March 2, 2013
Today I’m in the mood to confess that my television tastes are changing. The first thing is I don’t enjoy watching television as much as I once did. That’s not only because the programming has changed but doubtless because I’ve changed also.
There was a time when I could get caught up by a team of men in a helicopter, clad in all sorts of fancy shock troop gear, dropping down into a village somewhere to shoot up a bunch of bad guys and rescue hordes of innocent people. That sort of thing bores me now, and not so much because I think action of that kind is almost never what it seems as because I think the people who do it are silly. One of the things I’ve gradually got through my head is that just because people are lethal doesn’t relieve them from silliness. And when I say the guys who do this are silly, I don’t mean just the TV characters who engage in it; I also mean the guys who actually carry it out. I’ve watched some of the people who presumably had a hand in the slaughter of Osama bin Laden, and every one of them was so ridiculously full of himself it was hard not to giggle. And the famous photograph of the people in the White House gripped by the camera feed from Pakistan as the operation proceeded is also quite funny, in a dismal way.
Another phenomenon that has lost my interest is the search for the purely evil, serial killer with bizarre appetites. The CBS melodrama Criminal Minds specializes in plots of that order, and the supposed depths of perception and disturbing empathy that suffuse them has also become an object of comedy for me. I stopped watching Criminal Minds a bit over a year ago, and this week when I happened to tune in to it while I was searching for something tolerable, I realized I just couldn’t stand it anymore, not even for idle diversion.
I have never watched anything described as “reality TV,” so I don’t guess I can include my aversion to it as a change.
None of the “Law and Order” folderol holds my interest any longer.
I have never been big on situation comedies. For example, I never liked “The Lucy Show.” “Seinfeld” was diverting most of the time, and, now, I can occasionally get some pleasure out of “The Big Bang,” but otherwise, nothing in that genre holds me. I can see that it occasionally includes small slices of wit, but they are so swamped by cheap absurdity, it’s seldom possible to relish them.
I’m also getting alienated from the news talk shows. Believe it or not, I once watched “The O’Reilly Factor” fairly regularly. O’Reilly never struck me as anything other than a pompous blowhard, but I told myself that by watching him I could develop my understanding of a certain sort of mind. Now I see there’s no mind there to understand. O’Reilly’s effusions are exactly the same thing I used to hear in the second grade when some kid was trying to intimidate another one. If I happen to tune into O’Reilly now, I find I don’t want to stay there more than 90 seconds.
I can occasionally enjoy the the “Reverend Al Sharpton.” He’s fairly funny in a pleasant way. His political analyses are not overly sharp, but they’re not completely dopey either. Chris Matthews is such a frenetic motor-mouth, with serious disconnects between his voice box and his brain, that though most of the time I half-way agree with him, it’s not enough to keep me from finding him tiresome. Rachel Maddow is generally intelligent, but she doesn’t tell me much I didn’t know already. In fact, over the past decade, I don’t think I’ve learned a single thing from TV news. The broadcast news shows are so vapid and stupid they do nothing but intensify my fears about the human race.
What else is there? Sports? I can still enjoy watching games. But the commentary about the games bespeaks a quality of mind I find distressing. To think that it mimics what’s going on in the brains of the performers (after all, most of the commentators are former performers themselves) tends to reduce concern about the outcome of the performance. Still, their pure physical skill can be diverting. So, I’ll keep on watching sports contests from time to time.
One new show I have found interesting is the modern version of Sherlock Holmes we see now in the CBS series, “Elementary.” Playing off the skills of Johnny Lee Miller, the producers have managed to create a genuinely captivating character. Perhaps what so good about him is he has the kind of mind that would be even more disgusted by popular TV than I am.
I don’t want to let the truth that my fellow citizens watch this stuff cause me to feel alienated from them. But I may as well admit that I do have to fight off feelings of alienation more often now than I once did. And I suspect television does have something to do with that development. I once brushed aside people who told me that television was the ultimate device of Satan. I would answer that they have to watch it in order to know what sort of world they’re living in. Yet, we may now have reached the stage when there is nothing more to learn in that direction. We know what the world is. We know that we have to find different paths. And we’re unlikely to discover them while viewing the flickering screen.
March 4, 2013
In the news lately there has been a tone of apocalypse, a sense that many familiar things are coming to an end, and that the change is likely to be violent and dangerous. People are bewildered by all this; they don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do either but I suspect we could make a start by clarifying the conditions that have to change and working towards some agreement about what new things might emerge.
The first thing producing the ominous sense of apocalypse -- though most people don’t fully recognize it -- is world population. We have reached a point where the earth can’t sustain the number of people trying to live on it. Ever since humanity emerged out of whatever preceded it, the number of people has been increasing. Ten thousand years before Jesus lived, there were only about a million people in the world. By the time Jesus did arrive, the number had grown to two hundred million. World population didn’t reach a billion until two hundred years ago. Now we are at seven billion. For at least twelve thousand years our numbers have been increasing. Now the growth has to stop. That’s a big change, unimaginable for some. Yet it has to be.
Closely related to population increase is the pollution of nature caused by it. The earth, so far as a habitable environment for humans is concerned, is being poisoned by human activity. The climate is being altered in ways that will make it more difficult for humans to survive. This pollution and forced climate change not only needs to be turned around, it will be turned around by some means or other. The question is whether we can do it voluntarily, in an incremental way, or whether our own behavior will generate disasters which reduce both population and pollution radically. I would prefer the former, I have, however, met people who seem to relish the latter, as a way of finally showing people they have, stupidly, pulled disaster down around their ears.
For quite a long time now, the accumulation of capital has been the principal human goal. People who amassed huge piles of capital were said to be successful; those who managed to get almost none at all were called failures. We have reached the situation where not only our practices but our vocabulary need to change. When small groups of people command gigantic mountains of capital, they can do things that were never done before. And most of them are bad. Capital is the most lethal form of power humans have invented. When that power becomes monstrous, the results are horrendous. As I have said before, we don’t let anyone have atomic bombs in his basement. So why should we let anyone have a billion dollars in his bank account? You can do a lot more damage with a billion dollars than you can with a bomb. And the effect of the billion dollars is actually more insidious because the person creating it can tell himself he’s doing good. It’s hard for a guy who sets off a bomb to convince himself he’s helping the people he is reducing to shreds of flesh and bone.
I suspect that right now there are relatively few people who can get this simple truth through their heads, but we would all be a lot better off if every family had -- in today’s dollars -- an annual income of $60,000 and about a $100,000 dollars in the bank. I realize such a condition can’t be reached anytime soon, and, perhaps, never. But if we were able to accept it as a social goal, and worked towards it in non-oppressive ways, we would be on a path to a healthier society. The problem is, most people can’t accept that idea right now. They have been propagandized into believing -- myself included -- that if they had millions they could lead a glorious life. There has never been a bigger lie than that, yet it is the lie we believe with all our hearts.
Perhaps the main turnaround an apocalypse would force on us is recognition of the foolishness in thinking that we can become who we should be by living in accordance with some big idea or another. We can be a Christian, or capitalist, or a Jew, or a liberal, or a conservative, or a Muslim, or a libertarian, or a believer in the arts, or a scientist, or a lover of nature and then all our basic problems will be resolved. We will know who we are; we will know what we’re supposed to do. These are simply formulas for avoiding thought. They relieve us from the task of building a self. You can never know, for sure, what you are; you can never know conclusively what you should do. That’s what being a human means. You have days, and each day brings its challenges. You have to address those challenges based on the person you have built up to the moment, and hope that in addressing them you will make a better self for tomorrow. You can’t get out of the complexity of being a human and the more you try, the more messes you will make. Sure, you can consult Christian ideas, or conservative ideas, or Jewish ideas, or whatever; you can take them into account. But it is you who must decide whether to accept them, or reject them, or modify them, or marry them to something else. You can’t get out of the questions of life by saying, “Well, I did the Christian thing, so I know I was right.” Don’t ever be sure you were right; that’s the highway to pure wrongness. Each problem you confront requires a different answer, based on what the problem actually is.
I don’t know if we can avoid an apocalyptic outcome. There are days I think we can; there are days I think we can’t. But I believe our chances of steering through in some decent way would be stronger if we could say simply: “We’ve got to find ways to allow the population to shrink; we’ve got to stop poisoning the world in the way we’ve been doing; we’ve got to give up the babyish idea that everybody who wants to can be immensely rich; we’ve got stop searching for some system of directives that will enable us to cast off the burden of thought.”
If we did just those four things we could be a lot more interesting to one another.
March 5, 2013
Suppose a majority of people in a large modern country could stop falling for nationalistic brainwashing. There are two questions that follow inevitably from such a supposition.
- Is it possible to conceive of a population developing such intellectual independence?
- What would happen if it did?
With the first of these queries we enter deep into political theory and the possibilities of democracy. My guess is that a majority of theorists and scholars, if they allowed themselves to answer honestly (and the possibility of that is questionable) would say, “No! You can’t expect any national majority to see themselves as simply one group of people among others, with similar hopes and aspirations. That runs counter to the laws of human egotism.” And if you should ask whether there are laws of human egotism you would be met with slack-jawed amazement. And if you accepted this answer -- the answer coming from the majority of theorists and scholars -- there would be no sense in asking the second question. On the other hand, if you didn’t accept it, and out of sheer perversity answered, “Yes a population could learn to see the manner in which nationalistic propaganda is designed to manipulate them, and therefore laugh it off,” then you could proceed. And since I want to get to the second question, that’s what I’m going to do.
In the United States, the brainwashing from what we can call the power structure is probably more fierce than it is in any other Western democracy. After all, we have the hyper-patriotism of American exceptionalism being paraded out by politicians and pundits as though it were a rational proposition. There is a widespread assumption -- and perhaps delusion -- that one dare not go against it if he wishes to gain any position of responsibility. So most people talk it up regardless of what they actually think. Perhaps it’s the sort of game where everyone says he believes something because he thinks everyone else believes it. It’s hard to know.
The tension between culture and political character is a theme for the ages but it seems to be coming forward more frequently now in the United States than it once did. The question it raises is whether we have the kind of government that agrees with who we are. And when we ask that question, we also have to ask, “Who are we?” The ones who are manipulated or the ones who are expressing their genuine selves? And is there a difference between the two?
I’m coming to think that though there is overlap between our political and our cultural characters, there are major areas of each that don’t touch the other. What does baseball have to do with killing little children with drones? Do they really go together?
Our political character strikes me as becoming ever more bombastic, angry, paranoid, and nasty, whereas everyday life, the actual culture of the country is not very much that way. Go almost anywhere in the country and you’ll find people fairly friendly, fairly helpful. I don’t often get snarled at, regardless of where I am. Yet our political leaders seem to do little other than snarl, at each other, or at people outside our borders. It’s as though you can’t be a real political leader unless you’re also a thug (or the underling of a thug). It’s like we have a Dick Cheney-ized political face and a Jon Stewart-ized cultural face. What has caused this gigantic chasm? In the end, what’s going to define us, our culture or our atomic bombs?
The main explanation I see is that Americans have become fearful as they’re sloshed by the waves of propaganda pumped out by such organizations as the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, the National Security Agency, the FBI, the Pentagon and on and on and on. Is the main thing we’re living for to be careful, to make sure we always have our doors locked? If it is, then it’s not just money these outfits are sucking out of us. Do we lack the mind to see them for what they are?
There has never been a time in the nation’s history when we should be more attentive to Will Durant’s old warning: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” If I were revising that for 2013, I’d say, “There’s no danger at all that we’ll be conquered from without but there is danger that we’ll be conquered.”
There are people making billions of dollars off our fear, and working like maniacal trolls to make us more fearful so they can extricate even more riches from us. And the only thing we have to do to save ourselves from them is to say, “No, we’re not afraid; we don’t want to spend our lives making bombs; we want to spend them making movies, and books, and ballgames.”
So the answer to what would happen if we refused to be brainwashed is that we could walk easily down the street, and help one another when we saw the need, and laugh, and tell jokes, and give up defining ourselves by the lies designed to keep us locked up in little mental boxes. We could live for life and not for defeating non-existent enemies.
We do, though, get back to the first question. Are we capable of grasping intellectual freedom for ourselves? I don’t guess anyone can answer that question in advance. We’ll answer it by deciding who and what we are. We’ll just have to see.
March 7, 2013
If we inhabit a universe of meaningless chaos in which there is no authority which relates in any way to what humans call morality, what are we to do? How do we choose a manner of living? Can we, out of ourselves, create an approach to existence which offers us, to some extent, a sense of meaningful satisfaction?
These are the sort of questions philosophers fool around with all the time. Some of them offer provisional answers. None has ever offered a perfect answer.
Religions, on the other hand, do claim to offer perfect answers. They do it on the basis of positing some overweening authority who cares about humanity and will keep it safe -- under certain conditions. The conditions usually constitute an obedience. The problem with religions is that all their structures have been laid out for us by humans, and humans have a propensity to make stuff up.
Most people hold all this business at arm’s length. They concentrate on how much groceries cost, and comparable issues. Some say that’s all we’ve got and so we shouldn’t try to think about anything else. They have a point, but whether it’s adequate remains uncertain. It appears very difficult for humans to stay away, all the time, from questions of meaning.
We have, over many centuries, developed a body of critical habits which some say would serve us well, if we would apply them regularly. For example, when someone puts forward a system of obedience which is said to be required of all of us, the critical habit is to ask, who gets what from our obedience? In Texas, evidently, many people don’t like that kind of questioning. There have been efforts lately to strip it out of the schools.
I’ve worried about and fussed over these matters for quite a while now. I’ve come to no definitive conclusions. I don’t, for example, know whether there is a revelation available to us in the universe which tells us beyond question who or what we should be (though I confess I have a hard time imagining getting beyond question).
The only helpful conclusion I think I’ve got firmly in mind is that everything is what it is, and if you try to deal with it as something it isn’t, you’re bound to screw up. It’s not easy to know what a thing is; I’m not claiming that. We are almost certain to make some mistakes in defining things. But if we tried to see them for what they are and then tried to respond to them on the basis of who we are, I suspect we would lead more healthy lives than the ones we have at the moment.
We all recall back during the early days of the Bush administration that the president -- or somebody who was leading him on -- decided that three countries constituted an “axis of evil.” There is no such thing as an axis of evil, and saying that there is obscures the problems that one country may be having with another. Every nation in the world is a group of people occupying a certain stretch of territory, with a particular form of government, and influenced by its own history. If you want to do anything sensible with respect to it, you try to get clear in your mind what each of those components are, how they work together, and how that working affects you and what you want. You don’t blather nonsensical abstractions about it. Just think of all the horror and suffering that has come from that dopey phrase alone.
What we can say about a nation we can say about anything else. You need to know it for what it is before you can interact with it intelligently. Making up stuff about it that you think will satisfy your emotions and give you a more elevated sense of self, is just going to lead you into future misery.
Mr. Lincoln is famous for having said, “We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” Maybe we should modify that: “Let us disenthrall ourselves and then, perhaps, we’ll have a chance to save ourselves.”
I’ll admit we can’t be sure that if we clean all the stupidity out of our minds it will be replaced by healthy intelligence. If you climb out of a hole then you’re still just back on the ground. If you want to get to some place higher, you have to figure out how to do it. Yet if you don’t get up to ground level, you can’t even start building. Thomas Hobbes told us a long time ago, “Where men build on false grounds, the greater is the ruin.” We ought to start learning that lesson.
Of course we’re bedeviled by unanswerable questions. That might well be a condition humanity can never escape entirely. But if we have to live with it, surely that life will be enhanced if we stop wallowing in empty delusions. It’s not disgraceful not to know what we don’t know. It is disgraceful to blind ourselves willfully, to refuse to open our eyes.
I’m aware of the argument that we need an enveloping myth that will give us meaning we can never make for ourselves. It’s a sweet notion but it tends to neglect the simple truth that the myth has to come from somewhere. The notion that it appears magically, independent of human agency, makes no sense. How about the idea that the potency of myth has run out, that it may have carried us to a point in human development but that it can carry us no farther? Maybe myth is required now to bequeath its charge to its offspring, imagination, which has no need to manufacture an inauthenticity formerly passed off as truth.
I don’t know that exchanging supposed certainty for imaginative hope is an answer to the problem of meaning. But when former certainty disintegrates, we’ve got to do something.
March 8, 2013
Some of you may recall that when Robert Gibbs, then the president’s press secretary, was asked about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sixteen year old son, he responded that the boy should have had a more responsible father. This should be set alongside Ron Ziegler’s comment that his previous statements had become inoperative. Both deserve ranking near the top of Washington goofball zaniness.
Mr. Gibbs has now joined MSNBC. Recently, he was a guest on the Rachel Maddow Show, where he was supposed to discuss the drone assassination program. One of the first things they told him, he said, when he became press secretary, was not to acknowledge that the program existed. This has raised many eyebrows and been the subject of much press commentary. But as far as I can tell, no one has asked Mr. Gibbs the obvious question: who were the “they” that told him that?
If I had a chance to interview Gibbs, I would ask him who they were, and when he told me that he couldn’t say, then I would ask him if they had names and if he knew what their names were when they instructed him. He would probably grant that they did have names and that he knew them.
Then I would ask him why he wouldn’t tell me the names and he would probably say that was secret. So then I would ask why they were secret.
My point here is that if reporters would ask obvious questions, we would either find out more than we do now, or government officials would be shown clearly to be talking nonsense. But reporters won’t do that because they have a kind of alliance with the people they interview. It runs something like: “I won’t ask you anything really hard; I won’t push you to the point that you are revealed as supporting absurdity.”
There’s no doubt this alliance is in place, and there’s no doubt that it’s bad for the American people.
In the United States there is nothing that needs to be established more firmly, and obviously, than that government officials have purposes which have nothing to do with the well-being of the public. If that were done, whenever journalists confront officials, it would be understood that the officials were trying to cover up actions that benefit a small number of people at the expense of the majority. That truth would not be in question, and, consequently, there would be no doubt that the journalist’s efforts should be directed at trying to expose those specialized interests. Journalistic success would be measured by the number of specialized interests brought to light.
Lacking that understanding, we leave open the argument that the officials probably are being coy about the truth but that they have good reasons for it -- reasons which the public would support if they could only know what they were. This is a formula for letting officials get away with murder, literally.
In the interview with Maddow, Gibbs said he knew the drone killings had saved many American lives. But she didn’t come back with the obvious question: how did he know? That would have been outside the alliance. According to the current rules, journalists are required to let statements like that stand without being justified. Keep in mind that this interview was conducted by Rachel Maddow, who is sharper on these matters than 95% of the press corps. That even she bows down to the degree she does shows just how potent the restrictions are.
The reason journalists give for failing to ask penetrating questions is that they fear losing access. But who cares about access if it’s not going to be used to reveal anything? The answer is obvious. Journalists care because access gets them on television. That their talk with officials is mostly just meaningless blather, in which the officials do nothing other than repeat pre-determined talking points, doesn’t interfere markedly with the journalists’ celebrity, and, consequently, with their paychecks.
At this point you may conclude that I’m just railing against the way of the world, that things always have been this way and always will be. But I don’t think so. Cultural habits can change, and they can change for the better. It’s now the habit in journalistic culture to be cozy with officials, to hang out with them, to assume, in the end, you’re all on the same team. That’s not required, though. If journalists and officials acknowledged to each other that they’re not on the same team, that the points scored by one side don’t bolster the other, it wouldn’t be necessary for their relationship to be hostile or bitter; it could just be honest, with each side admitting that they have different purposes. If that were more the case, the public would benefit.
In the instance of Gibbs and the sixteen year-old, who presumably should have saved his teenaged life by doing something no human has ever been able to do, that is, choosing his own father, Rachel might, at least, have prompted Gibbs to admit that he had said an extremely foolish (and cruel) thing. Chances are, he would have admitted he could have chosen his words better which might have provided an opening for Rachel to ask why the boy was killed. Gibbs would then have stumbled around making nonsensical noises and ending up with the explanation that these matters have to remain classified for reasons which are themselves classified. That on its own would have revealed something and would have scored a point for Rachel’s side. But I suppose I have to remind myself that, now, she and Gibbs are on the same side, which made the whole interview pointless.
March 13, 2013
The concept of the “grand bargain,” heretofore extolled by pundits such as Tom Friedman and David Brooks, is taking on an increasingly odious flavor as more and more people see it as a craven surrender to the American plutocracy. Up until the last couple days, the president continued to make happy noises about it, but even he is backing off now, probably as he and his advisors recognize that the very term is becoming stinky.
There has probably never been a more confused discourse than the one that has taken place in Washington over the past couple years about the notion of compromise and its glorious political virtue. That’s because in the simplistic political mind whenever there are two groups, however constituted, in contention, the reasonable thing is to find common ground between them. This common ground is sought, even if it doesn’t exist. In Washington, the nonexistence of something is no reason not to erect grand castles on it.
In the capital now compromise works something like this: One guy says to another, “I want to kill you.” The second guy says, “I don’t to be killed.” So the first guy rejoins, “Okay, I’ll agree just to chop off your leg.” If the pair walks away on three legs, then, presumably a grand bargain has been reached and everyone should be happy.
Amazing as it seems, the people in danger of losing one of their legs, might be on the verge of rebelling.
Why is it that many Americans think that people who genuinely need something should surrender part of it in order to accommodate those seeking only minor enhancements. Or, to put it more specifically: why should a thousand people who are barely getting by each surrender a hundred dollars a month in order for a man who already has millions in the bank to increase his monthly income by a hundred thousand dollars? What is the significant good in that for anybody? Let’s not beguile ourselves. That’s the nature of the change the Republicans are after. And there’s nothing more to their efforts than that. Anyone who thinks they are really trying to decrease the national debt is wallowing in ignorance. Why should they want to decrease the national debt? Most of it is owed to them and they are making vast profits off of it.
That there are juvenile rationalizations behind these efforts is no reason to credit them. The man who gets the extra hundred thousand dollars a month is not going to use it in socially beneficial ways. The man who is deprived of a hundred dollars a month is not going to be catapulted into imaginative and energetic efforts. No authoritative moral principle going to be served by taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The national economy is not going to be boosted by that modification; just the opposite will occur.
The only possible result of the so-called grand bargain will be increased burdens and pains for millions of people. So why should anyone surrender anything for it? Destroying goods in order to placate stupidity and greed is not compromise. It’s simply gross manipulation.
Admittedly it is helped along by the bought condition of the American political class. Its members live off the bribes given to them by the persons who, as a result of the grand bargain, would receive the the extra hundred thousand dollars a month. But that’s merely a reason to refuse to make any such bargain. No reform is more needed than for politicians to start living off the salaries paid them by the people to conduct the people’s business, and for journalists to earn their pay by reporting on what is actually occurring.
The Tea Party movement, nauseating as it has been, has taught us one thing: even a minority can paralyze action in a direction they don’t like. If the Tea Party can stop the nation from making a more equitable distribution of material gain, then surely the people who would be hurt by a grand bargain can stop it from happening. And they should. There is nothing in it for them. And if they come to think there is, it’s because they are being lied to, and propagandized, by voices who are convinced that they -- the majority -- are insensate dolts. That insult alone ought to energize people enough to say no, and to mean it.
Our senator here in Vermont, Bernard Sanders, has promised to mount a filibuster against any deal between the parties that would reduce public support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. I’m pretty sure Bernie will carry though if any such pathetic compromise is offered by the president. And knowing Bernie, I’m convinced that his efforts won’t be half-hearted. I hope he will get the backing he deserves.
The national press has tended to dismiss people like Bernie Sanders who try to talk sense. But if it comes to a filibuster, the press may begin giving him the attention he deserves. If they do, they will be forced to report facts they have hitherto ignored in the interest of horse-race politics. And that could result in the public’s learning something.
My guess is the White House will not let it come to that. If the president and his people see that they cannot camouflage what would be contained in a grand bargain deal, they will probably step away from it. The responsibility of the people and any politicians who are not bought will be to let the national leaders know they can’t make something out to be what it’s not. And if that happened we might even get rid of the dopey term “grand bargain” itself. That alone would be a great blessing.
March 14, 2013
A friend asked me to read Ursula Le Guin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” So I did.
It’s a tale that can be, and has been, read as a kind of universal myth. But I think it also can be addressed to each person’s distinctive sense of alienation, or perhaps I should say, each person’s sense of alienation who’s capable of having one. That, in turn, could lead us to talking about two kinds of people in the world.
The story is quite simple. It’s about a city that seems as close to paradise as humans are able to perceive. But its happiness depends on keeping a small, miserable child locked in dank filth in a musty cellar. Most of the citizens are able to rationalize the need, or the reality, of this scapegoat and embrace their own happiness. But some, having seen the child -- as all citizens are required to do at some point -- simply walk away, out of the city.
You might read it as version of the story of Eden. If you’re willing not to know the why of things, you can be happy and protected. Eve was not willing and so she became the first rebel hero of humanity. That’s the reason she is the mother of us all; it’s not simply because of her sex.
A few months ago, this same friend and I, along with a set of companions, discussed the worth of respectability, and what one should be willing to do in order to hold onto it. I was arguing, then, that the desire for respectability is the ultimate temptation for selling one’s soul. That’s what’s being addressed in Le Guin’s story. Respectability is the guarantor of social contentment and, also, of physical security. The principal requirement for retaining it is a willingness to rationalize, and thus to defend, the odious. This is what we must do in order to justify hideous behavior by our own group, whether it be a church, a profession, a business organization or a nation. We have to tell ourselves tales. We have to make up moralities which proclaim that what we do is good (without examining very closely the nature of good, and where it comes from). And, most of all, we have to believe that the motives of those opposed to us are either mindless or overtly evil (the latter being a quality that can’t be examined very closely either). In Le Guin’s story there’s no mention of what those who stay think of those who walk away. Since the self-exiled don’t mount any direct opposition, I suppose one could assume that they are forgotten about rather quickly. And if that’s the case, they also remind us of another demand of respectability: a willingness to forget.
We are told nothing about the reasons activating the ones who walk away. That authorial silence can be taken to suggest that there may be no general motive, but that each person who makes the choice to reject the pleasures of Omelas could do so out of his or her own distinctive sensibility. The only things they have in common is that they do walk away and that they all seem to know where they are going. Le Guin has explained that she wrote the story after noting a passage in William James’s The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life:
Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
James is explicit enough to suggest that walking away must involve a specific and independent sort of emotion. Put that together with Le Guin’s statement about the walkers appearing to have a destination firmly in mind, and we are led to assume they are moving towards selves that are valid for each of them alone. In other words, people who won’t accept ease and pleasure at the expense of someone else’s torture are those who must have distinctive selves. They are, as Mathew Arnold said of Shakespeare, “Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure.”
Everyone who walks away must be, in some sense, alienated. They are not full-scale belongers. It doesn’t mean they can’t be friendly, or that they can’t participate in social activities. But it does mean they can’t give themselves wholly to those activities, no matter how good nor how wonderful they may seem.
At the start of the story, Le Guin goes to great lengths -- you might even say she overwrites a bit -- to convey how glorious, how inspiriting the atmosphere of Omelas is. She is also careful to emphasize that the devoted residents are not flat non-thinking persons. They are not greeting card cut-outs in any sense. And yet, they did not walk away.
I hinted at the start that this story may be about the two kinds of people. But if it is, the two kinds pointed to here don’t comport with the contrasts we normally hear about. It’s not good people versus bad people; it’s not careful people versus reckless people; it’s not the adventurous versus the staid; it’s not the neat versus the slovenly; it’s not the ambitious versus the lazy; it’s not the intelligent versus the stupid. None of those differences matter in this tale. What counts here is the disparity between those who will accept ease at the expense of the suffering of another and those who won’t, those who will walk away.
March 25, 2013
My absence from this page for quite a while has been due not to mere laziness -- although that played a part -- but also to being away from home, driving along fifteen hundred miles of roads from Montpelier to Bowling Green, Florida, and, having arrived here in the second largest city of Hardee County, with a miserable flu-like affliction. I have told myself that I should write but, then, having told myself, I have failed to carry out my own directive. So much for excuses.
In the outskirts of Philadelphia, at the home of friends, I was asked what I thought of Harry Truman. To the best of my recollection, I answered that he has struck me as a decent-hearted American of the first half of the twentieth century, and as a man whose outlook and perception were considerably limited by his upbringing and education.
Sunk in my misery, in my room in Bowling Green, I began picking through the books in a case in the corner, in the hope of diverting myself for maybe five minutes. I came on a fat volume by Donald White titled The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as A World Power. It was published in 1996.
I turned to the section near the beginning of the book which dealt with the presidency of Mr. Truman, and there I found this expression, which was included in a speech he gave in May of 1948:
Having achieved a comprehension of the issues now confronting this Republic, it will then be possible for the American people and the American Government to arrive at a consensus. Out of this common view will develop a determination of the national will and a solid, resolute expression of that will.
One can read this as typical political boilerplate, sonorous abstractions with a comforting sound requiring no thought. I don’t suppose we should chide a politician for using rhetoric of that character. It’s a tool of the trade.
Even so, we have the right to wonder what was in the writer’s mind when he penned the comment, whether it was the president himself or, more likely, a White House speechwriter. The first curiosity is whether the person who wrote thought he was saying something.
What could possibly be meant by a common comprehension by the government and the people of the issues confronting the republic? Anyone with half a brain knows that the people have virtually no comprehension of foreign policy issues because they almost never think of them. The idea that the foreign policy of the United States is directed by the general population is pure sham, and anyone who claims to be respectful of the people’s will with respect to interactions with other nations is either a con man or extremely vacuous. If I were betting, I’d pick the former.
The degree of public participation -- or non-participation -- in policy decisions has been made obvious over the past few weeks as we have commemorated the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The information given to the people justifying that event was not only false but obviously false. Anyone who paid even moderate attention during the buildup to war knew the evidence was either faulty or non-existent. But the public ate it up, nonetheless, and cheered as the tanks rolled across the sands with the embedded reporters gazing rapturously at the heroes surrounding them.
What had happened, of course, was that a fairly small group of plotters had designed the whole thing, including the false propaganda operation to bring the nation into line. It allowed them, literally, to get away with murder. And in this instance, the murders amounted not just to the two or three deaths that occur every day or so in American cities, but to hundreds of thousands. One of the curiosities of the human mind is that when someone breaks into a house and kills a resident there, the people scream murder most foul. But when tens of thousands are slaughtered, it becomes foreign policy and a matter for grave discussion by men sitting around large tables wearing eight-hundred dollar suits.
In any case, the notion that foreign policy is made by democratic processes is far-fetched. Consequently, the idea that consensus among the people brings forth a national will, as the Truman speech proclaimed, is an absurdity.
The common solution for democratic ineptitude has been considered representative government. The people are supposed to choose competent and honest public servants, who will use their knowledge and experience to advance the general well-being. That has never worked perfectly, and at the moment in the United States, it works scarcely at all. Very small groups have bought both the public representatives and the facilities that manipulate the people’s choices, so that these privileged ones can operate virtually without restraint.
I look back to Truman’s rhetoric to make the point of how long this development has been underway. It didn’t happen overnight; it didn’t even start with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, though that helped it along considerably. A system that has been under construction for at least sixty years will not be undone instantaneously. Nor will it be undone until greater numbers recognize the part that supposedly respectable language plays in gluing it together.
It’s not easy for journalists to discard that kind of language, and it’s even harder for them to point out its actual purpose. I’m not even sure it can happen. The only thing we can be sure of is that if the United States wishes to turn aside from its march towards totalitarianism, somebody has to make it happen.
Plato pointed out a long time ago that pure democracy leads to totalitarianism. Maybe he’s not as antiquarian as some suppose.
Now that I’ve broken out of my lethargy, I’ll try to resume a more regular schedule of writing. And, as always, I’ll be grateful for any response any of you can find time to make.
©John R. Turner
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