June 6, 2013
Last Saturday I attended a conference sponsored by the Vermont Bar Association, on civility in politics. The main speaker was James Leach, current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a former long-time Republican congressman from Iowa. There was a panel made up of Vermont legal, and advocacy, and press leaders. They all affirmed that civility does not require backing away from one’s own positions but that it does demand listening to other points of view and giving them honest consideration. They also expressed dissident views about barriers to full-scale democracy in America. Mr. Leach, for example, is very much opposed to the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United Case; he thinks people should be represented in government, not money.
I enjoyed myself. It was a pleasant meeting. We were given a good breakfast and plenty of coffee. Many intelligent and informative things were said. But there was a gaping hole in the entire procedure. No one addressed adequately what one does when he confronts a spokesman with whom he not only disagrees, but who backs attitudes and behavior he finds despicable. Most of the participants spoke of seeking common ground. But what happens when you face a situation in which there is no common ground?
It strikes me that’s the problem we are facing in the United States right now. Political conflict has become so rancorous and so vicious that friendly discourse, and agreeing to disagree, have become exceedingly difficult. Few people know how to behave in such an atmosphere.
One might say, “Oh, you can always find common ground if you really try.” I once would have agreed, but I’m not as sure about that anymore.
When I think about a large political movement which celebrates as its voices Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity, and Jim DeMint, and Steve King, and Paul Broun, I confess I don’t know how to engage them in honest conversation.
I can ridicule them, I can laugh at them, I can try to ignore them, but how can I talk to them? In particular, how can I talk to them civilly.
It seems to me that we are confronting now in America a political force that is based almost entirely on hatred and resentment. People who are driven by hatred don’t want to talk; they just want to hurt somebody.
Think about one of Ann Coulter’s proposals, for example: all Muslims should be converted to Christianity or killed. You can say she’s just joking (a rather nasty joke if that’s what it is), but she doesn’t appear to be joking. The problem is not her as much as those who follow her. We know a goodly number of them are not joking. They actually believe that Islam should be wiped off the face of the earth, and that the powers of the U. S. government should be devoted to that end. Such people elect members of Congress who at least hint that they agree with the program. And having hinted, they have to keep on hinting, or else they’ll be primaried (a new verb).
At our conference on Saturday, we didn’t get down to specifics of this sort. It was all fairly abstract. It was mostly based on the assumption that the contending sides in American politics are composed of people with strong opinions but honorable desires. I very much doubt that’s the case now. Many of the desires seeking an outlet in politics are not honorable -- at least not with respect to any definition I’ve heard. They are hateful, vicious, cruel, bigoted and devoid of any genuine thought.
My imaginary opponent might say, “Well, we always have some forces of that sort in politics.” Yes, we do. The question is how strong they have to become before they create disastrous effects. We can go back to the most hackneyed situation in modern politics: how might an intelligent German citizen have been civil to an avid member of the National Socialist Party in 1934?
My guess is that all the featured speakers and panelists at last Saturday’s gathering -- Jim Leach, Chris Graff, Jeffrey Amestoy, Paul Burns, Paul S. Gillies, Paul Costello, Emerson Lynn and Deborah Markowitz -- would say we’re not at that point in the United States now, and so the analogy is not apt. They are all intelligent, reasonable, decent people, so their opinions shouldn’t be dismissed. One thing I’ve noticed though: moderate people have a hard time thinking that others are not like themselves. They have an even harder time imagining that insanity might be on the loose.
I would agree with them that we are not, now, in the state Germany was in the early 1930s. But I might disagree about how threatening our political situation is. I doubt that current levels of hostility in American politics are simply a temporary diversion from a norm and that before too long things will return to balance and vigorous but real debate. It seems to me that there’s an actual chance our political culture could get even more toxic, that is more hostile, more divisive, more rancorous, more extreme. And if it does, it could lead to disruptions in social life damaging to an extent we haven’t begun to imagine.
Consequently, I think we would be well advised to find more effective ways to undercut and disarm voices of hatred. I am not saying to fight fire with fire, nor am I saying we should abandon civility. I am saying that some of the advocacy we hear now has moved beyond the borders of healthy discourse and we needn’t be shy about saying so.
June 8, 2013
The president says we have to balance our desire for privacy against our desire for security. He’s right that we need to balance some things, but security versus privacy is not the main balance we should be worried about. Rather it’s security against government officials compared to security against people outside the government and hostile to it. I’m personally more concerned about the former.
We should always keep this in mind: the president has a lot more people working for him than al Qaeda has working for it. And the president’s men have a much easier time getting at us. But, you might protest, fervently, the president’s men are good guys and al Qaeda are bad guys. That’s certainly what Mr. Obama wants you to believe. I’m willing to believe half that proposition myself. Al Qaeda is mostly made up of bad guys, or at least dangerous guys from my point of view. But if you think the president’s guys are angels, you’re extremely naive.
The human race does not have the intelligence to construct a government that won’t, on a fairly regular basis, abuse its powers. If the revered founding fathers sent any message to the future, that’s it.
All it takes is just a few moments common thought to see the truth in their warning. The national security apparatus of the U.S. government employs hundreds of thousands of people, probably millions actually. Out of a number that large you’re bound to have a considerable collection of moral freaks. If you don’t think that’s the case, just sit down and read Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA. There is no screening process that can keep dangerous, vicious, and unbalanced people out of the security agencies. Nor is there any way to keep them from rising to positions of high authority. Such people will inevitably exercise the powers their offices are given. And they will exercise those powers in accordance with their own character.
The president is trying to assure us that the surveillance powers revealed recently can’t be used to hurt anyone who is not plotting to attack the American people. If you believe that, your brain’s not working right, or, to be more precise, I should say your imagination’s not working right. The purpose of accumulating such information is to seek patterns in it. And the patterns that certain kinds of minds think they are discerning are innumerable and not infrequently insane. It’s not hard for me, when I consider my own phone calls and attitudes I’ve sometimes encountered, to imagine how an unbalanced security agent might find me suspicious. And I don’t even make many phone calls. Here’s the frightening truth: once a supposed pattern has been logged into security agency records, there’s no telling what might happen as a result of it. It’s simple; the more data scanned, the more patterns certain people will think they are seeing; the more supposed patterns mentioned, the more abuse there will be in following them up. If James Madison or Thomas Jefferson were still around, I wouldn’t have a bit of trouble in getting them to agree with that.
The evidence of abuse by police and security forces in the United States is immense. We have thrown more people in prison than any other country. Does that actually mean there are more seriously immoral people in America than in any other country on earth? Do you believe that? And if you don’t, then what’s your explanation for the number?
Every national government is not only a potential tyranny. It is to some degree an actual tyranny. It is doing hideous things to people for no good reason. The goal of healthy politics is to keep the incidence of vicious, unjustified acts to a minimum. We will certainly not achieve that goal if we vest in certain agencies total information surveillance, total secrecy, and total power. It doesn’t matter how much their leaders scream that everything they do is being done to keep us safe. It doesn’t even matter if they believe what they are saying. That condition leads to abuse.
At the moment we have a president who proclaims he’s aware of the need for balance, and that he wants to engage in debate about these matters. Neither of these assertions is true. They are not false because Barack Obama is an unusually duplicitous man; they are false because he’s the president. Every president lies about things like this; it goes with the job. Every president wants as much power as he can grasp, and he wants to exercise it without being surveilled himself. He believes in his heart he has the right to perfect secrecy.
It is our job to deny him these powers. We can’t expect him to limit himself.
Our weakness now is not the officials we have either serving or directing us. It is we ourselves.
The majority of people in the United States do not value or support civil rights -- that is, rules about what the government can’t do to us -- in any significant way. All we have to be told, in order to go along with anything -- I don’t care what it is -- is that it’s being done to enhance our security.
It has often been pointed out that it doesn’t matter what the laws, and the constitution, of a country are if the people will not stand behind them. It doesn’t take government officials long to find out when there’s no price to be paid for breaking the law or violating the constitution. All they have to do is come up with a shabby rationale for their acts. That’s the condition we’re experiencing in the United States now and I’m sad to say I think it’s going to get worse.
June 11, 2013
The great new media conniption is called, “How good or bad is Edward Snowden?” The opinions will be widely spread.
There will be some discussion -- but not nearly enough -- of the underlying questions that should be thrashed out before anyone worries much about judging Mr. Snowden.
Is the national security apparatus, as currently configured, an essential government function required to keep us safe from myriad enemies lurking all around the world?
Is the national security apparatus, again as currently configured, a bloated bureaucracy, devoted mainly to its own well-being, and in pursuit of that well-being promoting vicious acts and false propaganda all around the world?
My answer is it’s 15% of one and 85% of the other. From my previous comments you can figure out pretty easily how I think those percentages apply.
There will not be a great many surprises in this debate. Ralph Peters, security guru for Fox News, thinks Mr. Snowden should be executed (Mr. Peters is a great fan of execution as a means of ensuring the victory of virtue everywhere). John Boehner says Snowden is a traitor. Diane Feinstein doesn’t have a good opinion of Snowden. Barack Obama is likely to be down on him. As a result of opinions in this vein, vast amounts of money will be spent in an attempt to get hold of Snowden, bring him to the United States and do harsh things to him. The latter will be carried out to set an example.
Others will view Snowden in a more favorable light. Glenn Greenwald will doubtless lead this group because it was to him that Snowden divulged secrets about the scope of U. S. surveillance measures. Jonathan Turley will say Snowden performed an important public service. Daniel Ellsberg will praise him. Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst, will see him as a supporter of freedom. Marjorie Cohn will like him, and Chris Hedges too.
I confess that I’ve developed the habit of taking the measure of something by who’s for it and who’s against it. This is not the only technique of judgment, of course. It may not even be the best. One should always take in as many of the facts of a case as he has time to gather. Even so, supporters and detractors do tell us something. And we have to admit that it’s by listening to them that we gain most of the information at our command. The set of people in favor of Snowden give me far more confidence than the set who wish to eviscerate him
An assumption has been established in the main media of the United States which bears heavily on how one thinks about this case. That assumption is that it is vitally important to the health of the American people for its government to collect a vast trove of secrets and to guard them zealously. I have read many attempts to explain why this is an essential government function. I have not, however, read any I have found very convincing. I can imagine the usefulness of keeping certain activities secret. But when I weigh that gain against the cost of maintaining a gigantic system for hiding government misdeeds from the public, I don’t think secrecy, on balance, comes out well. I’ll even go so far as to say that if the government had no secrets at all, though there would be some disadvantages, we would overall have a more decent and just society.
I realize, of course, that a majority of people who go into government and rise to high office, are addicted to secrets and, therefore, that we aren’t likely to rid ourselves of them. But I do think it would be good to have a vigorous voice in all public discussion which challenges the worth of secrets. If there were such a voice, the public would gradually become more attentive to the harm we suffer from a huge wall of secrecy which not only permits but which encourages bad behavior by government officials. Knowledge of the harm we are enduring right now because of government secrecy is probably the most pressing need of the American people.
We would also do well to mitigate the vindictiveness visited on people who reveal secrets. I can see that those who wish to keep secrets would take reasonable measures to keep their employees from making them public. An employee who releases information his employer wishes to keep to himself shouldn’t be surprised if he is fired from his job, and marked as a person who can’t get similar employment again. But the idea of putting a revealer of secrets in prison for the rest of his life, or of killing him, as some are calling for, strikes me as insane. We already have a reputation as the most punitive people on earth and it’s not doing us any good.
The amount of secrecy which could be maintained simply by appealing to the loyalty and good judgment of employees is doubtless far more than we need.
If the furor over Edward Snowden sets off a more active and intelligent discussion about the nature and behavior of the national security state he will, indeed, have rendered a service to his country. I’m not going to be cheering on the people who will chase him. The idea that we set good examples by ruining the lives of people like Snowden is absurd. Yet that is the driving concept in the American government right now, and the president appears to be one of its main adherents. If we, as a people, can learn anything in the coming decades, the best lesson would be how to gauge the cost of viciousness carried out by what is supposedly our own government. If we can pay for that lesson with less secrecy, I’m all for it.
June 13, 2013
I’ve been reading the early journals and notebooks of Susan Sontag, put together by her son David Rieff. They run from 1947, when Sontag was fourteen, to 1963, when she was thirty. She was an extremely precocious child, and seeing the subjects she thought about in her middle teens has caused me to wonder if my own learning started off so slowly that the idea of my ever grasping anything sophisticated or important is possible. Here, for example, are some thoughts from shortly before her fifteenth birthday:
- That there is no personal god or life after death.
- That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty.
- That the only difference between human beings is intelligence.
- That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy.
- That it is wrong to deprive any man of life.
I’ve been trying to remember whether I thought about things like that when I was fourteen, and I have to admit I don’t think I did. I suppose I might have had wisps of thought which leaned in those directions but I certainly could not have expressed myself about them as she did.
By the next year, she was reading books I had not heard of until I was in my thirties, some of which I have not read even now.
I did read things that she, perhaps, never read -- all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, for example. Obviously, in the world of big thought they don’t measure up, or at least I don’t suppose they do. I did think about them though. There was one, which I may have mentioned previously on this site, in which Tarzan went to a city far out in the desert, which seemed like a pleasant place when he first got there, but in which every inhabitant turned out to be insane. I can recall that when I was about fourteen I wondered if that was telling me something significant about the actual world.
At any rate, I have known for the past thirty-five years or so that I got a slow start on what most would consider serious reading, and I’ve wondered if that constitutes an irreparable handicap with respect to any sort of mature thinking. It’s not a question I’m likely ever to answer fully.
In 1967, when Sontag made what will probably end up being her most famous statement, that the white race is the cancer of human history, I wasn’t outraged as many people were. I had developed no loyalty to or affinity for the white race (or any other race for that matter). On the other hand, I did think it was a silly statement because it implied, at least, an attitude about race she presumably opposed. But I suppose we should keep in mind that the late 1960s were a passionate time. I can’t be sure whether early erudition affects the quality of adult judgment either positively or negatively. Camile Paglia once suggested that it did with respect to Sontag, saying that she was a "sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world”. I don’t guess any amount of reading, at any stage of life, gives one the right to be sanctimonious.
When she was sixteen, Sontag wrote, “I want to err on the side of violence and excess, rather than to underfill my moments.” Underfilled moments, meaning vacuous, thoughtless hours drifting past in accordance with flat or conventional taste, are indeed sad things. To reject them early is a fine decision. I doubt, though, that doing so is the product of elegant reading. We find young people at all levels of education making that promise to themselves. Perhaps encountering subtle thought does help one turn the rejection into something more substantial than it would otherwise be. Yet temperament is probably more significant than learning in finding a path to the meaningful spending of time. I believe in education, but I also believe it has more various definitions than it is generally accorded.
All this is to say that learning about Susan Sontag when she was young doesn’t afford me any settled convictions about the worth of extraordinarily youthful sophistication. It may pay off for some, but I doubt it can be seen as a necessary, or even a general, condition for eventual strong thinking.
I haven’t studied Susan Sontag carefully enough to take a confident measure of her achievement. She was at times a perceptive social critic, and she showed quite a few moments of courage. But she could be pretentious too, and sometimes was given to jumping to conclusions before she had thought them out carefully. I view her as an interesting intellectual figure and that’s the only evaluation I can make at the moment.
She doesn’t solve for me the question of early, deep reading. Should it be pressed on a child or not? Pressing in matters of that sort strikes me as usually not a good idea. Offering opportunity is. If a person learns by the time he or she completes the teenage years that the ordinary ideas of good and bad, success and failure, respectability and grandeur, which have provided the moral atmosphere of upbringing are not to be taken for granted and need to be continually examined, then the opportunity for sound, and even extraordinary, thinking lies ahead. In other words, being a child genius is not a requisite for anything much. As she was approaching her seventeenth birthday, Sontag wrote, “Look back on the sixteen years. Could be better: more erudition, definitely, but it’s unreasonable to expect much more emotional maturity than I have at this point.”
She was right -- pretty good but it could have been better. Can we say anything more favorable of anyone?
June 14, 2013
Clearly we are in the grip of giganticism and no one knows what to do (I don’t know, by the way, if there is such a word as “giganticism;” I went to a dictionary and found it listed, but with the notation that there is no definition for it as yet. Words with no definition are a symptom of giganticism).
I know what I mean by it though: too big to be controlled or even to be comprehended, so big that anyone can make any argument he wishes about it, and find something in it to back him up, consequently, so big it undermines the possibility of demonstrable truth. Giganticism is a form of chaos. Maybe it’s the only form.
The current debate about the National Security Administration and its collection of information on the behavior of the people of the United States is an example of the consequences of giganticism. If you want to love the NSA, you can; if you want to hate the NSA, you can. No evidence about it will have much effect on your emotion. How you respond to it tells us much about you and comparatively little about it.
The NSA is like keeping a tiger as a household pet. For nine encounters in a row it may be loving and delightful, and then on the tenth it might bite your face off. Do you want to run the risk of losing your face in order to have the big creature around? But, you might argue, it drives away the hyenas. There are always choices to be made, aren’t there?
When you’re swamped by giganticism, the basic decision, it seems to me is who you want your companions to be in the midst of it. I doubt, for example, I would enjoy having morning coffee with James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. I know, for certain, I would not want him to babysit my grandchildren. Are these rational sentiments? I can’t be sure. But in the midst of giganticism, I have little else to follow. I know that most people on my general side of things would say we’re not just working from sentiment. After all, Clapper lies almost all the time. I agree, but then I have to sit back and ask myself, who in government does not lie? I can’t think of many. If I’m going to be disgusted by Clapper because he lies, my disgust is going to have to be spread widely. Eric Holder lies; Barack Obama lies. Some would say lying comes with their jobs; others hold that they could stop lying if they wished. This is the sort of argument we have in giganticism. A while back, almost every day I was urged by a message on my computer to send five dollars to the presidential campaign in order to gain a chance to have dinner with the president and his wife. It wasn’t a good pitch for me because I don’t want to have dinner with the president and his wife -- any president, any wife. I don’t know how many people do. This is the sort of thing we can’t find out in giganticism.
Giganticism confuses us not only about people but about social behavior. Should we try to provide for our future by pushing ahead with new technology as hard as we can, or should we opt for a simpler form of life, with fewer fancy gadgets, less gourmet food, fewer trips flying around the world on airplanes? Should each of us be trying to reduce his or her energy footprint, or should we be trying to produce so much energy it doesn’t matter how much anybody uses? These are questions giganticism prevents your answering logically.
We get pushed back to whom we want our companions to be. Do we enjoy people who live in a simple way, or people who live as fancily as they can? I have written about this before in terms of my own feelings about very rich people. I haven’t known many but, generally speaking, I haven’t enjoyed the company of the ones I have known. Most of them care about things I don’t care about, and their caring strikes me as hurtful to other people. But I must admit, that’s not it as much as the expressions on their faces. A thing you don’t experience often need not usually affect your life significantly. But in giganticism these things wash towards us from from a thousand sources. It’s not as easy to ignore the rich as it once was.
I don’t have definitive evidence for this, but I suspect that giganticism facilitates abuse. Terrible things are done and then get lost because there’s so much else to capture attention. I read an article just this morning about how the Bank of America illegally drove many people out of their homes, using a deliberate policy to repossess mortgaged houses because more money could be made by selling them than by making adjustments to allow collecting the payments due. For people to be driven out of their houses is a bad thing, but in the midst of all the other stuff going on, who cares? Decisions are being made by large organizations every day which are hideous, but which they feel relatively safe in making because they assume no one will have the ability to direct much attention to them. They are opportunities for financial viciousness provided by giganticism.
We are now at the point in this essay where I’m supposed to tell you what to do about giganticism. The problem is, I don’t know. I think it’s going to be in the saddle for decades to come, and people will have to try to find ways to live with it. I can advise only choosing your friends and your associations carefully -- very carefully -- and remaining on the lookout for niches where life proceeds on a manageable scale.
June 17, 2013
The media’s response to Edward Snowden over the past two weeks has reminded me of an attitude that I need to probe more deeply than I have, that I need to clarify in my own thoughts. I’m referring to the brand of commentary we get from Tom Friedman, and Bill Keller, and Tom Brokaw, and Bob Scheiffer, and Richard Cohen, and Joe Klein, and Jeffrey Toobin.
It’s hard to concentrate on a thing that lacks a name, even when it has a distinctive character. At the moment, I don’t have an arresting name for the way the figures named above think. I suppose you could call it establishmentarian but that doesn’t get at the genuine nature of it.
I learned a quite a while ago from George Orwell that if something causes you to feel creepy you should start asking yourself why. Most of the time, Orwell said, if you ask, you’ll get an answer that’s more solid than simple emotion. So that’s where I need to start with the seven voices I’ve listed. Why do they make me feel creepy?
I suppose we can say, without a great deal of contradiction, that they all think very well of themselves, that they seldom express doubts about their pronouncements. That’s obnoxious, true, but is it creepy? I don’t think I can say it is because I’ve observed others who give off the same sense of arrogance but who don’t creep me out. Consider George Steinbrenner, for example. He was a jerk and fairly stupid, but he wasn’t creepy.
They all think of themselves as being not only good but very moral. That’s annoying but it falls more or less, into the same category as arrogance.
They are very confident that they have the right to walk up and down the corridors of power. There’s nothing creepy about that.
It goes almost without saying that they have all been successful, in the common version of success. But, so what?
If you want to discover why someone gives you a crawly feeling, I think the best way is to ask not only what he respects, but what he worships, what he finds as the ultimate source of authority.
Let’s look at what some of these people have said about Edward Snowden:
- Richard Cohen: “a cross-dressing little Red Riding Hood”
- Tom Brokaw: a”high school dropout” and a “military washout”
- Richard Schieffer: “just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us”
- Jeffrey Toobin: “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison”
Lurking behind all these assessments are the questions, “Just who does he think he is?” and “How dare he?”
The point is Mr. Snowden has affronted something so far above himself he’s close to committing a sacrilege. So, what is this something?
As far as I can tell, it’s the collectivity of big men who have taken our nation’s security into their hands. They have decided to keep something secret; they have their reasons; no smart aleck should be monkeying around with them.
It’s that attitude about the “big men” I find not only smarmy but creepy.
If we ask what history teaches us the big men have brought us over the past several decades, the answer isn’t especially enthralling. If we dig into how the big men get to be big, that’s not entrancing either. So what is it that tells us that we -- and Edward Snowden -- should be bowing down before them?
It’s here that I can’t be sure. But I’ll tell you what my suspicion is. For the Brokaws and the Schieffers, the big men are the essence of the nation, and the nation is the only thing that deserves pure reverence. We should, to some degree, hope that the nation is taking the right course, but that’s really only a secondary consideration. And we have to remember that the nation is something more grand, and more splendid, than the people who live within the borders of the United States. The nation transcends them. The people mentioned in my first paragraph are the cheerleaders of the nation.
I don’t, however, view the worship of a false and ill-conceived god as the grounding of their creepiness. It rises from something even more deep-seated than that. What, for God’s sake, might that be? a reasonable person would ask. Again, I wade in uncertainty. But since this is a speculative piece, I’ll wade on. All imagination is less than perfect, but some is cankered, and when it takes on the latter condition, it does become creepy (to use a term that is less than perfect itself).
I do think it’s sick to assume that any organization, however big and well-established it might be, has somehow escaped the transformations of history and has achieved a status that is -- as a Latinist might say -- sui generis. That’s the concept behind the notion of American exceptionalism. That’s the imaginative construct that bothers me. It carries with it all sorts of phony notions, such as that some human things have been endowed with divine approbation. When anybody gets caught up in that idea, his mind does become creepy, I think. That is, it makes the skin crawl.
I now, though, should make a partial turn-back on myself and admit that I’m not certain I’ve accurately tagged any of the men I’ve named. They may not be as I’ve imagined them to be. I want no harm to come to them as result of anything I’ve written. Perhaps they see more subtly than they project. I wouldn’t reject the possibility. All in all, though, I think they have earned the suspicion I’ve put forward here.
Perhaps I should just thank them for helping me reach out towards defining something I really do believe in: the creepiness of certain attitudes.
June 22, 2012
The concept accosting me most, during this visit to Bowling Green -- which you have heard of before -- is radical practicality. Here’s why it came to mind.
Reading in Plato, and accounts of Plato by Catherine Zuckert in her book Plato’s Philosophers, I was reminded that practicality is a matter of applying what is known, or what is thought to be known. Philosophy, on the other hand, is a matter of trying to find out more about what is unknown. Therefore, if philosophy constitutes the good life, as Socrates says it does, then practicality, dealing as it does only in knowns, must be a barrier to the good life. But this can’t be the case entirely, because practicality, in some degree, is necessary to the pursuit of philosophy since practicality provides us with the means of life, and philosophy without life is quite impossible. So, when we say that philosophy and practicality are opposed, we’re actually speaking of an excessive practicality. And the kind of practicality so obsessive that it blocks avenues to the good life I have come to call “radical practicality.”
I can’t say that radical practicality is completely in command in Hardee County. That would be a fib. But diversions from it don’t lie in the direction of philosophy, and therefore, at least from Socrates’s point of view, they don’t lie in the direction of the good life. So what directions do they lie in?
Well, if you go to the Walmart store, about two miles north of downtown Wauchula, you’ll see that they do lie in the direction of gargantuan eating. And if you’ll check the most voluminous display of goods in the Walmart, you’ll see further that the eating -- and the drinking -- is not of the sort recommended by most nutritionists. There are, for example, walls of one and a half liter bottles of Pepsi and Fanta Orange and Fanta Grape, and when you check the sugar content of these beverages you’ll discover that twelve ounces of Pepsi -- which is taken to be the common serving -- has 41 grams of sugar, and that twelve ounces of Fanta Orange has 44, and twelve ounces of Fanta Grape has 48. It takes only a little arithmetic to determine that if a person imbibes three servings of these drinks a day, and consumes otherwise a moderate diet, he or she, will pack on a considerable number of extra pounds over several months. And then when you notice the other foods that seem to be most popular at Walmart, the thought is bound to come that overly-sweet sodas are not the only items likely to be contributing to expanded bodily forms hereabouts.
Now you may well be thinking that eating is one of the most practical of activities and, therefore, scarcely a diversion from practicality. And that’s true of a certain sort of eating. I’m fairly well convinced, though, that’s not the sort common in these regions.
Other common diversions from practicality in this region involve alcohol and illegal drugs. If you can believe general gossip, both are frequently employed to relieve boredom. The results are not usually happy. They are practices that seldom employ moderation, and when the latter is abandoned both issue in biological and social distress.
Large, expensive pickup trucks are another Hardee County mode of non-practical satisfaction. Aside from being environmentally destructive I don’t suppose they create much misery. But, on the other hand, the pleasure they bequeath is fairly shallow and seldom helps people find much solace in one another.
I’m not arguing that the non-practical diversions here are worthless, though some clearly are dangerous. But I am arguing that they’re not potent enough to balance the grind of daily practicality. This remains a society in which the latter is seen as the basic purpose of life. When we humans make a purpose out of a means, that’s where we go astray. That’s what philosophy in its basic sense is trying to tell us.
Neither am I arguing that Hardee County is fundamentally different from the rest of American society in that respect. The balance between practicality and philosophy is out of whack almost everywhere in this country. But Hardee County, being a little more tilted towards what is thought to be known than most of America becomes a striking lesson of how the absence of curiosity and exploration can flatten life to the point it comes to seem far less than it should be. It would be fatuous to suggest that people ought to sit around philosophizing most of the time. But total absence is just as ridiculous.
It’s astounding, isn’t it, that the man widely supposed to have been the originator of Western thought insisted more than twenty-four hundred years ago that the only path to the satisfying life lies in seeking answers to what is fair, what is honest, what is good, and here we are, all these centuries after he lived, failing to pay attention to him? It would be different if we had found something else that proved him wrong. Then he could be dismissed as merely a primitive thinker who didn’t know what he was talking about, who was operating from false premises. But we haven’t found any such substitute; we have nothing to refute Socrates in his claim about what makes life worth living.
All we have to put in place of Socratic philosophizing is money. And money won’t work because we don’t actually know what it is, because there is no way to have enough of it, and because even if we did possess it in great supply, it lacks the power to buy what we think it can provide. Beyond practicality, money is not worth much at all.
It’s ironic that I’m writing this here in Hardee County where, if my actions were known, they would be considered even crazier than they would elsewhere. But then, that’s testimony to Hardee County; if you let it, it’ll drive you nuts.
June 23, 2013
You may recall, if you are a faithful reader, that yesterday I said that money won’t buy what many think it will. The question arises naturally why, in this realm of commerce, in this empire of doing business above all else, a person would be so delirious as to say such a thing? The answer lies in another recollection: that I was writing from the perspective of Socratic philosophy, which by itself would, in the viewpoint of most people, consign one to dementia.
Since, though, I remain encased by Hardee County, which as you know makes me somewhat crazy, I feel delusionally empowered to press on to a few additional Socratic points.
Socrates held that philosophy is the only good life, but he meant something different by philosophy than the average professor would mean today. His definition of philosophy was simply the process of men sharing their opinions with one another in an attempt to find which opinions were best able to maintain themselves when they came into contact with others. The purpose of all this was not just to discover the strongest opinions but also, in the act of searching for them, to create companionship. It seems clear that in the Socratic view of things no life devoid of companionship was worth much. And no companionship was possible without philosophic sharing.
It seems that in the world of commercial striving, companionship is in short supply. You might even imagine its being nonexistent. You can, of course, buy a semblance of companionship, but that’s just a matter of having life-like puppets. They congregate in the hope of accumulating capital, so that any opinion they might offer is not put forward honestly but just for the sake of making other people manipulable. Everybody wants to hold the strings, but the thing on the end of the string can scarcely be seen as a companion in the traditional sense.
A theme that comes up continually in science fiction is whether a well-constructed robot, one that’s hard to tell from an actual human, can offer the sort of pleasure companionship provides. The answer seems always to be no. Even if the robot is a delectable female, there’s something missing, and the missing ingredient is essential.
Men descend into madness by telling themselves they can get along without philosophical companionship, or that philosophy is nothing but meaningless chatter. This is the stance of hardheaded men nowadays, men who see themselves almost exclusively as power brokers. They are interested solely in getting other men to think as they do, so that the latter can be employed as puppets. The goal of power brokers is to surround themselves with puppets. But these coveters of power neglect to consider that such company functions as a screen against companionship. They cut themselves off from a necessity which permits the maintenance of their sanity.
This, by the way, is the principal difficulty of the presidency of the United States. Whoever takes it over sees his intellectual balance being steadily eroded, and the decay proceeds even when the president is aware that it’s a danger. All companions are lost to presidents, and therefore all philosophical exchange is banished also. It’s a difficulty we have not begun to think about solving because we are a long way from acknowledging the necessary linkage of philosophic companionship and sanity.
As Glaucon reminded the company in The Republic, it is commonly said that the finest situation of all is to be able to do injustice and escape punishment for it. Humanity has been thinking this way for a very long time, so long in fact that some consider the thought an ineradicable element of human nature. But if it is, then humanity is destined to increasing disaster, because with a population growing out of all previous bounds, and with most people seeking to do injustice and get away with it, human society will develop into an ever more hellish condition.
The definition of puppets is that they neither deserve nor require justice. They can be used in whatever manner the persons who are in control desire. When the controllers have no notion of companionship with anyone, and no inclination towards it, what will constrain them from ripping and smashing to their hearts’ content?
These problems have been obvious for a long time, at least to anyone who thought about them. They have generated endless speculation on how to bring them under control. The entire genre of political thought has sought a solution to universal viciousness. That’s what Machiavelli, and Hobbes, and Locke were all about. They and a great many others have proposed ingenious processes for regulating the desire of one man to use another for his own purposes, while giving no heed to the well-being of the person used. But unless the element of companionship -- which means the sharing of opinions because such sharing is intrinsically good -- is brought into play, nothing can counter the impulse towards ruthless exploitation.
Religion has attempted to confront the problem by preaching that men can find companionship with God, and having found it, can then learn to treat their fellow men as true companions also. But to find companionship with God, one has to find God first, and a God who functions towards one person as he does towards all others. That God is proving to be maddeningly elusive. Perhaps we should start asking whether we get to God through humans, rather than learning to care about humans through God.
In any case, the Socratic process of asking the people one meets why they think as they do, and then, without rancor, explaining how one’s own thought interacts with theirs, remains to be tried. It’s interesting why we’re so resistant to it. All it requires is a little time and effort.
©John R. Turner
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