Collected Thoughts

May 2013
May 11, 2013

More than a month ago I stopped posting items to this site. I could offer a number of plausible reasons. Some unusual family responsibilities had developed. I was away from home. I was staying in a place with poor internet connection. These gave me excuses, but none of them, nor all of them collectively, furnished the reason. What actually happened was that one day, reading the New York Times, I found myself saying, “This is all insane and there’s nothing more to said about it.”

After all, you can’t just sit around incessantly calling stuff insane. That’s enough by itself to drive you crazy.

Consider, for example, a news item I read just this morning. Cardinal Sean O’Malley is refusing to attend the Boston College graduation exercises because the invited speaker is Enda Kenny, the prime mister of Ireland, who has given his support to legislation regulating abortion Cardinal O’Malley doesn’t think is punitive enough. Accompanying the story is a photograph showing O’Malley in all his Cardinal gear.

Is this interesting? Does it have any significance? Does it matter in the least whether Cardinal O’Malley goes to a commencement exercise? I have to admit that for some people the answer to these questions may well be, yes. But for me, it is not yes. I’m not blaming people for being caught up in issues that don’t matter to me. I’m just saying, “I don’t care.” And the reason I don’t care is I have lost the ability to believe that the concerns publicized in newspapers are anything more than froth on gigantic underlying waves that journalism almost never addresses.

The world is obsessed with froth, and to spend human life doing nothing but thrashing around in froth strikes me as nuts.

Is it true that Peggy Noonan, and Wayne LaPierre, and Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan, and Karl Rove, and Rush Limbaugh, and Joe Arpaio, and Jennifer Rubin, and Matt Drudge, and Tucker Carlson, and Marco Rubio, and Dick Morris, and Penn Jillette, and Sean Hannity, and Dinesh D’Souza, and even hundreds of people in the news whom I like better than I like them, are intellectual absurdities? Yes, of course it’s true. But so what? There are billions of human intellectual absurdities on earth. If you use your life picking out a certain subset of them to expose as being what they are, what have you accomplished? Suppose you were able completely to discredit a big target, like Rush Limbaugh, so what? There’s another Rush Limbaugh in the pipeline to take his place.

This is just to say that if I’m going to keep on writing here, I’ve got to find -- mostly -- topics out of the news to write about. The news, in being deadly boring, is mind-killing.

When I was in Annapolis about a month ago, in the Barnes and Noble at Harbour Center, I decided to indulge myself with a gigantic splurge and buy John N. Cooper’s edition of the complete works of Plato brought out by the Hackett Publishing Company. It cost $56.00, which is a good deal more than I’m usually willing to pay for a book. But, then, this was not just any book. I’ve promised myself I’ll read it all the way through over the coming year. Plato’s dialogues are works I’ve dipped into in a helter-skelter way over decades. And I’ve read a good deal about them. But I have never forced myself to read them straight through. So far I’ve made just a small beginning. Even so, I’ve already discovered that Plato is a lot more interesting than Rush Limbaugh. I can hear you saying, “Wow! What a discovery!” I know. I know. It has been obvious to me that Plato is more interesting than Rush Limbaugh for practically forever. But have I lived as though I knew it?

What we know is not as significant as what we do about our knowing.

Popular journalism is the voice of the world. And the world doesn’t want us to know much.
What is this world, you ask? It’s the collective intellectual pathos of humanity. It doesn’t rule completely but it rules far too much.

In Crito, Socrates announces that “Doing harm to people is no different from wrongdoing.” And, then, once Crito has agreed, he adds, “For I know that only a few people hold this view or will hold it, and there is no common ground between those who hold this view and those who do not, but they inevitably despise one another’s views.”

I’m not sure about the inevitable despising. Undoubtedly, I’m more naive than Socrates was, especially since, when he made this remark, he had just been sentenced to death. But I am sure of this: to hold the view held by only a few people is not necessarily a bad thing. It can sometimes be the only way to maintain sanity.

Just because a topic is the current big issue doesn’t mean you have to give yourself to it, or even express yourself about it. I, for example, have an opinion about the Benghazi story but I’m not going to take the time to tell you what it is. It would be a complete waste of energy.

All I’m doing here is making a mini-declaration of intellectual independence. Now I -- and you if you’re interested -- have to see whether I can follow through with it, or will be drawn back into exasperation with the latest idiocy.

May 14, 2013

In a recent number of the New York Review, (May 9th) there’s an article about a book on the so-called Harvard Grant Study, which for seventy-five years has been gathering data about a group of men who were sophomores at Harvard from 1939 through 1944. The author, George E. Vaillant, was himself a director of the study for more than thirty years, retiring in 2004. He is himself now in his seventies.

The reviewer, Marcia Angell, chose to title her piece, “What Is A Good Life?”, and to direct her attention to the problems of deciding how a good life might be identified. There is, of course, no definitive way to establish the “good” qualities of living, so any conclusion she or anybody else might reach is bound to be speculative.

She concentrates first on health and longevity, and finds, not surprisingly, that these Harvard men  had better health and longer lives than most men in their age category. But were their lives better than others? Ms. Angell’s take on that question is based on how the subjects felt about their lives as they entered their seventies. Again, “goodness” seems to flow in their direction. They are more satisfied and content than most other aged men seem to be.

I don’t place much stock in the worth of studies like this, though I suppose one might say they are interesting. They just don’t tell us anything vital, unless it’s that good health is better than ill health, which everybody knows already. So, I was pleased to find the reviewer turning to her own views of the good life as she neared the close of her article. She, herself, is in her seventies and she says she feels pretty good about things, except for the way time seems to speed up as we get older. But then she adds this observation:

But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more
pessimistic about the macrocosm -- the state of the world. We face unsustainable
population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural
resources, pollution of the ocean, increasing inequality, both within and across
countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious.

These anticipations of coming troubles are almost exactly in line with my own. The only thing I might add are swelling waves of vulgarity that may well be amassing a force that could wash all good taste away. I admit all this puts me in the glooms sometimes, even though none of it is likely to affect my life markedly. But the truth that it works on me emotionally tells me that a significant measure of the good life is the sense that one may have done something that will make life for those who come afterwards more meaningful and charged with rich expectations. It’s all very well to say that we have nothing but our own years and nothing else. But that’s not quite true. We have something to leave after us, and what that is counts in ways too mysterious to capture.

Most of the formulas one sees about living well in old age have some validity. Learn to live in the moment. Pay more attention to the grand sights that may be unfolding in front of you. Divest yourself of anger and resentment; neither has the power to do you any good. Recall the past but don’t live in it; don’t delude yourself into believing it was far better than the present of the future can be. Recognize that all physical things change; that’s the nature of what we call reality.

If you’ll assimilate truths of this kind you’ll live better than if you don’t. But formulas, either singly or collectively, are not enough. No matter how assiduously you apply them they can’t, by themselves, give you a confidence you have lived adequately.

I haven’t seen that adequacy of life has been addressed in the Harvard Grant Study or in other studies of its kind. That’s because they are about group experience whereas adequacy is about the single self. What is it about any specific person that permits an assurance of life well spent?

It’s a different answer for every person, of course. If one doesn’t have a distinctive answer for himself, if he’s willing to accept the sort of encomiums which appear on plaques, and scrolls, and engraved walls, then he has missed the point. He has, in effect, taken shoddy goods.

On the way back from Florida eleven days ago, we took a walk around the grounds of the university in Charlottesville. I remarked that it’s an astounding thing the way a single man, with his singular taste, could have marked a place so powerfully that here, a hundred and eighty-seven years after his death, the place still radiates the flavor of what he was trying to impart. Jefferson is far better known now for things other than the feeling the grounds of the University of Virginia give to visitors -- things like presidencies, declarations, purchases of vast tracts of ground, and so forth. But other men might have done those things about as well as he did. I doubt that anyone else would have laid out the grounds of a university the way he did. It was not merely an architectural achievement, but architecture married to something that was going to last and to grow.

I don’t know that he, himself, would have given the future of the university the first place in his own self-identity. Maybe the idea of first place in a case like this is fatuous. But if he did pick the flavor of the grounds as his special quality I wouldn’t consider it a foolish or false decision. And I hope all the participants in the Harvard Grant Study, both living and dead, have something that intensely personal to offer each of them a sense of life well lived.

May 16, 2013

Two events have curiously come together to remind me of one of my most longstanding perplexities.

One is that my old employer, Goddard College, is hosting a conference to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of a gathering that has gradually transmogrified from dubious behavior into august significance: an “Alternative Media Conference.” The most important feature of the earlier occurrence was that a group of people got together to discuss starting a radio station at Goddard which has lasted until the present. The less gratifying features were quite a bit of childish acting out, including defecation in the college water system, and considerable disorderliness and filth. The revolutionary sensibility of the early 1970s didn’t have a prohibition against littering. I attended the first conference and I can’t say I found it an enthralling event. Now I have signed up to go to the one that will take place the day after tomorrow, and I’m hoping it will be markedly different. I’ll have to let you know about that.

The second was the arrival of a book by Catherine and Michael Zuckert titled The Truth About Leo Strauss, which I began to read just last night.

So, what’s the perplexity?

It’s simple, actually. How do I sort out my assessment of the right-wing and left-wing people I have associated with over the past half-century, and where, if anywhere, along that spectrum do I place my own loyalties?

When I was at Goddard from 1968 until 1980, I was considered an extreme conservative. Since I have left Goddard I’ve been seen as a thorough, if not extreme, liberal. So how accurate is either of those judgments?

My own view is that though I’ve evolved in my thinking, as anyone would over the course of several decades, I’ve been fairly consistent in holding to the things and behaviors I like and in opposing the ones I don’t like. I don’t think I’ve gone through an overturning transformation in that respect.

So, what do I like? Good manners, kindliness, honesty, respect for the meaning of words, imagination, the even treatment of people, eschewing hatred and bigotry, and respect for the importance of life.

And what do I dislike? Slovenliness, sullen manners, filth, vulgarity, ruthlessness, a reckless attitude towards language, repression of thought in the interests of so-called goodness, the desire to use people regardless of their own well-being, and, most of all, murderousness.

My problem is that neither my likes or dislikes fall into one sector of the political spectrum.

I had heard good things about the balance of the Zuckerts’ book, so when I began to read it last night, I was bothered by these two sentences from the preface:

The Liberty Fund hosted us while we completed the book: without the opportunity
they provided us as visiting scholars, we could not have written it as quickly as we
did. A group of fellows there also joined in a seminar on several chapters and gave
us very helpful reactions.

I confess, I don’t know a great deal about the Liberty Fund, but what I do know doesn’t make my heart go pitty-pat. What I have heard causes me to think that it leans in the Ayn Rand direction, not a point of view that strikes me as either kindly or intellectually admirable. I have no use for people, or ideologies, who are willing to accept starvation in the interests of so-called personal responsibility. But, then, I need to remind myself that I can’t be sure how the Zuckerts were influenced by Liberty Fund surroundings. That they welcomed them does increase my skepticism.

I have had right-wing friends whom I respected, most notably Edward Banfield, author of The Unheavenly City, a book I much admired. Ed was always very kind to me and my wife, and we spent many pleasant afternoons and evenings at his summer home on the outskirts of Barre, talking about all sorts of things -- literature, politics, local gossip, gardening and so forth. He died in 1999. I’m not sure how our discussions would have gone after the launching of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Friction might have developed, but I’m not sure. I note this just to point out that I’m not automatically repulsed by persons who fall generally on the conservative (as the adjective is used now) side of things.

On the other hand, I do have reservations about friendship with people who are receptive to the use of murderous force for promoting patriotism or a proper attitude of mind. The older I get, the less I like the idea of killing anyone, for any reason. And at the moment it is the right-wing who supports that sort of behavior more than people on the left do. I’m aware, of course, that at times supposed leftists have been some of the most vicious killers of history. So perhaps my disgust with killing doesn’t locate me anywhere specifically on the political spectrum.

I have said, when I’m trying to be brief, that if I have to choose between non-lethal silliness and bad manners versus a certain courtliness accompanied by a willingness to kill, I’ll reluctantly go with the former.

There was much about Goddard I didn’t like and that if I were to return there I still wouldn’t like, primarily a lack of intellectual integrity. On the other hand, Goddard never exhibited lethal viciousness, which is a strong point in its favor.

I hope I’m clear that I’m not, right now, making any judgment of the Zuckerts’ book, or of Leo Strauss, or even of intellectual think tanks that lean to the right, other than that they bring to mind the ongoing problem I’ve had with right-wing cruelty. Neither do I have any conclusion about the new alternative media conference at Goddard, other than that it causes me to recall the slovenliness in both thought and behavior I encountered when I was a part of the college.

I suppose it’s inevitable that when one comes across anything that seems to have a connection with experiences of his personal past, he is projected back into his confusion about them. I certainly remain confused about much of politics. But I have at least reached this conclusion: I’m not going to sign up with anyone willing to hold food and medical care away from starving, sick people, nor with those ready to blow other people’s heads off with big guns or bombs.

I doubt that either Goddard or conservative intellectuals can change my mind about that.

May 17, 2013

I resumed conversation with my Jehovah Witness friends yesterday for the first time since I left for my travels in mid-March. It was a good talk, but, as always, it left us with conundrums we couldn’t solve.

My point to them was why we should expect -- or even want -- to grasp fully the nature of vast abstractions, such as justice, right, good, equality, god. What’s wrong with admitting to ourselves that we can’t? These, I said, are terms that fascinate our minds. We find ourselves driven to ask questions about them. But talk as we will, we always find ourselves scrambling for some comprehension we can’t reach.

Their answer was that we are destined to want to know the source of the things we see around us. If we see a flowing stream, we want to follow it back, and upwards, to where it originates as a spring. True, I said. We want to do it. But what if we can’t? Follow as we will, we don’t reach the starting point. It’s always up there, somewhere beyond us. Maybe that’s who we are, searchers but not finders.

A common response to that argument is that if we don’t have some faith, or hope, in reaching ultimate answers, we’ll give up looking and subside into constructing mere creature comforts. We will lose all nobility (another of the great abstractions). I doubt that's the case.

My friends have seized on the Bible as the text which answers all significant questions. When they put it to the test, they say, it always comes through. Every significant perplexity is addressed there. And when a book performs as the Bible does, that means it must have a divine source.

They, in effect, are always trying to show me that I can’t refute it. There seems to be an assumption that if I can’t refute it, I have to accept it as true. They have a hard time grasping that I have no interest in refuting it. It is not my duty to show that the Bible is not the world of God. It is my duty though, in honest conversation, to explain why I cannot see it as the word of God. It doesn’t speak to me in that way. It’s also my duty to voice a suspicion that if one does not take up the Bible as divinely inspired, he is not likely to read it as divine revelation. The nature of one’s belief about what it is determines to a great extent what he finds in it. In other words, belief precedes interpretation.

In the first section of Beyond Good and Evil, titled “The Prejudices of Philosophers,” Nietzsche makes a point that deserves wide attention. He says, in effect, that our thoughts arise out of our desires. Our thoughts, in short, are rationalizations for what we want, and this is the case even with philosophers. Here’s a pertinent passage:

They (philosophers) all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered
and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent
dialectic .... whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or “suggestion,”
which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by
them with arguments sought out after the event. They are all advocates who do
not wish to be regarded as such, generally astute defenders, also of their
prejudices, which they dub “truths.”

There are problems with this proposition which require further discussion, but the underlying point, that there is an element of desire in every conclusion, should be given more credit than it generally receives. There is no such thing as perfect logic when we come to the vast abstractions.

Almost always after I’ve had a thoughtful conversation the next serious thing I read sheds some light on it. I noted a couple days ago that I’m beginning to wade into Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s book on Leo Strauss. This morning in the chapter where the authors attempt to lay out Strauss’s genuine interests (as contrasted with putative neo-liberal schemes) I came on his defense of orthodox religion against the main figures of modern philosophy: “there remains no other way but the attempt to prove  that the world and life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of an unfathomable God.” In other words, if figures such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Heidegger couldn’t arrive at a way to make life perfectly intelligible through the use of their own theories their critique of the ancient ways was rendered suspect if not inept.

Strauss was, in effect, employing the same argument my Jehovah Witness friends were. Those who have an explanation of why the world is as it is trump those who don’t. But that’s exactly the hierarchy I don’t see. Why do we assume the world has to be perfectly intelligible and that those who can propose a scheme that makes it so are intellectually superior to those who can’t? Might it not be more honest to admit you don’t know and that you can’t see how anyone can know. After all, perfect intelligibility always -- as far as I can tell -- rests on some concept you can’t get behind -- in this case God.

Just because you can come up with a term which supposedly supplies the explanation of everything, doesn’t mean that it does. If “God” is unfathomable, as Strauss confirms, then God, or whatever it is we think we’re pointing to by the use of that word, can explain nothing to us.

I’m not trying to denigrate those who profess to believe in God. I’m just saying that belief in a deity is a desire and not a knowledge. We shouldn’t mix these things up. And why not? Because desire is simply a personal stance. It doesn’t permit imposition on other people. Knowledge on the other hand does. And history has demonstrated innumerable times that those who think they have knowledge of God and his directives tend to think they have the right to enforce those directives through whatever means are necessary, including the killing of those who refuse to  get in line.

All I’m arguing for here is the right not to know what I don’t know. If we grant that right to everyone, then we can converse with one another as vigorously as we wish, and nobody gets bludgeoned.

May 21, 2013

On Sunday I went to a meeting at Montpelier High School hosted by Senator Bernie Sanders for the purpose of introducing to a Vermont audience Peter Taksoe Jensen, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States. Bernie has been on a campaign to suggest that the social and political processes devised by other countries can be useful to the United States in thinking through its own problems.

Mr. Jensen gave a short talk describing the Danish health care and social security systems. Admittedly, the support structure there requires higher taxes than we have here, but the services received by all Danes, regardless of their wealth, are superior to anything Americans can expect. Full health care is available to all citizens, and the financial safety net insures that no one need be wracked by the ills of poverty. His countrymen operate this way, Mr. Jensen observed, because they have a different notion of freedom than the one Americans generally espouse. Freedom in America means the right to seek vast wealth with comparatively few government barriers. Freedom in Denmark means the ability to live a comfortable life without having to be continuously anxious about being deprived of the necessities of existence.

I suppose most Americans have at least a vague idea of the costs and benefits of the Scandinavian system and it’s generally thought that based on their knowledge U.S. citizens have decided to reject it. What Bernie is arguing is that the rejection arises mainly from scanty knowledge and lack of thought. Those who benefit most from the American economic system don’t want Americans to think about other ways of doing things so they try to undermine careful examination with scare words like “Socialism” and “Welfare Society.” The media, controlled by large corporations, seldom give a balanced account of how things work elsewhere.

I came away from the meeting more concerned by the difficulties of words even than by the difficulties of government. We can’t make rational choices about what we want from government because we don’t actually know what we mean by the words we use.

Here, I’ll mention just two examples. “Freedom” generally has a good reputation. Everybody seems to be in favor of it. It is praised in almost every political campaign. But what does it mean? I doubt you could get a coherent definition from even ten percent of the American people. Is, for example, a mother who can’t get medical care for a desperately sick child free in any significant way? When a person has no means to protect the things he cares most about, can he or she be said to be free? Does the fact that some people are “free” to make vast amounts of money off a medical system that parcels out care on the basis of wealth constitute genuine societal freedom? In America we have a system where thousands of people die every year because lack of access to medical consultation kept them away from care until their situations became desperate. Is that one of the conditions of freedom? If you are persuaded by some of the powerful political voices in America, you would have to answer, “Yes.” But in answering that way, you would be using a definition of “freedom” almost the opposite of how a majority of people in the Western world would define it.

My second word is “taxes.” In the United States taxes are described as money the government takes away from you against your will. It is “your” money and “they” take it. Consequently, taxes are always viewed as bad. A few people will grudgingly admit that they’re necessary, but still they’re bad.

This is a twisted way of defining the funds used to support the element of our social system we call government. We have fallen to talking in this manner because we understand neither how our systems work nor how they were designed. When we say, for example, that the money used to pay for the police and fire departments is bad, whereas the money used to pay for groceries is good, we demonstrate our confusion about the functioning of the general social operation. Both fire departments and grocery stores provide something we need in order to live in an organized society. There’s no badness or goodness in the means we use to provide them. The difference between them is not moral; it’s simply managerial.  The fire station is part of one managerial system and the grocery store is part of another. And both those systems are parts of an overall social operation that makes basic decisions about how we all live.

Why do you think a hedge fund manager receives more money than an elementary school teacher does? The answer is obvious but it’s not one we take account of. The social operation delivers more money to the hedge fund manager. Money is simply a product of the social operation, which in turn decides how it will be distributed. Neither Nature nor God determined how much money a hedge fund manager should get. People did, and they did it out of specific motives. They did it to reward some people and to penalize others.

When the social operation assigns a certain amount of money to a given individual, it also decides how much of it shall be called taxes and how much of it shall be called private. The portion called taxes goes to support one managerial system; the portion called private goes to support another.

Nobody makes money, himself. The social operation creates the money and then it passes it out in accordance with certain rules and habits. It’s the people with the power to make the rules who decide who gets more and who gets less. And rules are just that -- rules. They can be modified at any time and changed into something new at any time.

When the taxes associated with your name are delivered to a managerial system, you are not paying them. You never had them in the first place.

If we could get it through our heads that taxes are not taken away from us but rather are an element of an overall social operation which decides how much each of us gets, then we could begin to think about supporting the various systems we need in a more sensible manner. We could grasp that the rules for distributing funds are always biased in some direction or another and if we think they have shifted the distribution too far in one direction we can turn towards another. There is nothing ordained about this, nothing sacred; it is simply human decision-making.

There is, of course, an advantage for some people in clouding the definition of what taxes are. That’s why the definition remains so murky.

These are just two terms, among hundreds, that we need to define more clearly if we expect to approach an equitable social system. If we don’t know what we’re talking about when we attempt to discuss our collective behavior, then obviously, we can’t work our way towards more sensible solutions.

Paying attention to the truth that some people define words differently than we do, as the Danish ambassador urged on Sunday at our local school, is an important start towards thinking reasonably about how we can use words intelligently to decide how best to direct our social behavior.

May 24, 2013

The more I read in modern philosophy, the more I see that the God/no-God debate has such staying power it’s likely to keep going as long as humanity does. That’s because neither side of it can be refuted and because each side offers benefits that many people cherish.

That said, we shouldn’t leap from it to the conclusion that any version of either side shares the validity that its general position grants. For example, just because strong arguments for some god-like force in the universe can be adduced doesn’t mean that the God preached in most fundamentalist Protestant churches makes any sense. We may not be able to see how we can get along without some non-human, transcendent moral truth. But we can get along very well without the God I heard about in most of churches I attended when I was young. I’ll go farther and say that if we do want to get along well we need to get out of the grip of that God as soon as possible. We would do well to keep in mind the warning of 1st John, Chapter 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

How to identify false prophets is one of the great intellectual challenges, and not one humans have been good at up till now.

There seems to be a general consensus among us that no human mind knows, or has ever known, the whole truth. That being the case, say the no-God advocates, why worry about such a concept as the whole truth, why assume that such a thing exists? What possible meaning can “the whole truth” have? They are countered by supporters of deity with the argument that if there is not some ultimate goal that we are striving towards, then our efforts will forever remain fragmented and as a consequence we will always be running into one another in hostile ways. We will all be relativists, which is just another way of saying we will be eternally confused and eternally pathetic.

What’s really being talked about here is our inability to imagine either infinity or finiteness. We can’t grasp the concept of things going on forever, nor can we conceive of their coming to an end. Since we can’t do either, why not admit both? Because one rules out the other, someone might say. Okay, one does rule out the other, but so what? We don’t know which one is ruled out and therefore we don’t know which one is ruled in.

There is no evidence for the existence of god, and besides the idea is inconceivable, say ardent atheists. But they need to recall that from the perspective of thirteen billion, or so, years ago, when space and time came into existence at the event we call the Big Bang, humanity would have been inconceivable. Yet, here we are. If the universe had in it a provision for humanity -- which it obviously did -- who can say that it did not have in it any provision for the guidance of humanity? And a provision for the guidance of humanity in the universe is basically all we mean by God.

What if that provision, though, is no more than curiosity? What if the desire to find out more is the only thing that does, or can, guide humanity, doesn’t that rule out any transcendent, non-human moral code? I suppose the deists could answer, “God works in wondrous ways.”

The question which occurs to me is whether this entire gigantic fuss about God/no-God is actually a coherent debate or merely a confusion over terms. If it is indeed the case that we can imagine neither a complete absence of god-like guidance nor its presence outside humanity, then maybe all we’re saying is that this is a conundrum which humanity, being what it is, is required to wonder about. Surely we wonder about other things without being required to disparage those whose leanings are somewhat different from our own?

It’s clearly evident that we need to think about why we hold certain actions to be right and others to be wrong. It’s also clear that some of the conclusions people have taken to be right, and taken to be wrong, have been mistaken, and revealed to be mistaken over time.

The Pope just yesterday announced that one doesn’t have to be a believing Christian to be redeemed. Regardless of what he meant by redemption, he was saying something different from what previous popes have said. So what does that tell us about the rightness or wrongness of popes?

I said at the start of these conjectures that the debate over the existence of God has great staying power. And I think it does. At the same time, I think -- and hope -- that the tone and temper of the debate can change, so that eventually everyone who enters into it will recognize the difficulty that all the participants are experiencing. No assertion about truth in this matter can be easily made. The very complexity of the words we are forced to use when we engage in it ensures that we leave openings for those who are advancing a position different from our own. If we see the discussion for what it is, it should end up being more unifying than dividing. We are all in the same boat with respect to our underlying human ability. So shouldn’t that generate more sympathy than hatred?

May 25, 2013

Gail Collins noted in her column this morning that “no student of the senate has ever suggested a wacko bird shortage.” That’s probably true, but it leaves us with an issue she doesn’t address: who sends these wacko birds to the upper house of the national legislature? The answer is fairly simple: a certain portion of the people of certain states.

The United States is suffering now from a surfeit of inept minds in Congress, but the reason is a surfeit of inept voters. We can argue why the voting is done so badly. It’s likely a combination of inattention and vicious attitudes. But whatever the reason, it happens, and we are left with the results, such as the two eminent senators from Oklahoma.

There is always talk about providing for a better educated citizenry, but as far as I can tell no one has devised a practicable plan for approaching that goal. It may well be that any collection of a million people in the United States will contain, for at least the next several decades, a majority of lazy-minded and ill-informed voters. The country can’t summon sufficient thoughtful democratic power to keep the wacko birds out.

That being the case, what’s to be done?

Journalism generally neglects the problem because it’s politically inexpedient to address it. If a topic can’t be made profitable for someone, it doesn’t get discussed by the political class in America. The United States, as you know, is obsessed with profit. Nonetheless, it would be senseless to deny that the problem of democracy in the United States is acute. It approaches the severity that led the philosophers of ancient Greece to regard democracy as an inevitable prelude to some form of decay and corruption. Aristotle, for example, held that a majority will be non-virtuous in practice because it is almost impossible to find a majority who has the ability to be virtuous. In modern America, so far, we have found no way to get around that Aristotelian reservation.

Evidence abounds to support the suspicion that major elements of American society are becoming more overtly vicious than was evident a half-century ago. The comment threads following articles reporting on Mr.Obama’s assessment of the effects of the prison at Guantanamo are filled with comments like this one from a reader of the Washington Post who styles himself “jnojr:”

Simple. Announce that they've all been released where they were captured, then
take them all out for a one-way boat ride with a chunk of concrete. These are NOT
poor, innocent, oppressed people unfairly persecuted by the US... every single one
is a murdering terrorist, and every one we've let go we find taking up arms again.
Just end the problem.

It’s not easy to fathom the mind of a person who would write in this way. He knows virtually nothing of the people who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo, nor does he care that he knows nothing. He just wants to kill people. That’s his solution. But hard as it is to know what’s going on in his head, it’s not hard to grasp that there are millions in the United States who think as he does. Nor is it hard to estimate how he votes. If you want to know where the whacko bird senators come from, just remember jnojr.

In the early part of the 20th century, Walter Lippmann addressed this problem, saying of the average citizen: "He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”Lippmann’s solution for democratic ignorance was a well-informed, aggressive, and principled press who would take hold of the political discussion in the nation and shape it such that politicians would be unable to ignore it. It was a theory that the media could liberate political operatives from yahoo voters.

So far that hasn’t worked very well. It’s obvious that big money doesn’t want it to be tried because, as always, big money is doing fine with the status quo. Lippmann’s own political advice wasn’t enthralling but there may be something in his theory worth salvaging.

In a time when the media is a different enterprise from what Lippmann experienced, the so-called mainstream media, which is better called the corporate media, may be shrinking in power. Some elements of what’s called the alternative media seem to be rising.

I’m a believer in incrementalism, in the sense that fairly small changes in some activities can make large differences in others. Compared to the  audience of the big newspapers, network news, and the leading cable news outlets, the number of people who pay attention to figures like Matt Taibbi, Amy Goodman, Thom Hartmann, Steve Benen, Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Jeremy Scahill, Tom Engelhart,  Robert Parry --and others in their vein -- may seem insignificant. Up till recently there has been scant evidence that such journalists can shift political directions. But what if the number of people reading them were doubled -- just doubled? That wouldn’t involve a huge number of additional people. But the added noise the increase could make might surprise us all.

I don’t know why the president decided to make the address he delivered at the National Defense University last Thursday. I suppose his conscience could have played a part. But I think it’s more likely that critics of the corporate-directed national security state were beginning to gain a little traction, enough that the president dared not ignore them as he has during most of his term in office. I don’t know, either, whether there will be any modification of government behavior following his words. But the words themselves were important. They introduced ideas to a wider audience that the mainstream media had not before then considered respectable.

We shouldn’t be naive about any of this. There’s no guarantee of any actual reform. But if we are to escape the depredations of the wacko bird power mongers, ridicule of the sort Matt Taibbi delivered when he mentioned just a couple days ago “Republicans of the Coburn type, whom we expect to be clueless dopes” can’t hurt.

May 29, 2013

I’m into another spate of reading about the controversial political philosopher, Leo Strauss. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Strauss was a German émigré who made his reputation in the United States mainly as a teacher of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He died in 1973.

He is controversial because he is reputed to have indoctrinated a group of students who later exercised strong political influence on the U. S. government, leading it in the direction of elite rule and imperial aspirations. Defenders of Strauss say the idea that he was responsible, in any way, for U.S. foreign policy over the past dozen years is absurd. He was simply a very careful reader of the great political voices of the past, and from interpretations different from what might be called the standard view, arrived at a political philosophy which challenges the perspectives of postmodernism.

So far as Strauss, himself, is concerned, I think his defenders have it over his attackers. With a very few exceptions, the people who have made Strauss out to be a champion of tyranny have been either too lazy or too inept intellectually to read him. For them, he has been merely a good journalistic story. But that’s not the end of the Straussian issue.

Although Strauss was interested primarily in political thought and was not deeply immersed in current politics, and even though he was, from his own point of view, a defender of liberal democracy, there is a case to be made that his settled opinions -- if they ever were settled -- support the right-wing view of things more than they do the hopes and aspirations of those who see themselves as occupying the liberal portion of the political spectrum. That’s because Strauss believed in the unchanging reality of human nature.

The main problem in assessing a figure like Strauss is that currently the persons who describe themselves as conservatives have no defensible intellectual position but are simply immature, greedy egotists. They want what they want, and anyone who thinks they don’t have the right to it is written off as weak-minded and irresponsible. This is not to say that a defensible conservative position is impossible. It’s just that one almost never arises in common talk.

A corollary of this problem is that those who might be able to mount a cogent conservative argument find it easier at the moment to use the porcine element of the population as political pawns. Since there are more of them than anybody else, at least in the mind of the right wing, the easiest path to victory is to use sentimental, insipid arguments to get them to vote for the supposedly responsible people. When it turns out they didn’t get what they thought they were getting, their resentment will be manageable by telling them yet more insipid tales. They will always be too flat-minded to recall that the current pitch is pretty much the same as the one they were fed before.

It’s worth asking what American politics would be like if those actually persuaded by Straussian philosophical arguments were to make their case openly and honestly. They would have to say something like this: “Look, we’ve had more than sufficient history to know what humans are and to know they aren’t going to change markedly any time soon. They aren’t naturally equal, so they can’t be made socially equal. Some are smarter than others; some are stronger than others; some are braver than others. If you try to overturn those facts, you’ll end up with a bigger mess than you have already. We can make efforts to see that most people have enough to eat and have reasonably comfortable housing. That’s about as far as we can go in making things equal. If you try to do more than that you’ll just pull some down without raising anybody up. Only a small percentage will be able, ever, to appreciate the good life, which requires a philosophic mind. They are the people whose lives are most meaningful and it’s only right that they should be protected. We will have to maintain control measures to make sure the lower orders don’t get out of hand. We can try to keep avenues open so that the tiny portion of the children of the lower orders, who through physiological quirks are unsuited to remain where they were born, can get a chance to climb up out of their beginnings. But don’t delude yourselves that the percentage will ever be other than very small. Some countries, because of the accidents of history and geography, will be superior to others, and the superior countries will have to remain ready to kill in order to secure their position and this is what they should do. That’s the way things are; that’s the way they’re going to be. We need a political system that recognizes the truth, and that has no patience with whistling in the wind.”

I’m not sure that’s what Leo Strauss would have said. Doubtless has stance would have been more subtle. But I’m fairly convinced that’s what people who find his philosophical principles agreeable would say if they had the courage to be honest. Though I don’t agree with them completely, I would certainly rather argue with them than I would with the Tea Party types our present system is providing us. If we could have debates between those who believe humanity, and therefore human society, can evolve for the better, and those who believe that humanity is what it is, and all we can do is avoid its worst depredations, I think we would have a more interesting and far more efficient political system than we have now.

So, I’m all for the Straussians, provided they’ll really be Straussians.

May 30, 2013

As I reflect on the course of my life, one thing becomes ever clearer: it is very hard -- perhaps almost impossible -- for young people to give attention to the features of life that will most benefit them over the long run. Who knows? Perhaps there’s a hidden wisdom in that inability. The thoughtlessness of youth might be a necessary element of health.

Still, I wish that when I was younger, I had attended to aspects of life I barely thought about. The absence I most regret is the assessment of different forms of living and the value I attached to each of them.

There are lots of ways to live, of course, and I don’t suppose anyone has ever been attracted by only one of them. There would doubtless be something monstrous in that brand of unity. But to keep the major forms in mind seems to me to be a useful mental habit. Here, for the sake of reflection, is a partial list of the leading modes of life:

  • Philosophic speculation, including thoughtful, as contrasted with profession-driven, scholarship
  • Artistic creation
  • Scientific and technical achievement
  • Pursuit of social justice, including the alleviation of suffering
  • Physical adventure
  • Sensual excitement
  • Servitude to a social organization considered greater than self
  • Religious devotion
  • Promoting the strength of one’s own social, ethnic or political group
  • Fame, for the sake of being known and talked about
  • Wealth and luxury
  • Mastery over other people

Obviously, there’s overlap among some of these but I think each can be viewed as distinctive. I have listed them in accordance with my own sense of descending worth. I’m sure other people would put them in a different order. When I consider them I have in mind both the pleasure they provide for those who pursue them and the good they do for others.

It’s also clearly the case that age affects one’s response to their relative importance, and I don’t intend to argue that the satisfactions of any particular age group are more important than those of others. With me, the thrills of a three-year-old stand on the same level as the mellow pleasures of those in their eighties and nineties. I do think, though, that if you try to think of the various modes in a wholistic way you’re likely to conclude that some have more lasting power and confer deeper and more meaningful pleasures. That’s what lets me place them in a rank order.

One might ask how or why thinking of such topics when one is young could make for a better life. It’s a reasonable question and not one that’s easily answered. I suspect that keeping the modes of life in mind as one makes decisions at turning points could help avoid misspent time. I know now, for example, that I spent more time than I should have trying to get into positions of administrative leadership in academic institutions. There was little to be achieved from that endeavor, actually nothing other than the learning that accompanied it. If I had put it aside earlier than I did, and worked harder at developing my thinking abilities, I might have enjoyed life more and be now at a more satisfying position than I am. But, of course, I can’t be sure about that. There are times, even, when I entertain the notion of a beneficent destiny guiding both the accidents and decisions of our lives.

It’s more likely that thought about how to spend our days can turn us away from seriously bad ideas, like the pursuit of fame, wealth and power. These are formulas for near-perfect vulgarity, a fate I would wish on no one as he or she approaches the end. I would save even Donald Trump from it if I could.

The activity I recommend most avidly to young people is the inclusion of philosophic discourse in their lives, including, especially, conversing with others about the best way to live. I have a sense that we’re now immersed in a culture which pushes the young away from such endeavors because it interferes with their being used by some power structure or another. If philosophy can save us from anything, surely it’s the idea that making ourselves into an object of use in return for pedestrian rewards, is a sensible way to shape our existence. I see a lot of nauseating stuff on television, but nothing worse than the commercials run by Walmart positing the glories of rising up in the Walmart chain. Even a quarter-hour a day speculating with friends about the meaning of life should save one from that appeal.

Natural aptitude, of course, plays a large role in determining what one can find satisfying. No one should get so snobbish as to discount the pleasures and achievements of what are considered  modest lines of work. If an activity allows a person to fill his basic needs and contributes in any way to social well-being, then no one has a right to sneer at it. But being sure about the relationship of work to social-well-being is no easy task. So regardless of what one does, he or she needs to find a way to think carefully about it, and make sure that what seems to be going on is, indeed, actually happening. I doubt there is any better way to assure oneself about that than occasionally to run over the ways people seek to justify their lives and ask how they reflect on one’s own existence.

©John R. Turner

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

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

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