Collected Thoughts

July 2013
July 4, 2013

I have reached the stage of life when I have virtually no relish for special days. What I like are ordinary days when I -- and everybody else -- can pursue personal tastes and interests, unrestrained by any socially ordained observance.

Today, of course, is a special day, and the one above all the rest that pleases me least. I think my reasons for not liking it are pretty valid.

I spent a good portion of my working life trying to help college students learn the truth about the past. And on this day, each year, more historical falsehoods are proclaimed more volubly than at any other time. Why should I wish to celebrate a day that is dedicated to telling lies about our national history?

George III of England was not a tyrant.

The people of the Thirteen colonies were not oppressed by the British government, at least no more than people are oppressed by government generally.

The majority of the people in the colonies did not wish to make a break with the British government. Probably not even 25% were of that persuasion.

The impulse for the break came from commercial interests more than anything else. It did not involve what are called now civil liberties.

It’s true that society in Great Britain was strongly segregated by class, and that there were some in America who wished for a less class-based society. But there were people of that mind in Great Britain also, and there were people in America, many of them leaders of the revolutionary movement, who were as complete social snobs as could be found anywhere. The breakup of the class system had very little to do with the move towards American independence.

The practices that are most avidly celebrated in America on the 4th of July are generally not activities I want to see promoted. For one thing it is a day strongly predicated on military glory. I don’t believe in military glory. From my point of view, the United States is a far more militaristic country than is good for any of us except for the tiny minority which reaps vast profits from military expenditures. Militarism results in the waste of our national treasure and is the principal reason why the United States falls behind other developed countries in medical care, educational attainment, and the efficiency of its infrastructure. Why should we be celebrating it?

The 4th of July is a day of pomposity, which is, more than anything else, what the U.S. needs to cure itself of.

It is a day that is thought to be a strengthener of patriotism. But exactly what is meant by patriotism is very hard to discern. The people who seem most concerned with it appear to think that it would be a grand thing if the government of the United States could control the whole world, and milk it for the benefit of a minority of the American people. I’m not interested in serving that minority, or in cheering them on. I don’t see why anyone else should be, unless he or she is one of the few to be directly enriched. And even they, if they knew what was good for them over the long run, would step away from American dominance.

Some say it’s just a day for having a good time and eating hot dogs. I’ve nothing against hot dogs, if they are consumed sparingly. But I see no reason for having a special day for enjoying them.

There is the matter of fireworks. I like fireworks okay, though I confess their appeal has dimmed somewhat over the past decade. But if we were have a day called Midsummer, in which fireworks would be the norm, and there would be funky parades to delight little kids, with ice cream being sold on the streets, I would have no objection to it. It could be the kind of special day that wouldn’t particularly irritate me.

Most other special days -- say Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mothers’ Day -- are simply excuses for commercial extravaganzas, when people are easily persuaded to spend vast sums of money on products they would never, otherwise, think of buying. They don’t thrill me because I think America is already more obsessed with commerce than it needs to be or than is healthy for society. The purpose of commerce, properly understood, is provide the degree of physical comfort that allows people to do the things that are actually important, like artistic creation, intellectual development, scientific exploration and so forth. But when commerce becomes an end in itself, it grows cancerous. And it has long since become cancerous in American society. It is leading us to destroy the sort of environment humans can inhabit healthily. What can be crazier than that? To set up special days, to cast over them some sort of sacred aura, to announce that they provide us our meaning, when all they’re really about is commercial orgy of a sort that over the long term is killing us, strikes me as a form of insanity.

The best day is one that is fresh, not eulogistic. A fresh day is a free day. A eulogistic day is hedged round with so many special requirements one begins to feel strangled. I have read that the Christmas season produces more suicides than any other, and it’s no wonder.

I’m going to try in the future to adopt a holiday-free regimen, and though I won’t be completely successful, I think I can, at least, escape waving flags in celebration of self-delusion. I’m pretty sure I will be able to achieve that today.

July 5, 2013

I was sad to see that Kenneth Minogue died a few days ago. There was a time when he was one of my intellectual heroes, and though it has been decades since he filled that role for me, I remember with fondness the time when he did.

His book, The Liberal Mind, published in 1963, made a strong impression on me when I read it a few years after it came out. It forced me to recognize that the liberalism of my own era was different from the liberalism of the 19th century, and it reminded me that the earlier version, in some ways, appealed to me more than the version I was currently getting from figures like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (I was never particularly fond of Mr. Schlesinger, having suffered the experience of being in the same room with him a couple times). Every member of the New Camelot Kennedy circle I ever met struck me as being insufferably full of himself. I can well imagine they impressed Mr. Minogue in more or less the same way.

There’s a political phenomenon I’ve observed frequently over my lifetime in which persons of good nature and reasonably good mind went over to the conservative side not so much because of its appeal but because they were appalled by the personalities of the leading liberals they met. Although I understood the impulse, and felt it myself to some degree, I never thought it reflected first-rate judgment.

In any case, Minogue came to refer to himself as a conservative and did it quite complacently. I would have thought he would be annoyed by such simplistic labeling, but, obviously that wasn’t the case.

On his website for July 4th, Andrew Sullivan wrote a lengthy tribute to Minogue, and included a clip of a lecture he gave recently at Oxford titled “How Political Idealism Threatens Our Civilization.” Sullivan spoke of Minogue as being a “true conservative,” which more than implies that there are many self-named conservatives who are not true. I suspect that all Sullivan really meant is that there are many people who call themselves conservatives who are also total jerks. Maybe all he wanted to do was to point out that Minogue was not a jerk, and if that was his intention then I agree with it.

I listened to the Oxford lecture. It was moderately interesting and, perhaps, more than moderately sad. Minogue’s principal point was that people who think they can construct a perfect system, if they get their way, will end up making something that not only fails to be perfect but that will actually be quite monstrous. That’s not a new idea and, in fact, is one that would be generally acceded to across most of the political spectrum from left to right. It’s a concept that has been around for a long time; in fact, many scholars think it was the thesis of Plato’s Republic. So there was nothing sad in Minogue’s reiterating it. The sad part came in when, by implication, he assigned that concept to people who don’t hold to it. Saying that people believe something they don’t actually believe in order to put them down is a cheap argumentative technique. I was sorry to see Minogue using it, though I’m sure, that if he had been charged with it, he would have found a way to say that wasn’t his intention at all. I doubt I would have believed him.

There is a wide gap between thinking you have devised a perfect social system and thinking you have found a way to make something work better. It’s not fair to tag everyone who wishes to make improvements with the title of idealist. Yet that’s what Minogue came close to doing. And then he went on to argue that such persons are a danger to Western Civilization.

Western Civilization, according to Minogue, is a society in which people feel free to argue with one another, and it is contrasted with all the rest of the world where people do not feel free to argue with one another. This strikes me as an overstatement that is, itself, monstrous. All the world, other than the West, is engaged in building systems which can regulate everyone for the benefit of everyone, and in which going against the system is the definition of wrong. In the West, by contrast, going against the system is not considered wrong. Listening to Minogue you could get the impression he has not read a newspaper in the last several decades, and, perhaps, not even for the past half-century.

He did admit that Western ideas are penetrating the rest of the world to a certain degree and causing some discombobulation. Even so, the basic distinction between the West and the rest remains in force.

The sad element of this lecture, for me, was to see a man with a good mind descending into egregious oversimplification, for the sake a placating a political movement. That’s not what good thinkers are supposed to do. You might think he was simply in the throes of old-age. But that wasn’t it. There was no hint he had lost any of his basic intellectual abilities. Rather, he struck me as a man who had moved in the direction of becoming a high-level political hack.

Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. Perhaps he was so concerned with trying to explain his basic distinction that he went farther than he intended in painting anyone not in the right-wing with an overly broad brush. Still, seeing his manner made me a bit sad, and reminded me of how dangerous it is to get caught up in shallow political wars.

July 9, 2013

Day before yesterday, Sunday that is, I drove from Montpelier to Center Moriches on Long Island, and then yesterday I drove back from Center Moriches to Montpelier. Did I see anything surprising? No. Did I see anything frightening? Yes.

The congestion of traffic and people from central Connecticut to New York City and then out onto Long Island is now so extreme that all sorts of incidents could set off mass panic and mass misbehavior. Things could get out of control very easily. But bad as major disorder could become, that’s not the most scary feature of that stretch of the country. The ordinary, the everyday, is even worse. There are levels of consumption and pollution there which are not only unsustainable, they’re murderous.

I’m aware that the regions I drove through the past couple days are far from the worst the world has with respect to over-crowding, consumption, pollution, and potential for outbreaks of disorder. But they, in their middleness, their commonness, their so-whatness, are more than enough to show us that we’re on the way to something very bad.

When you come off the Throgs Neck Bridge, headed either onto Long Island or back towards Connecticut, you tend to be confronted with a traffic jam it’s easy to imagine will never dissipate. Add just a few more cars and trucks to the mix and you might be stuck there for days.

Some people drive across the bridge every day, you might say. So they get used to it, and adjust. That’s true. But that ongoing adjustment to the point of disaster is exactly the danger confronting us. People will march right up to the brink and not know they’re there. They’ll simply step off while continuing to play video games on their cell phones.

Yesterday, stopping to get a cup of coffee on the Connecticut Turnpike, I was blocked at the entrance to the concession building by a group of more than a dozen teenagers, each one immobile, staring intently at a tiny screen, the only movement coming from their thumbs. They were nice enough kids, you might say. But they were trapped in a new condition I’m thinking of recommending to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Total Unawareness Syndrome. You’ll think I’m exaggerating to say this but I suspect a murder could have been committed within a dozen feet of them and they wouldn’t have noticed. But what else can they do, given the world they’ve been handed?

I finally made my way past them and reached the Dunkin’ Donuts stand, where the kids behind the counter were about as unaware as the teenagers at the entrance, but without the benefit of cell phones. After a quarter-hour wait for the coffee and muffin I ordered, which occurred not because the employees were busy but because they couldn’t think to turn around, reach into the cabinet behind them and take a muffin out, I strolled over to a table, as far away from any human I could get, took out my notebook, and wrote this: “We are in the midst of a transformative shift in which pieties, attitudes and valuations which once were honorable have to be discarded or else we will perish.”

I think that’s true. No one will pay attention to my saying so. Still, sometimes the truth is satisfying even when it’s immaterial.

There have, of course, been revolutionary situations in the world before now. The series of events we call the Second World War constituted such a revolution. Fifty-five million people were slaughtered. If you were in the midst of one of those gigantic killing sprees you probably thought everything was falling apart, which for you it was. Still, horrible as that blunder was, it’s not hard to suspect we could be marching towards something even more monstrous and gigantic. For one thing, there are a lot more of us now to experience it.

A month ago, while was in Florida, I read a long article about the likely effects of virtually certain climate changes which will occur over the next three decades in that state. Huge areas of low-lying land, which now provide home for millions, will be inundated. The people will have to go somewhere; they will be desperate to find means for sustaining themselves. Nobody has a plan for how they can be rescued. The anger and frustration they will express may well reach levels which have never yet experienced in this country. Yet, all over Florida, people continue to build gigantic structures, where needed supplies of fresh water are very questionable. Is this insanity, or what? And if it is, we have to admit it’s no more than one small instance of the insanity the human race is exhibiting all over the globe.

Some people say we are a suicidal species and that we may as well face up to that bitter truth. But I don’t know what facing up to it means.

When I say we have to distance ourselves from certain attitudes and pieties that were prevalent in the past, I’m referring to loyalties and emotional identification with gigantic systems that appear to be bringing disasters ever closer. I’m not so naive as to think we can simply dismiss these systems, or ignore them. They are with us and they’re going to continue to affect our lives in multiple ways. But we can certainly stop giving ourselves to them. Our unthinking support is what they rely on to provide privileges to their managerial classes. Consider “patriotism” for example. My first problem with is I don’t know what it means, but I do know that a person’s identifying himself as a patriot makes him more likely to go along with policies and programs that are not doing him any good, and, in fact, are doing him a great deal of harm. Support for a national security system just because it happens to be the system of the country where you reside makes no sense. It is an attitude of self-destruction. And self-destruction is what we need to thwart.

What we say about national security systems, we can also say about religions, and ethnic groups, and geographic boosterism, and class identification, and political parties. They are all gigantic things, and giganticism is what’s going to eat us alive unless we can finds ways to get it in check. The first way to check something is to start being suspicious of it and being more ready to hold it to account. If you go along with something just because it is reputedly good for the country, or good for Florida, or good for the Christians, or good for the Jews, or good for our troops, or good for democracy, then you’re one of the people marching toward the cliff.

The cliff is actually there. All you have to do is open your eyes to know it. So if you keep marching towards it, to the beat of some drum or other, then after a while you’re going to go over. Only you can turn around, and you can’t wait for your neighbors to pat you on the back for doing it.

July 10, 2013

Yesterday I wrote about the advisability of giving up emotional identity with anything humanly gigantic. Today I feel an obligation to be more specific. First, how big does something have to be to qualify as gigantic? I think a good rule of thumb would be that any entity which has a million or more human members has passed over the line into giganticism. If you give yourself to anything that large you’ll find you have to descend to corruption in one form or another, and that your chance of achieving intellectual integrity has pretty well disappeared.

There was a time, for example, when I felt strongly attached to the state of Georgia. I thought of myself as a Georgian and the flavor of Georgian things excited me more than any other human phenomena. Now, though there are many things about Georgia I still like -- the dogwoods blooming in April in Atlanta and Decatur, for instance -- I see that to connect to the whole of Georgia would be a farce. Can I prize an association with a political society that sends Saxby Chambliss to the Senate of the of the United States? That would be absurd.

One of the benefits of living in Vermont is that the population still falls far short of a million. It would be crazy to claim that I like everything about Vermont. Still, it is small enough, and compact enough, that one can reasonably feel that it, as a whole, is a pretty good human construction. There is nothing disgusting in Vermont that is big enough to be seriously threatening.

What about cities like New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles? It’s possible of course to feel a fondness for the sound of the name because you associate it with certain specific features. But when you’re dealing with anything as big as these sprawls you have to face the truth that discrimination into parts is required. I like 57th Street in Chicago east of the University, but to say that I like the whole of Chicago, with its miles of flat, drab neighborhoods, or it’s dozens of gun killings in those neighborhoods, would be nuts. Claiming that something is a unity when it’s not a unity is a principal feature of stupidity.

When we come to genuine and obvious giganticisms, like large nations, multi-national religions, major ethnic groups, continental societies, then discrimination is even more a requirement. I suppose someone could say, “I just love Africa,” but it would be a meaningless statement. No real sense could be conveyed by it. And since I’m pretty well convinced that statements of that kind constitute one of the main reasons why we treat one another badly, I’m committed to staying away from them.

Saying you love something that can’t be loved because it can’t be defined in a way that relates to loving is a seriously screwed-up way of talking.

Religions pose a particularly vexing problem because those who claim to be this or that also tend to claim they can speak for all those who choose to paste the same name on themselves. It’s a false claim, of course. There is no Christian who can speak for all Christians because the differences among Christians are just as great as the difference between a particular set of Christians and members of any other religion in the world. When I am in Hardee County, Florida, I’m regularly reminded that the protestant ministers there think they are preaching the only valid and authorized form of Christianity, when the messages they deliver from their pulpits every Sunday would be thought bizarre by many Christian congregations in other sections of the United States.

The giganticism in the modern world most threatening, most oppressive, most lethal and therefore the one most important to be escaped as a emotional partner is the nation-state. It claims the right not only to kill vast numbers of human beings but to require you to kill them at its behest, or, at least, to contribute to the killing. It’s hard to imagine anything more nauseous. And yet, along with this claim goes the demand that not only must you comply, but also that you should cheer and be thrilled when the nation-state goes into its life-taking mode. It insists that you love it for doing the most horrible things it does.

All this, of course, is done with the ostensible aim of making you safe. But if you should choose to examine the life-taking operations of the nation-state, you would have to be severely limited mentally to conclude that much of its killing is done for the purpose of safeguarding anyone. It is done because the leaders of nation-states covet political and economic power above all else. In their minds there is little else to be sought.

It’s fair, of course, to ask whether a country and a nation-state are the same thing. That question projects us into subtlety. The answer, if we work to make defensible distinctions and to use words carefully, is that they are not the same thing. The nation-state is a power structure. A country is a population inhabiting a geographical region and, to some extent, reflecting a social culture. The principal political difficulty we have to confront in the modern world is that are many forces working to obliterate the understanding of a difference between country and nation-state. It’s obviously to the benefit of the leaders of the latter to drive any thought of the difference from the minds of the population. When that difference is out of mind, the people can be transformed into near robots.

It has seemed to me, for quite a while now, that to work up a loyalty towards, or an affection for, people who want you to function as a robot, is to surrender your humanity. I have a hard time grasping why anyone would want to do that. But when it happens, it emerges from the power of giganticism. Keeping that in mind, skepticism towards the big thing is a far more sane response than loving it.

July 12, 2013

In an article by Robin Globus Veidman about whether belief in the end of time is hampering efforts to mitigate climate change, I read that four of ten Americans think that Jesus will return to earth by 2050.

This caused two questions to pop into my mind:

Can that possibly be true?

If it is true, what does it mean?

I’m not sure how one goes about finding out if 40% of Americans think that Jesus will return before forty more years pass. I suppose there would have to be a poll of some sort. If there was a poll, the question would need to be simplistic, something on the order of, “Do you think Jesus will return to earth by 2050?”

It’s not hard to imagine several modes of response to that question.

One person might say, “Sure, why not?” And if he did, what would he mean by it?

Another might pronounce, soulfully, “There are many signs he is coming soon.” That might cause you to think he had fallen under the mind control of Glenn Beck.

A third could answer, “That’s what the Bible tells me when I read it prayerfully.” You could suspect you were in the presence of a time traveler from the 18th century.

I assume quite a few would come back quickly with, “Are you out of your mind?”

My point in running over just these four possible responses is that polling of this sort tells us nothing of substance. We can’t know what a person means when he, or she, answers such a question. The only purpose in conducting polls of this nature is to provide us a kind of mind candy to be used in web site sidebars.

But let’s say, just for fun, that a pollster probed to ascertain the meaning of the responses -- a thing pollsters almost never do -- and discovered that almost half of the American public actually thinks that a member of the triune godhead, who appeared in human form on earth two thousand years ago, is returning to earth, in that same form, in a fairly short while, to bring history and with it time (as we know it) to an end.

What would that tell us?

Some would answer that it confirms what we have much additional evidence for suspecting, that in the United States we are struggling with a deep and crippling intelligence problem. We have a population incapable of addressing real difficulties because they are so sunk in puerile dreams they can’t begin to consider the nature of reality. If someone were to say that, the journalistic world would paint him as harsh, arrogant, and elitist. I doubt it would pay much attention to whether his hypothesis was likely true, even if most journalists believed it was.

Another set would hold that the problem is not intelligence but education. The American people, neither as children nor adults, have been helped to view propositions skeptically or to ask what evidence there is to support them. Public teaching is powerfully tilted towards acceptance of pronouncements from authority figures, persons whose interest in education is so far down their list of priorities you can’t dive deep enough to find it.

A third explanation, which we hear more and more frequently nowadays, is that wealth is distributed so unequally in the United States that propaganda campaigns supporting the wealthy overwhelm arguments in favor of a well-informed public. Wealth accumulation in the dimensions we have now is dependent on a compliant, subservient population, willing to seek its satisfactions in fantasies, religious and otherwise.

Then you have quite a few thorough cynics who would say the American people are simply stupid, ignorant and brainwashed, and that all there is to be said about them.

If I were asked I’d probably respond with the answer I have resort to more and more often lately: “I don’t know.”

The population which has surrounded me for many years and that I have spent thousands of hours trying to observe perplexes me so completely I don’t know what to say about it. I feel like I understand the people of Pakistan more adequately than I do the people of the United States. That’s probably a delusion but it is how I feel.

The only conclusion I can reach with a fair degree of confidence is that we can’t have functional democracy in the United States with the mental state of the population as it is now. We will be organized and controlled in some manner, but it won’t be democratically. We can speculate about what it might be. We can try to give that something a name. We can ask what life will be like as we proceed under it.

We will, of course, continue to have comforting announcements from people like Tom Brokaw that the American people possess deep reservoirs of wisdom, that they will come through in the end, that they will do the right thing. I can’t say that the right thing won’t be done, but I can say it won’t be done democratically with the people we have now. They don’t know how to discuss what the right thing is.

Keep in mind that the hypothesis of this piece is that a major sector of the American people believe time will come to an end within forty years. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I have strong suspicions about it. But even when I step outside the hypothesis and view the people as they show themselves to be, through their voting, and their tastes, and their habits of learning, I continue in the confidence that functional democracy is not now possible in the United States.

So I end with the question of whether we should try to restore its possibility, or whether we should begin to seek other modes of social decision-making that are livable? Again, at the moment, I don’t know.

July 13, 2013

My Jehovah Witness friends sent me a link to a documentary film they wanted to discuss at our upcoming meeting. I wrote back to say that I would try to look at it, but that having discovered it was made by Ben Stein I didn’t expect to find the ideas it expressed very scintillating.

I did manage to watch about two-thirds of the film, which was made in 2008, and was titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It purported to show that advocates of Intelligent Design are being persecuted by traditional departments of biology because of their close-mindedness, and also to demonstrate that the reigning theory of evolution leads to eugenic extermination.

When my friends came I told them that the film raised what for me was a more profound question than our usual subjects, the existence of God and the divine inspiration of the Bible. And that question is how I should respond emotionally to morons like Ben Stein. This set the discussion off on the right foot.

I explained that though I found Stein’s stupidity irritating, I try sincerely to ask myself whether people such as he can help it. If he’s simply destined to be an idiot, by nature or irrevocable childhood influence, or some sort of trauma, it’s not very charitable of me to hold him accountable for it. I went on to say that I’ve been trying to apply the theory of determinism to all the people I meet, so that I don’t get into the business of judging them, and that I’ve been making some progress. I run up against a wall, however, in one instance, that is when I try to excuse myself by determinism. For some reason I appear insistent on castigating myself for my own stupidity (maybe one could say that’s determinism also).

The film, by the way, is astoundingly dishonest. Virtually nothing in it is true. All sorts of charges of persecution are made which when investigated even slightly fall completely apart. A major component of the film deals with Richard Sternberg, whose life was supposedly ruined when he was drummed out of the Smithsonian Institute for agreeing to publish a paper on Intelligent Design. The truth is Sternberg was never an employee of the Smithsonian, he was simply an unpaid volunteer, nor was he booted out of his volunteer position. Furthermore, the paper was not about the part Intelligent Design played in the origins of life, as suggested in the film. Finally, Sternberg’s claim that the paper was reviewed by peers before he agreed to publish it was not the case. No actual peers were consulted about it.

The film never tells us what the theory of Intelligent Design is, nor does it ever address the common definition of science. It simply repeats over and over again that science is being unfair to Intelligent Design in more or less the same way that totalitarian regimes are unfair to oppressed populations.

I suppose you could say that Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a pretty good example of how cheap and phony propaganda can be and still manage to persuade viewers who don’t bother to check its evidence.

This, though, is diverging from the main question. What is one to think and feel about persons who try to persuade the general public with moronic arguments? Should you just excuse them because they don’t know any better? Should you point them out as charlatans? Should you try to refute arguments that obviously have not been made in good faith? Or should you assume that some people are incapable of knowing what good faith in intellectual debate is?

Ben Stein went on the O’Reilly Factor on November 30, 2007, and repeated to the receptive audience of O’Reilly the basic lie of the film, that people who believe God had something to do with the creation of the universe, and life with in it, are having their freedom of speech repressed. O’Reilly, of course, ate it up; he believes there is a war on Christmas just because some people choose to say “happy holidays” during the end of the year festivities. A common feature of intellectual bullies -- and I assume no one would deny that O’Reilly falls into that category -- is they’re always charging that someone is trying to bully them.

Neither O’Reilly nor Stein ever mentioned that Intelligent Design is a religious theory, or that it is not a scientific hypothesis. No one is saying that people don’t have the right to discuss Intelligent Design or to argue in favor of it. All the people in biology departments are saying is that they want to study biology and not religion -- at least for the moment. Why is that oppressive? To argue the opposite is to say that people have no right to concentrate on something that interests them.

The contention that nature couldn’t work as it does unless some extra-mundane force made it work that way is based on the supposition that nature is too complex to be the result of natural forces. That position can’t be investigated by science because science is the process of trying to explain how nature works, not how something outside of nature works.

You could make the point that neither O’Reilly nor Stein knows what science is, and neither has any interest in finding out. But that would merely bring us back to my principal question: how much responsibility should be placed on people for being stupid or for not knowing something they ought to know? Or to put it another way, do we have the right to demean Stein for making this dumb movie?

My only answer is that attaching labels to other people’s intellect is not the point; knowing how much credence to give them is. My only advice in this case is not to pay much attention to what Ben Stein has to say, because it’s not going to do you any good.

July 14, 2013

A frustrating feature of life is the fleetingness of a particular phase of maturation. It can be immensely precious, but it passes away with devastating speed.

My granddaughter Cate is in one of those phases right now (thought, thank goodness, she doesn’t know it). She’s three and a half years old, which strikes me as being a near magic time for little girls. Recently emerged from infancy, her early efforts to make sense of the world are both amazingly prescient and still amazingly innocent.

The phrases she uses now we know will be gone shortly, and they’re so appealing we wish we could hold onto them forever, at the same time recognizing she needs to grow up and get beyond them. Until recently she spoke of her two older brothers as “mine boys.” She would be sitting playing with something, look up suddenly, announce, “I’m going to see what mine boys are doing,” and set off after them with perfect self-confidence. Now, she has graduated to “the boys,” which is still charming but doesn’t have quite the lilt that “mine boys” did.

She has basically fond relations with her brothers, but at times there are little tensions. This morning her eldest brother, who is nine, was building an imaginary world on one of his electronic devices. He laid it down for a bit and when he returned, Cate informed him that she had put sixty chickens into his world. Her brother responded in exasperation, “Cate, I don’t want all those chickens in my world,” whereupon Cate chortled delightedly and said, “I’m going to put in so many chickens you will die.”

She comes to me at night and wants a story before bed. A couple nights ago, I asked what she would like and she said she wanted to read about Clifford. So I said, “You mean Clifford, the big, red dog?” She held her hands out, palms up, and explained, “Well, he wasn’t always big. When Emily Elizabeth first got him, he was a very little dog. He was so little his collar wouldn’t even stay on.” She seems determined to maintain a part of Clifford’s identity as a small dog and not to let him be swallowed completely by giganticism. When we read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, she commented on how she would relate to all the strange creatures who appear there. Last night it was getting late, almost past midnight, so I said I wished we had a Zeep to help her go to sleep. Cate shook her head at me decidedly, and declared, “That Zeep is too big to sleep with; I would never go to sleep with him.” The first book she asked me to read during this visit, she described as the No Book. I asked what it was about, and she glared at me as though I were a perfect child, saying, “Grandaddy, you know I can’t say ’s’ so you know what it’s about.”

I was talking with friends on Thursday when she returned from the swimming pool. I introduced her, thinking she would shy away as little children tend to do, but she walked up to them forthrightly, holding out a bottle cap in her hand. “Look,” she said. “I found this bottle cap. You know how I know it’s a bottle cap? Because it was on the top of a bottle.” This was said with great solemnity. Then she held up her hand, waved softly and said, “Bye, bye.”

One of her great games is to scribble something on a spiral bound 3X5 pad, bring it to me and ask me what it is. I rack my imagination trying to bring a figure out of the mysterious marks and then say something like, “This is a whale, and you see this line right here: that’s the waterline and he’s jumping out of the water.” Cate takes the pad back, studies it carefully, then looks at me with a big smile and says, “That’s a yes!” The trouble with this game is it’s not over when I decipher one scribble. It goes on and on for more than a dozen figures, taxing my imaginative powers. Cate appears perfectly confident that her drawings are of something and that it’s my job to figure out what they are.

She came to my room a couple nights ago, where I was watching a TV episode on my computer, and hopped up on my bed. I turned it off as quickly as I could, but not quickly enough. Cate pointed at the screen and noted, “That lady said ‘fart’.” “I know,” I answered; “I’m sorry you heard that.” She looked at me quizzically and asked, “Why?”

Cate was born at the very end of 2009. With ordinary luck, she will live into the 22nd century. It tortures me to think what she might have to face. She’s so perfect now, her not having a perfect world to grow up in seems vastly unjust. But in that respect, I guess she shares the fate of all the little girls who have ever been. I don’t like it. It’s not right. In fact, it’s damnable. But no matter how I rack my brain, I can’t think what to do. The only thing is to try, with all my might, to try to hold onto the image of what she is now, and what she will be as she moves along to other delightful phases.

July 15, 2013

With respect to Edward Snowden, I’ve noticed the same response among my friends and associates as I have among the dozens of journalists I’ve read. Everyone’s stance on the Snowden case is determined by his emotional attitude toward the national security apparatus of the U.S. government. If one feels that the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the multiple other agencies involved in intelligence-gathering activities are a bulwark of our freedom and necessary protectors of our physical safety, then he also thinks Edward Snowden is some sort of neurotic freak who should be locked up in prison. If, on the other hand, one senses those agencies as being a threat to freedom and decent life in America, then Snowden’s motives and psychological makeup are relatively unimportant and what he did is viewed as helping us retain -- or regain -- a democratic system.

This breakdown is interesting in itself, but what’s even more fascinating about it than the specific opinions it reveals is an underlying approach to social life it points towards. There is a transformation going on in people’s thoughts about authority. Though it is written about only sporadically, it may be the most dramatic social shift we’ve seen in centuries.

What is authority in the minds of most people?

The traditional view has been that it is not only a system of control for preventing crime, mayhem and disorder but also that it is something fine, even glorious, a quality to be revered by all right-thinking people. The charge that someone has a problem with authority has generally been a denigration, indicating that a person is immature, callow, and self-absorbed.

There is, though, all around the world, a growing feeling that authority is mostly a force for assisting the privileged in controlling and using the majority, who have not been as fortunate as those on the top. Authority is, in short, a system of oppression.

There’s doubtless something to be said for both points of view -- actually many things have been said for both down the centuries -- but the pressing question in the early years of the 21st century is, which is now the more accurate perspective? And like most pressing questions, it can’t be answered arithmetically. An answer requires a personal decision about who one is.

I used to work with a college president whose favorite academic aphorism was: “They’ve gotta be taught that everybody’s gotta have a boss.” I have to give him credit. He left no doubt about who he was. Why he had become who he was is a question about as complex as the question of authority’s nature, and perhaps merely another version of it. Nonetheless, he had taken a stance.

There is in the minds of many Americans, and probably most, a romantic sense that the nation itself is the ultimate source of authority, and being ultimate, is also incapable of thorough corruption. This trust has been built incrementally by thousands of scenes and comments -- John Wayne scooping a Japanese soldier up with his crane,  and shooting him before dumping the body to the ground, with the comment he had worried the fall would kill him. Everyone once chortled about things like that. The chortling has now somewhat diminished but the sentiment behind it remains fervent.

It’s probably true that any strong support of authority has to have a considerable romantic element. To be starry-eyed about national authority requires a kind of mythologizing power. You have to see judges as dispensers of justice and not merely as some dweebish, less-than-brilliant guys, who got their jobs by playing politics. You have, in short, to invest many people with qualities only a very few people ever develop.

In 1996, the philosopher Richard Rorty penned a comment we would do well to discuss more often:

My native country has world-historical importance only because it cast itself in the
role of vanguard of a global egalitarian utopia. It no longer casts itself in that role,
and is therefore in danger of losing its soul. The spirit which animated the writing
of Whitman and Dewey is no longer present.

I suspect if Mr. Rorty had lived until now he would have even more acerbic things to say about the United States. Regardless of what one might think about his historical analysis, we have to admit he advances the question of the possibility of national decay. And if nations can decay, can change their basic nature, can lose their souls, they can scarcely function automatically as ongoing sources of legitimate authority. Authority, if it is not to become corrupt, has to put forward credible evidence, on an ongoing basis, that its spokesmen continue to be primarily motivated by the goals they profess.

The release by Edward Snowden of information the United States government wished to keep secret has sharpened the issue of whether major officials of the government remain loyal to their oath to preserve and protect the Constitution. Evidence accumulates that the regime of state secrets is designed as much to cover up the behavior of national security state officials as it is to strike at unquestioned enemies of the nation. The decision for each citizen is whether he wishes to go along with those officials because they represent some sort of authority worthy of respect, or whether to challenge them because one has come to suspect they aren’t who they say they are. And the decision has to be made on the basis of who one sees himself as being, and what sort of relationship with authority he wishes to have.

As I say, both my friends and all the people I can read are spread widely along the spectrum that decision defines.

July 16, 2013

Out on a short errand yesterday, I fell in behind a car with a bumper sticker which read, “Massachusetts Schools are # 1.” It reminded me how much I dislike that term.

In 1996, at the Atlanta Oympics, we attended events at which the crowd began to scream, at nearly the tops of their lungs, “We’re Number One.” It distressed my elder daughter, who was twenty years old then, so much she lost any pleasure she was getting from watching the contest. I suppose you could say that was just because she was being snooty. But I don't think that was it.

I don’t remember ever telling my daughters that voluble self-praise is a vulgar habit. But they seem to have picked up the sentiment nonetheless.

It was quite early in my life that I came to view American braggadocio as a disagreeable habit. It was only a bit afterwards that I also started to think the consequences of it went well beyond bad manners. I’m not sure how many people have been slaughtered because Americans saw themselves as representing “the greatest country in the world.” There’s no precise way, of course, to measure such a thing. I’m pretty sure though that if there were, the number would turn out to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The proclamation, “We’re Number One” raises two principal questions. What does it mean? Why would anyone wish to be Number One?

The basic meaning I take from it is that the citizens of the United States are, in some sort of overarching way, finer, grander, more noble and more moral than the people of any other nation. Why that should be the case is hard to discern. Travel, and the inevitable comparisons that travel induces, certain don’t make it obvious. I have spent many days driving around the United Kingdom, for example, and nothing I observed led me to believe that the people there were inferior to the people I encounter at home. In fact, if using measurable standards, one people had to be set above the other, I’m not sure the Americans would come out well.

When you turn to the question of why a person wishes to be Number One, you get something more perplexing even than the meaning of the term. It’s easy to see that if a competition were underway, a participant would wish to prevail. A tennis player wants to win his match against another tennis player. And when someone is enrolled in a tournament, he aspires to win all the matches he plays. But having won, it would seem enough to say that “I participated in a tournament with many good players and came out on top. So I feel happy and fortunate.” It’s not necessary to set yourself above the other players in a more comprehensive way with the phrase, “I’m Number One!” That would be like saying you were better at arithmetic than all the other players, which would be unlikely to be true.

I have a suspicion, which will not be perfectly popular. If a person is desirous of being better than everybody else in all ways, that means he doesn’t have anything in particular that he wants to be. He has virtually no sense of the self he wants to build. His vision of self is in thrall to everyone else.

Might it be that the United States is inhabited by an unusually large percentage of people who don’t know who, or what, they want to be? They want to be better than anybody else, but that’s an empty desire, void of any substance. The intense coveting of riches in America supports the thesis that Americans live in a state of personal uncertainty. No amount is ever enough. Ultimately the chase for wealth becomes a cause in itself. One doesn’t want money for comfort, or to provide opportunities, or to help other people out, or to advance knowledge. He wants simply to have more than anybody else. He wants to be Number One.

If you pay attention to professional sports, you will see players behaving in absurd ways simply because they want to make more money than other players do. A player may be very happy with his team. He may think he has a better chance to perform well if he stays where he is. He may have a greater opportunity to win pennants or titles. But despite having more money already than he could ever need, he will go off to a team that offers him more money. That’s his way of participating in the Number One society.

After I got out from the behind the car with the Massachusetts school sticker, I stopped on Main Street in Montpelier to browse for a while in the Bear Pond Bookstore. There I picked up a copy of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America, and ran across this passage:

The good news about the citizens of this kindly, violent, bigoted, generous-spirited
nation is that if ever the planet is plunged into nuclear war, they will be the first to
crawl over the edge of the crater, dust themselves down, and proceed to build a new
world. The bad news is that they will probably have started the war.

They’ll be building to be Number One. But will they be building for anything else?

Obviously, the United States is a country with great blessings and great treasures. It also has many fine people. But what do they want? The Danes, for example, know that they want a country where no one will be cut off from first-rate medical care. The Americans, right now, don’t know even that.

If they could put substance behind their desires, the Americans might begin to approach the view of themselves they have already.

July 17, 2013

As those of you who check this site regularly know, for at least the past year, I’ve been caught up by the question of how rapidly a national culture can change. I’ve gradually moved toward the conclusion that it can happen faster than most imagine, and certainly faster than people in the midst of it recognize.

In the modern era, and clearly over the past two centuries, societies have manifested a condition we have to call precarious balance. They can lurch towards decay very quickly.

Scrummaging through old notes this morning I came on a statement by the Austrian journalist, and novelist, Joseph Roth, written in 1931, after he had been living in Germany for a decade, or so:

I feel Germany right off the bat, and all of it at once. Every street corner expresses
the awfulness of the whole country. It has the ugliest prostitutes.... The men are
all scout-masters on display .... The feeling, as though your genitals were gone,
nothing left.

Two years later, writing to his friend Stephan Zweig, Roth sensed that things were even worse:

You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes.
Apart from the private -- our literary and financial existence is destroyed -- it all
leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in
establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.

We certainly can’t say that Roth was wrong, or that he exaggerated. Yet imagine the response you would have received from the average German citizen if he had been shown those comments in February of 1933.

I think it would be exaggerated to say similar things about the United States right now, although there are people who are saying them, and they are not all fools or crackpots. If you read the essays of Chris Hedges in Truthout, including the one he posted just a couple days ago, titled, “Locking Out the Voices of Dissent,” you will find a clearly sane voice expressing opinions that come close to rivaling what Roth said about the German Republic in the early 1930s.

As I say, I’m not ready to go as far as Hedges has gone -- maybe I’m too timid -- but I do think that slightly more than three decades ago, the society and the political structure of the United States made a turn in a bad direction, and that the change in heading has not yet been reversed. From the time when I became aware there was such a thing as society until 1980, though I learned there were many unattractive features about the United States, I felt that we Americans were on a path of improvement, that we were constructing a more just society, and that children could look forward to better, more healthy lives than their parents had known. Since 1980, I have not felt that way.

The reason modern societies can transform themselves so dramatically is that in every developed country there are large numbers of disgruntled, resentful, and hate-filled people. Whether they are justified in these feelings is an issue worth investigating. I, myself, think that resentment is a toxic emotion, bad for those who harbor it and those against whom it is directed. But regardless of justification, angry, resentful people, who blame their difficulties on others, pose a serious political problem. That’s because they don’t want social conditions to get generally better. They want the people against whom they direct their resentment to be worse off than they are. And when their anger is sufficiently fierce, they are willing to see almost everyone suffer if the people they dislike can be made to suffer more. Punishment becomes their driving motive.

They won’t admit this, of course. But it’s what’s in their hearts. Rampant dishonesty is also a feature of a rancor-filled society.

Those who are not, themselves, in the grip of resentment, and who don’t have personal interactions with those who are, often have a hard time believing that such persons exist. The disbelievers want to have reasonable discourse with those driven by resentment. They forget that the desire to punish is not a rational emotion. Try persuading a person who wants to build a bigger fence along the Mexican border, and to staff that fence with greater numbers of more aggressive, more militarized agents that the money such efforts require could be better spent on other social goods, and you’ll see what I mean. He’s not interested in social good. He’s interested in keeping “them” out and punishing them when they try to get in.

Resentment is like any other problem. You have to know it’s a problem before you can do anything about it. And recognizing it in a socially effective way is a tricky process. You can’t do it simply by direct attack. You can’t call resentful people names and make them less resentful. I don’t think you can shame them into giving up their hatreds.

We are not subtle enough in America. We lose sight -- if we ever had it -- that no person is a single thing. No person is a perfect villain just as no one is a perfect hero, though you may think that some come pretty close. We need to inquire about appeals that might reach even the angriest among us.

I remember that when my father, who was a pretty thorough-going racist, as most of the men of his generation in the South were, found out that vandals had killed the mule of a black farmer in his county, he was enraged. He thought that was unfair, and he wanted, despite his prejudices, to be a fair man. He actually took part in a campaign to raise money to buy the farmer a new mule.

His behavior gives me a sense of how to counter nasty emotions. Show the unfairness; show the unfairness all the time. Don’t worry as much about the causers of unfairness. Concentrate on the consequences of it. If we do that consistently, we might begin to turn our country back to the direction it was trying to take -- not always very artfully -- in the quarter century after the Second World War. At the very least, it should head off the things that Joseph Roth saw and predicted.

I need to learn that lesson better myself.

July 18, 2013

Three things I saw this morning has led me to think about modern cultural fragmentation and the problems it presents us.

On The Daily Beast there was an article by Patrick Smith titled “They Still Hate Us: No One Wants To Be America Anymore.” The thesis was that though there are many people in what might be called unmodern societies who wish to live modern lives, that doesn’t mean they want to become like Americans. The United States doesn’t present the only form of modernity available to populations around the globe. What is at issue in the Middle East, and many other places, is larger than most of us seem to recognize. It’s the question of what particular form of modernization will be chosen. The chance that it will be the American version is slight.

On The Daily Show, Lewis Black was a guest, and he spoke of Rick Perry’s campaign to lure businesses -- and jobs -- away from certain states and into Texas. Perry has made radio commercials being broadcast in Illinois and California, in which he tells the business owners of those states that they are living in a culture hostile to them, and that they had best consider moving to Texas, which will welcome their business mentality. Black thought these were silly messages, but they didn’t appear to bother him much. Then he heard that Perry was making a commercial to be aired in New York, and that ticked him off. He ran through a series of clips showing the diversity and urbanity of New York compared to the brain-dead dullness of Texas, and ended by telling both Perry and Texas to go you-know-what themselves. It was an amusing piece.

On Facebook, I looked at my daughter’s posting from Sweden, with a photograph from her morning run at 5:00 A.M. She’s in Stockholm for a particle physics conference, and she says it’s a lovely city and very, very inviting.

There’s a common opinion that a half-century ago, the cultural sectors of the United States were fairly isolated from one another, and went their own ways without thinking much about what was going on elsewhere. Now, with more frequent travel and increased relocation, people are more aware of the differences, and are more irritated by some of them. There is doubtless truth in that opinion, but I suspect that another reason for the culture wars in America is that the country is actually more heterogeneous than it used to be. The differences in habits, attitudes, tastes and sense of right and wrong are stronger than they were in the past, and consequently they rub up against one another in ways that generate more passionate conflict. If the latter is the case, it presents us with a political and social problem, one that has not been thought about very carefully.

One of the more foolish proclamations of politicians is that all Americans want the same things. It’s a dopey thing to say, but the harm of it is not just its stupidity but the creation of the notion that if someone differs from your own ways -- which, naturally enough, you regard as the American way -- then there’s something wrong with him, and behavior modification is in order.

It’s obviously true that in any national culture -- if there is such a thing -- some acts will be seen as unacceptable and the legal system will be expected to repress them. Murder is an obvious example, which applies not just to national culture but to human culture generally. We have just been reminded, though, that whether a killing is taken to be murder depends, strongly, on the section of the country in which it occurs. And for many people it depends on who has killed whom.

We need to separate the behaviors which can be tolerated from those which can’t, and to have defensible reasons for the difference. But we need more than that; we need to recognize that if we try to repress all the behaviors we don’t like, we’re going to create turmoil and a serious disruption of peace. In other words, we’ve got to learn to live with more cultural fragmentation than we’ve been in the habit of doing. I think that’s true not only for the citizens of the United States but for all the people of the world. It’s a requirement of modernization.

It’s being a requirement, though, doesn’t make it easy. Getting Rick Perry and Lewis Black to understand one another -- to a degree that actually qualifies as understanding -- may take more than human psychology offers.

Getting Louis Gohmert to understand why my daughter thinks Stockholm is a lovely city may be, currently, beyond the realms of possibility.

Getting John McCain to understand why U.S. bombs can’t turn the whole Middle East into an extension of America, where the people will love America as their redeemer, appears to be more than we can accomplish right now.

In short, we’re in a monstrous contest between those who think they can impose cultural unity and those who have grasped that, alluring as it might seem, we’ve got to give it up.

Far off in the future, modernity may produce a new sort of unity in which people will be less likely to go for their guns whenever they see something that appears strange -- and therefore bad -- to them. But we’ve got mountains of misunderstanding to clear away before that starts to happen. We can hope. But, I confess, I remain worried about big, big blowups, with greater slaughter than even the most avid American cultural unitarian would be likely to celebrate.

July 19, 2013

It occurs to me that the most serious weakness in the American jury system occurs because a considerable portion of Americans, and perhaps a majority, cannot tell the difference between established facts and assertions.

This truth has been forced on me by the deluge of commentary flowing from the recent trial in which George Zimmerman was charged with unlawfully killing Trayvon Martin. I have read dozens of people who have announced triumphantly, and confidently, that Trayvon Martin would still be alive had he not attacked George Zimmerman. Yet as far as I can tell, it has not been established as a fact that Trayvon Martin did attack George Zimmerman. That’s what the defense wanted the jurors to believe, and that’s what the defense attorneys insinuated. But there was no establishment of fact.

I have no objection to jurors taking into account the various assertions made by persons involved in legal cases. There should be no barrier to a juror’s trying to weigh the truthfulness of assertions, and deciding that some are more valid than others. But at the same time, a juror needs to have clear in his or her mind what he’s dealing with, and know whether he is considering a fact or an assertion in reaching a decision. The court system in America appears to take for granted that jurors can make that distinction. But it’s obvious that many cannot.

If you have participated in discussions with your fellow citizens about political issues, foreign policy affairs, social behavior, or anything else, you must have noticed someone asserting as fact incidents which have not been established as facts. I have never taken part in a conversation where that didn’t happen. I suppose one could argue that when a person enters a jury, he or she begins to be more careful about facts than is normally the case.. But habits of a lifetime are not washed away just because someone joins a legal procedure.

Tests have shown, over and again, that when opinions with which persons agree strongly are put forward, a majority will identify those opinions with fact. For example, over and again in tests, when Americans are presented with the statement that the United States is the greatest country in the world, a majority will call it a fact.

This being the situation, I think we would do well to consider a legal reform in which the court, itself, compiles a list of the leading facts and the leading assertions pertinent to the case, and supplies those lists to the jurors. If nothing else, it would be a reminder to them of things they might lose sight of.

In the case just concluded, the jury could have been given the facts that Trayvon Martin died on a certain day at a certain time, that the cause of death was a bullet fired from a gun owned by George Zimmerman, that Zimmerman had admitted to pulling the trigger that sent the bullet into Trayvon Martin’s chest, that Zimmerman had called the Sanford Police Department and reported that he was suspicious of Martin, that he had been told not to follow Martin, and so on.

Then a list of assertions made by Martin and others could also be drafted, and given to the jury.

I realize one could assert that all this information was already available to the jury, which is true. But the distinction between fact and assertion was not. The argument could also be made that putting the court in between the jury and the testimony, in the way I suggest, would give the court undue authority. It would certainly give the court greater authority, which I don’t think would necessarily be a bad thing. But it would also charge the court with greater responsibility, which seems to me long overdue. Courts and the judges who preside over them get away with slipshod behavior all too frequently.

The attorneys on both sides could be given the lists before they went to the jury, and could protest if they thought the court erroneously identified a fact. The court could modify the lists if it wished, and seek agreement between the two parties. And if agreement could not be reached, the lists could be part of subsequent appeals. One could say this would complicate the matter, but if it did it would be an appropriate complication.

The main improvement, however, would be in helping the jurors straighten out their thinking. I don’t see how there could be objection to that, nor can I imagine a sensible argument that it’s not needed. There’s no sense in going along telling ourselves that all Americans -- or at least all Americans that get on juries -- can do things that many can’t do. Only a certain portion of the American citizenry think carefully enough to weigh important matters judiciously. They need all the help they can get, especially when they are dealing with matters of life and death, freedom and imprisonment.

We already, in spirit, violate the Constitutional guarantee that an accused person has the right to trial before a jury of his peers. Great numbers of persons are banned from juries because of opinions and intellectual abilities occurring in considerable portions of the population. Using their privileges of challenge, lawyers on both sides of cases do all in their power to insure that the jury is not made up of a genuine cross-section of the American public. I suspect that a person with the ability to point out the difference between fact and assertion to his fellow jurors would have a much harder time getting on a jury than someone to whom that distinction would not occur.

There’s no way to know for sure what would have happened if the jurors in the Zimmerman case had been supplied with the two lists I propose. But if there were, I’d be willing to bet heavily that the decision would not have been the same.

July 21, 2013

I need to say at the start of this comment that I have no settled conviction about how, or why, Michael Hastings died. I am, however, perplexed about why the circumstances of his death have not been more extensively covered by the mainstream media.

After all, here was one the nation’s most noted young reporters, who had already received widespread attention for the article on Stanley McChrystal, which led to the general’s dismissal. He died in an automobile crash on June 18th, which was called a simple accident by the Los Angeles police, but which has struck many observers as anything but simple.

A couple days before he died, he sent the following e-mail to a pair of his associates:

Hey [Name redacted] — the Feds are interviewing my “close friends and associates.”
Perhaps if the authorities arrive “BuzzFeed GQ,” er HQ, may be wise to immediately
request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news
gathering practices or related journalism issues.
Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the rada (sic) for a bit.

All the best, and hope to see you all soon.


Reporters asked the FBI whether it was conducting any investigations of Hasting, and despite what was said in the e-mail, and the testimony of friends who said they were interviewed by the FBI about Hastings, the answer was “No.”

The official report said that Hastings car was traveling at a high speed down a suburban Los Angeles street, crashed into a roadside tree, and exploded. Numbers of people who are presumed to know about cars, and crashes, have said they have never known a car like the one Hastings was driving to explode in that fashion after a collision.

Here is one such comment:

“I’ve never seen an explosion like that,” said Terry Hopkins, 46, a former U.S. Navy
military policeman who served in Afghanistan. “I’ve seen military vehicles explode,
but never quite like that. Look, here’s a reporter who brought down a general. He’s
sending out emails saying he’s being watched. It’s four in the morning and his car
explodes? Come on, you have to be naïve not to at least consider it wasn’t an accident.”

It seems to be the case, though I have to admit this is something I have not been able to investigate thoroughly, that Hastings body was cremated by the Los Angeles authorities without the permission of his family. Here’s a comment reported as coming from a close friend of Hastings, Sergeant Joe Biggs, “Michael Hastings body was returned to Vermont in an urn. Family members did not want Michael’s body cremated.”

There have been numerous assertions by persons who claim to have looked into the circumstances of the death that Hastings must have been assassinated. Here, for example is what Douglas Hagmann says: “Based on my research as a professionally licensed investigator with nearly 30 years of experience, I wish to be on record that it is my professional opinion that investigative journalist Michael Hastings was murdered.” It’s true that Hagmann is associated with a right-wing Canadian newspaper and has made radical statements in the past. But he has written a lengthy article, with quite a bit of factual material that, at the least, raises questions.

I’ll reiterate that I have no confident thesis about what happened to Hastings. But why the near-silence from the leading news organizations? I suppose you could say they have looked into the case, found nothing suspicious, and simply reported the death as an ordinary accident. But considering all the stories and commentary in circulation, I have a hard time finding that credible.

Here’s the thing that bothers me: in the past I would have read about an incident like this, been sad about it -- by all accounts Hastings was a likable, energetic reporter -- and let it go at that. But now, learning that he was working on a story that he said required him to “go off the radar,” I can’t simply accept the official explanation of his death. I can’t approach the easy reception of official truth that I once had.

After reading about the Hastings story this morning, I decided to go out on an errand to clear my mind. After picking up a few bargain notebooks in Walmart’s back-to-school display, I found myself jotting this on the back of the sales slip: “How many of the people in the store where I made this purchase would care -- or could be persuaded to care -- whether Michael Hastings was murdered?”

As I rolled the question over in my mind, I saw that the answer I would be driven towards was: “Not a one.” That could be completely wrong of course. I have no real evidence of how people would feel. All I had was my reading of their faces.

We’re at a strange time in this country. We don’t know who our fellow citizens are. We don’t know how they get their information. We don’t know how they feel towards the government. We don’t know how they would respond if they learned of things the government -- or at least the state security element of the government -- was trying to keep from them. We don’t know who we live among. Maybe that’s always been the case, but I’ve never felt it this strongly before.

I would like to think that if my fellow citizens discovered that Michael Hasting’s had been murdered, they would be enraged, and that if they found out someone connected with the government had done it, they would take to the streets. But I don’t have much sense they would be angry, or disturbed, at all.

July 22, 2013

More and more people are noticing that the criminal activities supported by the government are more gargantuan than the criminal activities the government prosecutes. I guess that's actually just a way of saying that big criminals have more influence than little criminals do.

Probably the best reporter pointing this out is Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. Just a few days ago he had an excellent article on the criminal behavior of J.P. Morgan Chase, headed by Jamie Dimon, whom the New York Times has dubbed Obama’s favorite banker. Chase is a leader in the modern banking practice of breaking laws as a normal part of doing business, and then paying off the fines their lawyers can’t wriggle out of. There are two really grand features of the operation. Nobody ever goes to jail for stealing this money. And the amount stolen usually exceeds the amount of the fine. It’s an operation in the high-roller community that’s regarded as talent.

I don’t suppose the complete amount the big banks have bilked the public of since the financial crisis of 2008 can ever be totaled. The money in question has been siphoned off in so many ways, through so many obscure processes, masked by so much phony professional language, that there is no way any longer to get a hold on it.

Governments, of course, are always corrupt. I can’t argue convincingly that the U.S. government now is more corrupt than governments in the past have been. The complexity of illegal behavior has been ratcheted to such a level that no one has any firm data. I suspect though that the confidence with which big financiers steal money is higher than ever before because the likelihood of their ever suffering any serious consequences has shrunk to near zero.

I have said in the past that corruption is just one of the lubricants smoothing social operations. Since it can’t be eliminated, it has to be accepted as a normal part of life. We ought, though, to be able to set some limits. But the height of the piles raked up by people in Dimon’s class make one suspect that now virtually all limits have been set aside.

It’s probably just a feature of my childish idealism, but the crimes the government, itself, commits directly bother me more than the crimes the government is paid to ignore. I think the former are on the increase, not so much because government officials are more vicious or sleazy than those of the past, but because the instruments designed to commit and conceal these crimes are more ingenious. I’m not sure how the doctrine allowing the government to get away with anything by pleading state secrets was injected into the legal code. But at the moment it seems almost beyond challenge. Occasionally a rare judge will become so exasperated by the government’s absurd claims that he, or she, will wax sarcastic over a public attorney’s language, as U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer did last week in a case involving the government’s right to assassinate anyone outside the borders of the United States, regardless of whether that person is a U.S. citizen, and to escape any investigation of the killing in the courts. She seemed to be bothered by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Hauck’s assertion that Americans targeted overseas do have rights but that those rights can’t be enforced in court either before or after the Americans are killed. We can cheer a dissident like Judge Collyer, but we can also be confident that the government will appeal any ruling she might make that’s contrary to their desires to another court where the government will prevail. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out, what might be called the Hauck Doctrine is the perfect manifestation of the Obama Administration’s stance on civil rights: you have many exalted civil rights but if we decide to take them away there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

In addition to legal procedures more Byzantine than any in the past, the government also has more people, more money, and more elaborate physical devices available for killing than it once had. And it seems clear, what the state security people have, they will use. As Richard Clarke, former high security muck-a-muck pointed out just last week with respect to another case, the government can certainly modify your car so they can take control of it while you’re driving and smash you into a tree, or a bridge abutment, or anything else. And the chances are your death will appear as one more accident.

People with confidence in the government’s morality might argue: “But you have no evidence of such behavior,” which tends to be true. But the wall of secrecy the government erects around much of what it does is designed to keep the public from knowing about such things. If you read much literature about what clandestine government agencies do, you come away with the sense that legality is not high among the priorities of either their directors or their personnel.

A former president of the United States has just said that we no longer have a functional democracy in this country. That’s not only true, it’s obvious to anyone who opens his eyes. Yet, which functioning politicians will say so? The main reason they don’t, and don't work to restore a functioning democracy, is that the laws are designed now to operate only with respect to those outside the power structure. Criminality, at a high level, is profitable for those on the inside, and in America, what’s profitable reigns.

July 24, 2013

My daughter Elizabeth has been in Stockholm for the past week, attending a conference of physicists. The pictures and reports she has sent us from the city -- which has struck her as extremely inviting -- has got me to thinking about the fluctuations of civilization over time, around the world.

Whenever one sets out to say anything about civilization, he needs to remind himself of how tricky the concept is. The best definition I can offer is a time and place where people are averse to violence, cruelty, and filth, where social intercourse is generally friendly and courteous, where imagination is prized, and irony practiced. The latter may well be the most essential feature.

Civilization, like anything else, has its problems. It needs to be on guard against staleness and over-formality. It can come to reek of snobbishness. But when you consider the alternative forms of social being, civilization holds up pretty well.

It doubtless gets more appealing as one advances in age. The young tend to seek rawer pleasures. My visiting grandsons spend considerable time playing video games which have little to do with civilization, but the boys appear to like them very well. The blood spilled in their games has no odors.

I have a hard time imagining a genuine civilization without a strong literary sensibility. I suppose that could be merely a personal peculiarity. I confess that for quite a while I’ve been strongly influenced by five lines from Yeats’s poem, “The Happy Shepherd:”

But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.

But stepping aside for a moment from the search for a perfect definition, I think most of us would agree that civilization flourishes at some times and declines at others. It’s hard to know why that is.

It seems that civilization is on a downturn now in my own country. We have more violence here than occurs in many other places. Discourse, especially its political version, is often less than courteous. Driving around the country you see many broken-down, dirty things. People appear to love guns more than books. An astounding number of people have been incarcerated. It’s almost impossible to conceive of a civilized prison, or a civilized prison warden, for that matter.

Western Europe now is more civilized than the United States. That hasn’t always been the case. Seventy years ago, civilization in Europe had fallen into a deep hole. There was nothing civilized about the Nazi occupation dominating most of the continent. Yet Europe has to a considerable extent recovered, and that should be a sign of hope for all of us. Civilization can come back from severe blows. And when you consider the vast potential in America for a rising civilization, hope can grow ever stronger. I’m sure many would predict it. I, myself, am not in the predicting business.

When I consider the most civilized places I’ve ever been, certain small towns in southwestern England come to mind, mainly in Wilshire and Somerset, along with the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge. I once spent a month in Oxford, attending a short course at Worcester College. The thing I liked most about it was that for the entire time I was never bored. After my classes were over I would go out walking around the city, and I never tired of exploring Oxford’s streets, even the ones I had been down many, many times. There was always something in them that attracted my attention. The gardens at Worcester College were also alluring, and an added attraction was that there was always someone sitting on at least one of the benches who seemed ready for conversation. There was a sense you could always find someone to talk with in Oxford.

Oxford, of course, has many fine buildings that are endlessly interesting. But I like to think that grandeur, though it can be a complement, is not an essential of civilization. After all, not everywhere can be grand. Yet I would like to think of civilization spreading to wherever people reside. The town I live in now, for example, Montpelier, is certainly not grand. For the most part it’s quite simple. But it has quite a few features of civilization, so many that I can’t think of a place I could live that would supply more. Often people ask us if we’re going to move away from Montpelier as we get even older than we are now.  They seem to think that’s expected. People even ask us if we’re going to move to Florida. We are not going to move to Florida. We’ve driven around the country a lot, and we always ask ourselves when we’re somewhere else how it would be to live there. And so far, every place we’ve considered has not come up to Montpelier. That’s strange, in a way, because there’s nothing stupendous about Montpelier in the way of Oxford, or Stockholm, or Paris.

Civilization, clearly, is not evenly distributed across any extended area. You find traces of it in some places, and almost none in others. The reasons for its occurrence are complex, and usually mired in the past.  Where it shows itself somebody -- or maybe a group of somebodies -- once did something that took root and grew. If you want to see how that works take a walk around the grounds at the University of Virginia, and think of the lasting influence of one man.

That too is encouraging because it gives you the feeling that anyone, if he’s in the mood, could get a small element of civilization underway. We need that kind of behavior in America now.

July 30, 2013

There has been a mini-stir about the interview conducted by Fox News correspondent Lauren Green with Reza Aslan, who has recently come out with a book about the life and times of Jesus titled Zealot.

The questions Ms. Green put to Aslan were absurd, nearly all of them premised on the notion that it is strange for a Muslim scholar to write a book on a Christian subject. But there’s no reason to be surprised that they were absurd. Fox News deals in absurdity. It pleases the fans of Fox, most of whom appear to revel in absurd assumptions.

Mr. Green was clearly set up by her producers to ask the questions she did. They were designed to play to the prejudices of ill-informed Christian conservatives, and she was almost frantic to get through her list. She showed no inclination to engage in actual conversation with Aslan. I felt sorry for her. She was obviously being used. Whether she’s happy to be used is a question I can’t answer.

Aslan didn’t handle himself very well either. He repeated tiresomely the number of degrees he has earned, and did it about as pompously as one could. This was supposedly in answer to why he would write a book about Jesus, but he carried it far beyond what was needed. He could have said, simply, that he is a scholar of religion and therefore that he writes on religious subjects.

He finally did get around to saying that his book is based on the principal fact that has been established about Jesus, that he was crucified in Palestine by the Roman authorities. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved by the Romans for political crimes. Consequently, says Aslan, Jesus must have been seen by the ruling occupiers as a threat to political order.

The book’s thesis appeared not to register with Ms. Green. She indicated no interest in it whatsoever. She merely had to get on with her preset questions. She conveyed the appearance of being thoroughly ignorant, but that may have been just because she was so fixated on what she had been told to do.

The whole affair was ridiculous but, still, informative in a way.

The Fox producers must have decided that they could impress and please their viewers by harping on two things: that Aslan is a Muslim and that other scholars have challenged the conclusions of his book.

Ms. Green wouldn’t give up on the point that Aslan’s religious affiliation made his writing on Christianity weird. At one point she said it was like a Democrat writing a book on Ronald Reagan. And how weird would that be? The underlying argument was that it’s either strange or nefarious for someone to write on a subject he’s not engaged in promoting. The possibility of curiosity was beyond consideration. And that’s a telling point about the streams Fox swims in. In Fox World, and the world to whom Fox appeals, every word that comes out of a person’s mouth, or off a writer’s pen, must be designed to push a socio-political point of view. Why else would one say anything? Conversation, investigation, wonder about the truth of the past can’t function as motives. That would be inconceivable to the Fox mind, or, to be more precise, to the mind Fox thinks it’s catering to. And Fox is not mistaken to think there are such minds. My experience tells me they are discouragingly numerous.

Ms. Green’s second assault was to point out that some scholars don’t agree with Aslan’s conclusions, and, in particular, that some Christian scholars don’t agree with them. She made these points as though they were devastating to Aslan’s position.

He tried to respond by pointing out that scholarship takes up complicated topics and that, therefore, there is bound to be a wide range of interpretation. Green brushed past this as though he were babbling in unknown tongues. Christian scholars don’t agree with you. So there! She didn’t bother to say why she thought the Christian scholars she cited were authoritative (which I suppose is understandable since she probably hadn’t heard of them before she got the instructions for the interview). It was enough that they said what they did, and therefore this so-called Muslim scholar must be all wet.

The frame of mind being flattered by that tactic is one which believes that virtually all evidence is perfectly clear, and so, if you’re a good person, you’ll interpret it correctly. And if you don’t interpret it correctly -- that is in a way that’s pleasing to the believer’s point of view -- then you must be a bad person, or maybe even something worse, like a Muslim.

The concept that all questions of right and wrong and all issues about the foundation of religions have been settled beyond question is the bulwark of what has lately come to be called the conservative mind. There’s no sense in investigating these issues any longer because everybody knows what the correct answers are. And, you know, what everybody knows has got to be right. Our job now is just to get in line with it.

It’s a cloying stance, but as Fox has discovered, there’s lots of money to be made by playing up to it. So you can count on Fox to push those views no matter what, even if it requires making their employees look like complete idiots, which they did thoroughly in their recent use of Ms. Green.

After all, the measure of practically everything in the American business mind is the ability to bring in dollars. And if you do bring in dollars you must be doing what’s right, despite other considerations, which nobody cares about anyway.

©John R. Turner

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