take action. The implication was that there are various situations requiring action and that it’s better to do something about them than to do nothing. Still, knowing what those situations are is less difficult than knowing what to do.

So the question remains: from whence comes the thought that can best manage our problems? I hope you’re not expecting a complete answer from me.

The best prospect I can imagine is not only a growing number of persons who think carefully about social difficulties and learn to express their thoughts, but, along with them, more efficient, supple means of circulating those thoughts among the general public. I don’t think it’s overly radical to say that conventional journalism has failed in that respect.

The commentary offered by readers about essays appearing on the internet is heartening in a way. There truly are thousands of voices there everyday who say sensible things (side by side, of course, with more thousands of foolish ones). That alone is evidence there are many reasonable people in the country. Yet they have a hard time finding a way to speak forcefully. That, I think is the question most likely to bring improvement: how can people who work at thought, and who try to acquire knowledge, marshal their collective understanding? People say that networking is the answer to many difficulties. Despite disliking the verb, I more or less agree. Now we need to find the overarching social network. It will require more work than celebration and self-praise ever imagined.

January 23, 2013

What percentage of Americans have paid any attention to the names Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe? Might it be 5%? Surely, it’s no higher than that and it’s probably considerably less. Yet the bearers of these names are among the dozen most influential political leaders in the world, and they are currently playing a high stakes game that could disrupt the well-being of almost all Americans.

Their situation is an example of the problem of foreign relations in a democracy. The people are supposedly the ultimate authority in a democratic nation, but if they are, they’re a blind authority because they have little knowledge of conditions in the rest of the world or how their own nation’s power is being used to influence them. The serious questions are whether they should know more, and if they did, what could they do about it?

I have generally taken the position that the average American is too ignorant to carry out the duties of citizenship. But maybe my notion of those duties is far-fetched. I don’t suppose anyone has a perfect formula for establishing how well-informed so-called ordinary people ought to be if democratic government is to have a chance. I know I would like them to be better informed than they are because I have assumed that greater knowledge among the people would lead to more thoughtful behavior by government. But, I admit, I can’t be sure even of that.

The nations of the world are stitched together by more complex political and economic agreements than most imagine. It’s unlikely that the average American citizen knows that our country has treaties with both Japan and the Philippines which require us to come to the defense of those nations if they are attacked by a third party. Treaties are often made to be broken but it is likely that the United States would become involved should a conflict break out between either Japan or the Philippines and China. And there is serious danger of such a conflict right now.

The East and the South China Seas are sprinkled with small islands, many of them uninhabited, which are claimed by a variety of nations, Japan and China being foremost among them. Recently naval forces from both those countries, along with ships from other nations, have been probing into these waters in an attempt to establish control over them. And when hostile forces poke around in the same region, outbreaks of violence are possible. And then, as we say, one thing might lead to another.

Both Xi Jinping, the leader of China, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, are basing their leadership on an aggressive assertion of their nation’s rights, and both are pushing for an increase of national military power. At the moment, it seems that neither is disposed to compromise over the ownership of the disputed islands. It’s not, of course, just the islands themselves that push the argument but rather the minerals and fuels likely to be lying under the waters near them. But regardless of whether what’s at stake is material or sentimental, the quarrel over it is extremely dangerous, not only for the countries directly involved but for the whole world. If the worst should happen -- a large scale war between China and Japan -- the entire global economic system would be thrown into more turmoil than it’s in already. Also, more likely than not, grand patriotic cries would arise for the United States to dress thousands of its young people up in the garments of war and go make the ultimate sacrifice for God only knows what. We would have to leave it to our leaders to tell us what, since about that most of us have no idea. Still, as the dead bodies were shipped home, there would be tears and feelings of great magnitude.

Currently, though, most Americans don’t worry about it because they don’t know about it.

One might ask, so what? People have never known the actual reasons their leaders have shipped them off to war. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die -- and then to get gooey about it afterwards. That’s the way of the world.

I suppose so. Yet, it seems like it ought to be possible for a democratic people to say they don’t want their children to be killed over a dispute about islands that, in actuality, are not very important. Maybe they don’t even want to be told that the right disposition of these islands is necessary for the protection of freedom around the world, which is assuredly what they would be told if American military forces got engaged in a conflict in the South China Sea. It could even be that the people are moving towards being tired of that sort of rhetoric, that they regard it as pure guff.

Still, none of these possibilities matter so long as the public is ignorant of what is building up. Once conflict gets under way, they will be swept up by the propaganda marshaled to support the fighting. And they will succumb to it, just as they did to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be only later that they will wake up to how they were taken.

These are the reasons which cause me to think that though some see it as impractical to expect the public to acquire the knowledge necessary for genuine citizenship, it’s worth working for that concept of responsibility. Without it, we can be pretty sure that what will happen won’t take the happiness and stability of our everyday lives much into consideration.

January 24, 2013

We know a political community is in trouble when it places numerous persons of small and spiteful mind in positions of high responsibility. We saw the condition at work yesterday during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing with Mrs. Clinton.

That the hearing took place was, in itself, evidence of political disgrace. There was no desire to elicit information. It was simply a political show in which a party smarting from defeat in an election tried to get back by being nasty. Their behavior didn’t play well with the national audience, but maybe that was the point. Men like Rand Paul and Rob Portman don’t care about the national audience, at least not at the moment. We also have to take into account that their own strangled view of things is severely distorted with respect to what the majority of voters care about. That’s why their party lost an election which right up till the end the party leaders were confident they were going to win. They genuinely believe that most Americans are as mean-spirited as they are themselves. And that’s probably because they seldom speak to anyone outside their own opinion zone. It is difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to imagine Rand Paul ever having a real conversation with anyone. That’s not how he operates.

We need to learn, more fully than we have already, that the quality of petty arrogance exhibited by Mr. Rand in telling Mrs. Clinton that if he had been the president last September he would have fired her means something. It speaks to character of mind and quality of spirit. I wish Mrs. Clinton had felt free to respond: “Well, I guess I’m fortunate, Senator, that the man who actually is president is markedly different from yourself.”

Rob Portman is, perhaps, a less toxic quantity than Paul is. The Senator from Wisconsin is merely a rich political hack who sought to puff himself up by acting huffy towards a person more distinguished than he can ever be. He does, however, raise the question of what was going on in the minds of voters in Wisconsin when they placed him in the Senate. Was it just an act of absent-mindedness, or are they just as benighted in their sense of political responsibility as he is? The ultimate danger in a democratic republic is for the public to go rotten. I don’t think we’re in that bad a situation yet, but men like Portman, and a good many of his peers, make it an issue we need to think about.

It’s not that worthwhile questions couldn’t have been put to the Secretary of State. If someone had said that he knew the world is a dangerous place which can’t always be made secure for our representatives, but that he wondered about the need and advisability of placing State Department personnel in places where the local authorities lack the ability, and perhaps the will, to protect the diplomatic community, then he probably would have got a reasoned commentary from Mrs. Clinton, a commentary that might help enrich the discussions of the committee.

I must confess, though, that given the composition of the Congress, I doubt whether inquiring discussions take place in the committees. I’m beginning to wonder whether they take place anywhere in government. And that brings me back to my opening thought about the quality of mind among the people to whom we have given political responsibility. The men and women we’re getting now convince me that our process of getting them is strongly awry.

It’s pathetic that Rand Paul and Rob Portman are members of the U.S. Senate. And I don’t think their being there is a simply a matter of opinion different from my own. I think it’s, rather, the result of crippling inattention. I have read -- and I believe -- that the average American does not know who his senators and congressmen are.  These are people to whom we have given, literally, the power of deciding who lives and who dies, and yet we can’t be bothered to know their names. And if we don’t know their names, you can be sure we don’t know what they think, or how they are behaving themselves in the Congress. What percentage of the people of Wisconsin know, today, what Rob Portman said yesterday during the hearing with the Secretary of State? What percentage know that there was a hearing? What percentage know what it was about? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I’m fairly confident that the numbers are lower than almost anyone would estimate.

Somehow in America we have been seized by the delusion that political society just ambles along as a kind of natural process, without our having to pay attention to it. There’s a senate, and it’s there and does whatever it does. We don’t know what that is, and we don’t know who’s in it, but it’s there, perking away. It doesn’t require anything from us. If you put this proposition to almost anyone, he or she would say it’s absurd. And, yet, the behavior of most citizens is perfectly in line with it. This points to what could be seen as a schizophrenic break.

Mr. Lincoln, in his State of the Union message in December 1862, said that we must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country. If someone of comparable mind were speaking today, he might well say we must cure ourselves. The presence of Rand Paul and Rob Portman in the senate bespeaks fairly widespread mental disorder.

January 25, 2013

It’s widely assumed here in the United States that a citizen has a duty to love his nation, and that anyone who doesn’t is committing some sort of moral transgression. But though most people agree that the duty exists, I doubt you could find many who could tell you what it means. It’s a powerful feeling but it’s so vague it can run off in a variety of directions, some of them quite screwy.

One of the difficulties of political thought is that it almost always lags behind political conditions. Actuality tends to change faster than attitude does. Consider the United States: whatever it is now (and I doubt anyone knows for sure), it’s clearly not the same thing it was a century ago. Yet, for the most part, we continue to use the same language we did then to talk about it.

It seems obvious, for example, that a political power unit which maintains nearly eight hundred military bases outside its own borders is not only not identical to one that has none, but that the difference between them is transformative. For one thing, a military force stationed in its own territory can reasonably be described as primarily defensive; a military force spread around the world cannot. The latter may have some defensive functions but it’s clearly involved in a lot more than that.

As the nature of a political unit changes, its goals and aspirations are bound to change also. There may well have been a time when the United States was concerned, mainly, with the well-being of a majority of its citizens (there was throughout our history a fairly complete disregard for certain segments of the population). But it might well be that now, the majority has been relegated to the same position formerly held by those scorned minorities. Perhaps now the power of those who control power, and the wealth of those who manipulate the financial system, have replaced majority well-being as the primary aim of the nation.

If that’s the case, you would expect that the feelings of the average inhabitant towards the nation would be modified. But, of course, it would be to the interest of the controllers to keep those feelings what they had been. In other words, if feelings which arose when the nation was directed towards the well-being of the majority could be maintained when the nation had changed its direction, the directors would be well-served. You might expect them to mount gigantic propaganda campaigns to prop up traditional emotion artificially. Even so, as the propaganda became more blatant (as it would be bound to do), and as the divergence between what it proclaimed and reality widened, voices might arise saying that what the people are being told is not the truth.

That would be an interesting situation, wouldn’t it? What might happen? I don’t guess anyone can say for sure.

Some might demand that the nation stop being what it is now and return to what it once was. But then others would argue there’s no going back, that conditions have changed irrevocably, that the nation is heading into a new world and that no one should expect that its goals can remain the same.

Some might say that the nation’s behavior has, rightfully, cost it the love of its people, that such love must be put aside until the nation earns it again. Others would insist that such an attitude was rank disloyalty.

Some might propose -- this would have to be done subtly, of course -- that people should change their own views of themselves, that they should stop thinking of themselves as ends and, instead, transform themselves into means for helping the nation pursue its destiny, which would tend to be described through high abstractions, such as greatness, glory and grandeur. But, then, others would undoubtedly respond, “Screw that!”

Some might announce that the era of nations is fading, that the people of the world have other organizations to support their ambitions, that we should attach ourselves to these new forms, and let the nation subside into ceremonial senescence. But others would raise the cry that the nation is everything, that there is no more noble action than to sacrifice all one has for it.

It would be quite a stew, wouldn’t it, that is if a nation cannot be seen mainly as a group of people living in a distinct geographical area and trying to fashion articles of association which would allow everybody to get along pretty well?

A self discovery I’ve made more and more completely over the past decade is that I am no prophet. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I were forced to predict, I would guess that political emotions will become more inflamed in the years ahead, that feelings toward the nation will become even more fragmented than they are now, that the standard of living will decrease for most citizens, and that the quality of education for a significant portion of our young people, and perhaps for a majority, will decay. There will be technological development, though, and amazing gadgets that many will dive into as the meaning of life. It’s not an altogether happy picture but I think it’s more likely than the one I had when I was young -- to live in a house by the side of the road, to watch the lilacs bloom, to have some books on my shelves, to keep a pencil and pad handy for writing down any thought that might come to me, and to be as good as friend as I could to anyone who passed by. That’s so completely improbable there’s little sense in mentioning it.

January 27, 2013

A curious feature of American journalism -- and perhaps of American thought -- is a near obsessive determination to find unity in things where none exists. It’s actually a rare condition for anything, and particularly any human, to be wholly one thing and nothing else.

The big issue animating national politics at the moment is whether President Obama is the great liberal champion of widespread well-being for the people of America or whether he is an arrogant know-it-all with inclinations towards tyranny. What if he’s both? Is that impossible? It is if you go along with the mainstream journalistic presentation of things.

We are so moralistic in America we think people have to be either heroes or villains. Consequently, we divide ourselves into groups based on whether we think particular persons, or particular programs, are either glorious or dastardly.

Is the legislation we call Obama Care a step towards a more efficient and humane health care system, or is it an unnecessarily expensive bureaucratic tangle that can get in the way of individual decision? It’s got to be one or the other, doesn’t it? It can’t be both. If it were both we couldn’t see it as either good or evil. So then we wouldn’t know what to think about it. Everything’s got to be either good or evil.

Decisions in politics are usually a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, or the better of two flawed goods. In the recent presidential election, I’m not sure which of those two choices was more in play, but it was clearly foolish to tell ourselves we were going to get either grandeur or disaster. I had no trouble deciding that Mr. Romney shouldn’t go to the White House, both because of his personal inclinations and because he would have been strongly influenced by a political party which has stumbled into lunacy. But I didn’t think the nation would disintegrate if we were unlucky enough to get him, nor did I think that selecting his opponent would divest us of all our problems. The difference between them was significant; it wasn’t transformative. It’s a mistake to see presidents as saviors; they are more rightly seen as froth on the wave. But neither metaphor is fully adequate.

I hope I’m not gravitating towards defense of false equivalency or the virtues of a non-existent center. Both are shallow perceptions among some mainstream journalists. What I want to say is that almost any politician can be sensible about some things and foolish, or even dangerous, about others. So we have every right to support and criticize at the same time. In fact, if we’re not doing that I think we’re shirking our duty as citizens.

In this condition it’s often hard to make one’s stance clear. Just the other day I posted a commentary here slamming GOP members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their behavior in the hearing with the Secretary of State. But just because Mrs. Clinton attracts hostile questions from pipsqueaks doesn’t mean we should idolize her. She has been too eager to posit the United States as the moral arbiter of international relations and far too willing to sanction the use of deadly force. Whether she employs rhetoric of that sort because she thinks it’s required of a person in her position or because she believes it, she remains, despite being a person of considerable ability, one who nonetheless requires careful watching -- probably even more careful watching than if she were a dolt.

What we can say of her in that respect, we can say doubly of the president. I am led to admire him at the same time that I find many of the actions of his administration nauseating. Leaking classified information for political purposes while viciously pursuing whistleblowers is scarcely honorable behavior. Bragging about grand acts of assassination but still trying to cover up the details so their legality can’t be examined emits more than a whiff of tyranny. Pretending to be a champion of economic justice while ignoring serious crimes committed by gigantic banks is not a badge of courage. Disassembling every restraint against government surveillance is not a defense of liberty.

Human beings are neither gods nor devils. That’s not to say there aren’t differences among them, differences which justify preferring one person over another when it comes to public leadership. But when preference descends to worship, or when opposition descends to hatred, then we’re in a state of delusion.

We’re even more in a state of delusion when we tell ourselves that one, or two, or three persons can, by themselves, change the political behavior of the nation. The bad acts of the Obama administration which I mention above were underway well before he came into office, and they were driven by what can reasonably be designated national character. Barack Obama is certainly not the only person in this country who tells himself tales about his own superiority. Arrogance, as we ought to know, is bound to be a feature of anyone who scrambles to the top of the political heap but that doesn’t mean it’s not liberally distributed among other ranks of society. And a form of arrogance, in and of itself, is not necessarily destructive. It becomes harmful when it gets in the way of accurate assessment of actions. It hurts when it hampers clear thought. And nothing mucks up thought more than the assumption that any person is perfectly coherent.

January 28, 2013

We all know that words change their meanings over time. Why this happens is often hard to discern. Probably a distinctive process is involved for each word. But surely one of the reasons for change is an opportunity for a word to play a larger role in the discussion of current events. New conditions create the possibility of an alliance -- or an amalgam -- between a word’s traditional meaning and an expanded meaning, which evolves out of the old without distorting it.

For the past decade, or so, I have thought that “sanity” is a strong candidate for that sort of process.

In loose usage we tend to talk about sanity as an either-or thing. A person is either sane or not sane, a proposition either meets the standard of sanity or it does not. This provides us with a useful distinction, but it may also be unnecessarily simplifying the nature of the thing we are attempting to describe. What if we began to think of sanity as a direction rather than as a discrete condition? We already do that with “insanity.” It’s fairly common to say that two people are crazy but that one is more crazy than the other, meaning that the one is off farther in a direction than the other is. Why can’t we say that one person is more sane than another, even though both exhibit thought which raises them above the line separating sanity from its opposite. I realize you can argue that there is no such line, but we normally talk as though there were. And talk of that kind has consequences. So suppose we should begin thinking of thought as existing along a range in which sanity lies in one direction and insanity in the other?

What would be the use of that, one might ask? I think it could be very useful, particularly with respect to political issues we are facing now in America. For instance, when we consider whether or not the United States should launch some major activity, say conducting a bombardment of Iran in order to cripple that nation’s nuclear weapon capability, wouldn't it be better to ask about the comparative sanity of action versus restraint than to pursue the sort of argument we have now? At the moment, the debate consists of wild charges, extreme characterizations, and frenzied emotion. None of these is likely to move us towards a sensible decision. If we admitted that both approaches meet a minimal standard of sanity, in that each can marshal rational evidence for doing what it wishes, it should be easier, then, to weigh the evidence, outside delirious emotion, and reach a conclusion a majority could accept as being more sane than its opposite. And those who lost the debate -- that is failed to win over a majority -- could feel they were given a fair shot and not simply brushed aside as being completely irrational.

I’m not about to propose that the introduction of a single modified word would do away with the craziness of political debate. But I do think it could make our arguments slightly less frenzied, and if there’s anything most people seem to agree on it’s that our political discourse over the past decade has got so wild it’s out of control.

Politics is not the only arena where a graduated sense of sanity might be helpful. I’ve been discussing the concept with a pair of friends who have rightly been somewhat skeptical of my theory. In the process I’ve felt pressed to give examples of how what I’m suggesting might work. Religion seems to me to be highly amenable to judgments of greater or lesser sanity. I sent this note to my two friendly critics:

Let's take an example: the question of whether God exists. It is sane to say that God
does exist. It is sane to say that God does not exist. It is sane to say that the existence
of God catches us up in such verbal tangles we can never express, or even think,
anything sensible about it. Can we say that one of these propositions is more sane
than the other two? (I'm giving my hand away here, but, still, you get the point).

Again, I’m not claiming that discussing things in this way will bring everybody into the same camp. I don’t want to bring everybody into the same camp. That wouldn’t be much fun. But I would like us to find a way to argue more amiably than we do at the moment. Not only would it shove us away from splenetic name-calling, it likely would help us fine tune our own opinions. It’s a lot easier to have a conversation with someone who thinks you’re sane than with someone who thinks you’re crazy, even if he thinks you’re not sane enough.

One of my friends asked if sanity should always rule. And I had to admit that it shouldn’t. There doubtless are decisions in life where sanity should defer to other qualities of mind. Romantic love may be one of these areas, though I think sanity has its place even there. I think of sanity as one mental attribute which can be used to help us manage our problems. And I see it as the primary attribute for guiding our thought about social structures.

If you push me and ask what judges whether sanity should control, or not, then I can only say you’re shoving me farther down the corridors of philosophy than I can go right now. But, I admit, it’s a question I need to think about.

January 29, 2013

I assume that almost everyone now is stunned by immensity. Everything has become gigantic and we don’t know what to do about it.

I learned yesterday that there is a disease -- or at least a disorder -- called Candida infection, and that, perhaps, a majority of all the people in the world are suffering from it. Candida is a kind of yeast which grows in the human digestive system and which, some say, because of excessive consumption of sugar, is increasing to toxic levels in the bodies of most humans. It produces all sorts of symptoms that collectively might be summarized as feeling lousy. If you put “Candida” into Google, you get more than thirty-two million links. And if you consult all these links (which I confess I have not done) you discover that while there may not be thirty-two million different opinions about the dangers Candida poses, there are certainly enough that you could not examine them all in a lifetime.

In the past, if you suspected you were suffering from a disorder, you could go to an expert and find out what should be done about it. But now there are thousands of experts for each topic that might be worrying you, and these thousands do not agree with one another. In fact, some of them assault others in the most vociferous terms. If you spend just a little time digging into the truth about Candida, you discover that there are hundreds of vested interests connected to -- among other things -- the sale of drugs, the worth of certain procedures, the reliability of certain practitioners, which may well be  -- and certainly are in some cases -- affecting the advice you get.

What is one to do?

At the moment, all over the Western world, there is an enormous debate taking place about national debt, meaning the debt incurred by national governments. Some say it is the most serious problem facing society and is leading straight to disaster. Others say the concerns being manufactured by fear-mongers are simply propaganda generated by those who want to help the rich steal even more money from the poor than they have already. There is a huge fuss about the ratio of the national debt to the gross national product. Right now in the United States it’s about .72. There are maniacal voices screaming that this is approaching a suicide level whereas others say it’s a perfectly manageable. How is one to know the point when this ratio passes over into peril? It’s not the kind of number which tells us when water will boil. It is affected by an immense number of variables, and it is virtually impossible to be sure which variables are most significant in a given nation.

We are constantly asked to vote on the basis of the stance a politician takes on the national debt. Yet when one considers the amount of time and work it requires to gain an informed opinion on this matter, and compares that labor to the lives politicians lead, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that none of the politicians know what they’re talking about. Then, on top of that, when you realize that the people who have spent a major portion of their working lives studying the matter can’t agree about what’s true, and that a major portion of them are also heavily influenced by vested interests, it’s hard not to throw up your hands. After all, we’re talking about the arguments of thousands of people.

Sometime this spring, we are slated to receive the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the book that is supposed to tell what is, and what is not, a mental disorder, and to give behaviors that qualify a name. The edition that will be displaced lists 297 disorders. My favorite, for a long time, has been frotteurism, which refers to the uncontrollable desire to rub one’s body against somebody else’s body for purposes of sexual gratification. It seems fairly obvious that the act itself becomes frotteurism only when the person being rubbed objects to it. If the rubbee (I made that word up) welcomes it then the act becomes ordinary love-making. One of the problems with frotteurism is that nobody seems quite to know what to do about it. In the words of an authoritative text: “The prognosis for eliminating frotteurism is poor as most frotteurs have no desire to change their behavior.” Gosh!

I don’t know if there will be more or less than 297 disorders in the upcoming edition. But it seems that anytime you examine even one of them -- however many there are -- you find yourself confronted with hosts of unanswerable questions, the first being, “Is this actually a thing deserving a name, or is it just a matter of sticking a few symptoms together?” There was a time when behavior people thought of as weird was dismissed as being nuts, and the response to it was determined by how irritating it seemed. That was crude, admittedly. Now we are trying to trade in crudity for virtually total confusion.

I hope no one is expecting an answer from me about dealing with all this immensity (and keep in mind that I have referred to only three instances among millions). I’m just as bewildered as anybody else, and this commentary is mainly a confession of my bewilderment. All I can say is the new condition is bound to generate extensive discussion about how to deal with it. I hope some good sense will emerge out of that conversation.

In the meantime, the best I can suggest is to love the people you love and to pay attention to the specifics right in front of your face.

©John R. Turner

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