Collected Thoughts

August 2013
August 2, 2013

I read an essay this morning by Elliot Sperber in which he argues that the schools in the United States are more devoted to indoctrination than they are to education. I agree with him but I also recognize that neither agreement nor disagreement means much in a society in which there are such disparate definitions  of education that one person is unlikely to know what another person means when the term “education” is used.

I think a goodly percentage of Americans are beginning to perceive that their country is in deep trouble, but only few of them recognize what the main source of the trouble is. They think it involves moral decay. But they fail to see that the essence of morality is devotion to truth. Another way of saying nearly the same thing is that you don’t suffer financial, political and behavioral corruption without a foundation in putrefied language. They have forgotten the warning from R.G. Collingwood, that when people use a word to mean what it doesn’t in fact, mean they are poisoning the well of civilization.

The meaning of words is a complicated subject, made even more tangled by the inevitable shifting of meaning over time. We can’t avoid struggling with those complexities, but if we were as intelligent as we should be we could resist and reveal deliberate deceptions. And yet, we don’t. What’s wrong with us?

Too many Americans, and perhaps most of us, have fallen into bad habits with respect to words. We let the social resonance of many words completely mislead us about their meaning. And on top of that, we use words as emotional tags designed to stifle thought. Take two of the most obvious examples: capitalism and socialism. If you listen to the way public figures talk when they appear on television, you will pick up quickly that, in America, capitalism is good and socialism is bad. But if you were to ask the same figures who say so what they mean by “capitalism” or what they mean by “socialism,” they would quickly become tongue-tied. And if you were to push on and ask them why one is good and the other bad, their confusion would become even more acute. In short, they are not using words to explain anything to you, nor are they using words to tell you what they really think. They are using words to lead you by the nose. And if you let them lead you that way, whose fault is that?

I hate to have to say this but people who are directed  and controlled by words whose meaning they don’t  bother to comprehend pretty much provide us with our definition of stupid.

Another essay I read recently, Max Blumenthal’s account of the meeting at Aspen of America’s security gurus, made clear that no one at the gathering was offering a coherent definition of “security.” If a great number of wealthy people are paying enormous prices to attend a conference on “security,” and nobody there is defining it, what does that tell you? It ought to be clear that they don’t give a damn about anything that could reasonably be called security. They have other goals in mind, which they don’t speak of except in the most guarded language.

Richard Eskow’s analysis of Tom Friedman’s ongoing message to America points out that the New York Times columnist harps incessantly on the notion that you can’t expect to have employment or make a decent living if you’re only “average.” What that means, if language means anything, is that the average person can’t get a job. Yet Friedman’s message to his fellow citizens, is that America’s future depends on above average people (whatever that might mean) making a lot of money. So what are the average people going to do? They can’t get a job, so where will the means for them to eat come from? Do they just have to starve? Is that what Friedman is telling us? It’s an idiotic social prognostication, or else vicious beyond belief. And, yet, Friedman is paraded around every day as some sort of wise man. Why? Have we reached a stage where we can’t even think about what an ordinary word like “average” means?

Lynn Stuart Parramore published an interesting piece about a week ago titled, “Eight Shocking Ways America Leads the World.” The measures of leadership she laid out don’t bespeak health for the general population. The leading factors have mostly to do with obesity, violence, rates of incarceration, and higher prices for medical treatment than any other country in the world. Yet we are regularly told by major politicians that the United States is not only the greatest country on earth, but the greatest country that has ever existed on earth. This being the statement, you would think somebody would ask these spokesmen what they mean by “great.” I have never heard that question put to a one of them in any public setting. I’m not saying that no answer could be given. I’m saying that no answer is ever requested. We see no evidence in our public discourse that anybody knows what “great,” as applied to a nation, means or that anybody ever thinks about what it means.

Whether we’re talking about education, or philosophies of politics, or security, or economics, or international leadership, or anything else, for that matter, if nobody knows what other people mean by the words they use, or nobody cares, then we’re not discussing anything, we’re just gabbling. And if you pay attention to the presumed main sources of information on how we conduct our common affairs, you see that gabble is what they generally churn out.

We have descended into bad habits of talking to one another. If I could make just one change in the practices of my fellow citizens, it would be for them to give greater care to the meaning of the words they use, and the words they hear.

August 4, 2013

Several months ago, I had an extensive conversation with two of my friends about the prospect of enriching the definition of “sanity,” so that it would come to mean not simply avoidance of delusion but also a full-scale intellectual vigor charged with intelligence.

They both thought I was overreaching, that “sanity” was so fixed and limited in the public mind that it could never evolve into the more fully developed concept I wished for it. They convinced me, to some degree, so I more or less gave up the practice of arguing for it in the abstract. I didn’t, though, stop feeling that we need such a word in English.

Yesterday, reading in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s short treatise on the art of writing, I came on the following passage:

Cardinal Newman, proposing the idea of a university to the Roman Catholics of
Dublin, lamented that the English language had not, like the Greek, ‘some definite
words to express, simply and generally, intellectual proficiency or perfection, such
as health, as used with reference to the animal frame, and virtue, with reference to
our moral nature. Well, it is a reproach to us that our attempts at it -- the word
culture for instance -- have been apt to take on some soil of controversy, some
connotative damage from over-preaching on the one hand and impatience on
the other.

I was pleased, of course, to find that John Henry Newman had preceded me in feeling the same sense of need. It’s not surprising, though. I’m confident that an identical thought must have occurred to many people. The intensity of the feeling, however, must vary, and I’m pretty sure I’m in the upper ranks of those who think that the absence of a word denoting full quality of mind is a serious social handicap. The lack cuts us off from talking about hundreds of subjects we need to clarify in our thinking.

We have, of course, many words to denote the opposite condition, words we use incessantly -- stupidity, cretinism, idiocy, pig-headedness, flat-mindedness, dopiness, absurdity, fatuousness and so on. And we have multitudes to whom we can apply those words (I confess, for example, that Jeff Sessions, the senator from Alabama, is one of the names that pops automatically into my mind when I hear terms of that sort uttered. I’m not proud that it does; it just does). I can’t, though, delude myself into assuming that mentioning such persons, not even Jeff Sessions, can signify what their opposite would be.

No word acting as a referent to something complicated can tell us what that something is. The word is no more than a starting point. We ought to reflect, however, that without starting points we don’t get started. If we had a word supplying the starting point, take for example my candidate “sanity,” then we could say things like, “It’s only sane to see that such and such is ....,” and everyone would know what we were trying to get at. In the absence of that word we tend to flounder. We give the impression that we’re supporting only that which we want and not something generally recognized as desirable.

Words do have power, whether or not we wish to recognize that they do. Just think where we would be with no words at all.

My friends, though, are right. It’s not likely that anybody can elevate a word to a more potent position by arguing for it in the abstract. If you’re going to do it, you just have to start using the word in the way you would like others to use it and hope the enhanced meaning catches on. And so, as I fumble towards a a more defensible stance on human well-being, I think I’ll do what I can to paint the target as a trinity of health, virtue, and sanity (is it bad that’ it’s a trinity?). 

I have, as my friends know, considerable difficulty with “virtue.” I have tended to merge it with good taste, which many, and perhaps most, would think is a bad idea. Virtue isn’t as easy for me to think about as the other two elements of complete humanity. I did though, just yesterday also, happen on a discussion that helped me considerably, and that was Susan Neiman speaking on Philosophy Bites about “Evil in the 21st Century.” She doesn’t have as much trouble with virtue as I do because she finds it pretty consistent with the Enlightenment project. She is confident that if people will open their minds, and listen to evidence, they will come to agree about the major features of right and wrong. I hope that’s the case, though I can’t say I’m as optimistic as she is. Nor am I as sure that the Enlightenment can be as sharply distinguished from pre-modern tradition or post-modern nihilism as she thinks it can. Still, I have to admit that nothing I heard her say yesterday struck me as absurd.

Having made a brief detour into virtue I now need to end with one more note about sanity. If it’s going to work as I would like, we have to conclude that there is no conflict between sanity and imagination. In fact, if I suddenly developed gargantuan persuasive powers, I would bring imagination under the umbrella of sanity, and insist that no processes of its own development could ever drive it out. It’s hard for me to think of a more hideous development than the separation of sanity and imagination. Much as I’m annoyed by stupidity, I would rather live with it than with a barrier between those two.

August 7, 2013

Systems break apart in surprising ways and at times scarcely anyone anticipates. That being the case, it’s not possible to predict system disintegration with any accuracy. Still, our current political system has become so absurd it’s hard to imagine it can continue for very much longer as it has been. That’s not to say things can’t get worse.

There are various realizations creeping into public discourse that could cause disruptions. One is the burgeoning understanding that Barack Obama is all talk and virtually no action. That’s because he is a fixture of a political party that makes him what he is. The Democrats will try mightily to give the impression that they are champions of the majority, that they care about the poor, that they want a stable middle-class society, that they are disturbed by the rampant income inequality in the nation. But none of that is true. Democratic officials may even, at times, tell themselves it is. But when they have to choose between genuine reform and a corrupt system which showers them with rewards for going along, reform has no chance. More and more people who were formerly loyal Democrats are seeing that, and are becoming alienated. At the moment, they don’t know what to do about it because they recognize that bad as the Democrats are, the Republicans are even worse. But disgust with the Democratic Party among its long-time adherents is likely to bring forth some major effect over the next few years.

If Mr. Obama appoints either Larry Summers or Timothy Geithner to head the Federal Reserve, thus showing even more clearly than he has already that he’s in the pocket of the Wall Street bankers, there could be a fairly serious upheaval.

The rise of genuine know-nothings as a political movement, with a name that journalists can remember, also portends disorder. The Tea Party is almost as passionate as it is ignorant, which is combination charged with trouble. A curious feature of human nature is that the less people know the more sure they are that they’re right, even when they can’t begin to say what “right” means. The Tea Party members are people who will rip up things without having any idea of the consequences. And, then, when conditions go bad, they’ll ask indignantly, “Why didn’t somebody tell me about this?”

The typical Tea Party adherent is almost perfectly manipulable. And where there is a large group of people who are screaming to be manipulated, there will be plenty of manipulators to take advantage. I suspect that men like Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Marco Rubio, Paul Broun, and others of their ilk have nothing substantive in mind they have actually thought through. In other words, they have no plan of government. They just want to be cheered. When they discover masses who will cheer them, they have no scruples against playing to prejudices that tickle their own fancy. Adulation is their sole political goal. In order to feed their own egos they will destroy operations that millions depend on for decent life.

A third factor with the potential to shake foundations is the grounding of the current system in xenophobia. In the United States it’s called American exceptionalism, but it’s actually a sweet-sounding self-deception that Americans have been feeding themselves for decades, a deception which proclaims that they are the only genuinely good, and the only genuinely intelligent, people in the world. American political discourse has been built on that nonsense for so long that most unthinking citizens of this country have taken it as a quasi-religious doctrine. You might say that self-worship is just a childish delusion that doesn’t actually hurt much, and that might be the case were it not that in the American version it has been linked to a murderous militarism which has done a great deal of harm around the globe. The other people of the world are not going to put up with such behavior forever. They will find ways to strike back, and there’s evidence some of the push-back is already underway.

Furthermore, the United States doesn’t exist in a news vacuum. They other people of the world know, to some extent, how our system operates. They recognize its corruption and absurdity. The growing global perception of what’s going on here isn’t going to prop up the people who think they’re in charge.

I read an article just last week arguing that there are reasonable and healthy solutions to the difficulties plaguing the United States now, but it’s hard to conceive, seeing the current system, how they might be implemented. It’s not that we don’t have people who perceive the foolishness of the system in place. But how can Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or Paul Krugman, or Joseph Stiglitz break through the self-protective carapaces the power mongers have built around themselves? It probably can’t happen until the system begins to crack.  At least we can hope that when things start to fall apart, the American people will have the sense to turn to sane people instead of lurching towards even crazier leaders than we now see populating the evening news.

My own wish is that public recognition of how seriously flawed the American way has become will accelerate in the immediate future. We know that the American people are already disgusted about what’s going on in Washington. But I doubt they have yet figured out what’s actually disgusting about it. That will take considerably more public education, and a willingness to learn. The latter is what I worry about more than anything else when it comes to the good of my country.

August 14, 2013

Last night at a meeting of the Johnson Society we discussed authority, and the way one form of it may in the process of replacing another. To be fair to our discussion, I must report that one of our members objected to talking about forms of authority. Its definition is well established traditionally, he said. It is an ability to influence people based on respect. The great German historian Theodore Mommsen, spoke of it as being something more than advice, but less than coercion, a kind of advice that can’t be ignored. My friend is right, of course. It would be useful to hold on to the steady definitions of words. If we easily allow them to move from being one thing to another, we lose the ability to know what we’re talking about. In the modern world we have done that incessantly, and that’s why our discourse is such a gabble. But, on the other hand, we are often forced to recognize certain realities. Nowadays when we talk about the authorities, we usually mean the people with power to compel compliance. And it is this new sense of authority that I suggested we are moving towards. After all, it’s difficult to discuss authority in the traditional sense. Hannah Arendt in her essay “What Was Authority” announced that the old form is extinct. I, myself, don’t think it’s extinct but I do think it’s fading fast.

This morning, with elements of our discussion still swirling my thoughts, I got up to continue reading in Dana Priest’s Top Secret America. Almost immediately I came on a passage that would have helped me make my point last night. She was discussing the mushrooming of so-called security activities in the decade after September of 2001 and she reported:

After two years of investigation, Arkin (Priest’s research associate) had come up
with a jaw dropping 1074 federal government organizations and nearly two
thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism,
homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United
States -- all of them working at the top secret classification level.

This, to me, bespeaks the fleeing from authority based on confidence towards one based on fear.

If on September 12, 2001, we had a president secure in his possession of traditional authority, he could have been in the White House addressing the nation in terms something like this: “We have suffered a grievous hurt. We are going to begin immediately to repair the damage, and to comfort, to the best of our ability, those who have suffered irretrievable loss. We will examine everything that played a part in causing this to come about, including our defensive procedures and our relations with the rest of the world. We will try to make intelligent reforms as rapidly as possible. But one thing we are not going to do is run crazy. Our enemies designed this attack to cause us to lose our heads. We will not gratify them.”

If that brand of confident, self-assured authority, linked securely to the respect of the population, had been in place in 2001, we would not have had ten years later an intelligent journalist like Dana Priest feeling the necessity of making this statement:

With no hope of defeating a much better equipped and professional nation-state
army, the terrorists hoped to get their adversary to overreact, to bleed itself dry,
and to trample the very values it tried to protect. In this sense, al-Qaeda -- though
increasingly short on leaders and influence (a fact no one in Top Secret America
would ever say publicly, just in case there was another attack) was doing much
more damage to its enemy than it had on 9/11.

In my introductory remarks to the group last night I said this: “The form of authority coming into dominance is probably most accurately called totalitarian. The main corollary of this thesis, which might be more significant than the thesis itself, is that the transition (to the new form) is accompanied by a psychological transformation still in its early stages but which is likely to become the norm.”

We didn’t have a chance to discuss that notion as much as I would have liked. What I had in mind was an emotional relation to authority based less and less on respect, and more and more on fear.

Fear as the dominant public feeling produces a very different social system, and a very different government, from one based on confidence and trust. Think what it would be to go to work every day in one of the 1,047 organizations William Arkin discovered during his researches. Think what it would mean to know that you, yourself, are under continuous scrutiny. Supposing that in order to keep your job you had to undergo a lie detector test on a regular basis? What if you knew that your co-workers were being steadily questioned about your conversation and your habits? Would it make you trust anyone? Would it allow you to imagine that trust can even exist?

Rising from the gigantic new buildings sprouting all over the Washington area -- the one in Springfield, Virginia, for example, built for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, cost $1.8 billion to construct and takes in 8,500 employees every day -- you can almost sense a miasma of fear, forming itself into a thick toxic cloud spreading across the nation (I know, that’s metaphorical, but it may also be true).

What does totalitarianism promise? Perfect security. What does it demand? Fear of authority. I’m not saying we’re there yet. I am saying that if we keep on the same path, we will sooner or later arrive there. So I think we should find a way to turn around, or at least veer off in another direction.

August 15, 2013

Today we’re setting off on a trip that will have us driving all the way across the country and probably take about three weeks. That means it will be harder than usual for me to post essays here. I’ve never opened a Twitter account, and I don’t plan to. But the thought came to me that while I’m away I might experiment with posting Twitter-like thoughts that occur to me from time to time and that I usually jot into a notebook. I’ll start today and see how it goes.

What do I think about piety? More often than not it’s a manipulative scheme for oppressing large groups of people. I suppose that thought is impious enough.

When you come to the point of recognizing that commonsense is usually nonsense, then you’re on the threshold of both accomplishment and danger.

Any kind of meanness people can think up they’ll pass it off on God to give it an extra boost.

The good old days: an oxymoronic phrase?

The American economic system is designed to tear families apart. Capitalism makes money off distraught family members. The naiveté about that among the general population is one of the more pathetic features of the American mind.

One can get weary of the incessant pious euphemisms for dead people, i.e., departed, fallen, gone to God.

The world of small town gossip -- whose hip is aching, and so forth, is not my cup of tea. Yet I need to remember that it’s the only world many people find meaningful. What people care about, and why, remains the gigantic mystery.

When the landscape of your childhood loses its magic, what then do you do about it? North Georgia was once something miraculous to me, the people who once lived there giants.

I read and was fond of an aphorism from John Maynard Keynes: “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.”

In the immensity of it all, what does anything matter? Even so, I continue to want to matter to some extent, even though I’m not sure I know what that means.

Why do we assume that the world and life can be -- or should be -- perfectly intelligible?

A national security state spends its energies creating enemies so it can then tell its people it is protecting them against enemies. Insuring the existence of enemies is, therefore, the reason for its own existence.

The quality I find creepy about even the best of conservatives is that they put the rightness of so-called moral ideas over compassion.

The man who protects himself against reality by refusing to think is the man capable of the greatest evil.

The criminal elements outside the United States working and planning to hurt Americans are paltry compared to the criminal elements inside the United States, including those in prestigious positions, who are working to hurt Americans.

I’ve sampled many minds and found few that are plenteous. That used to make me angry. Now it makes me sad. Think of the mental landscape created by the hundred members of the United States Senate. If that’s not a wasteland it’s hard to know what could be.

Osama bin Laden saw that America’s prime character flaw is an irresistible impulse to run scared. All he had to do was set the impulse in motion and he could rely on Americans to destroy the things they claimed to care most about. I’m pretty sure he died confident he had accomplished his goal.

Stupid people don’t want to make the distinctions that are necessary if one is to make sense of what’s being said. You might even say that an inability to recognize distinctions is the definition of stupidity.

I read an article about the Clintons and their foundation. Wheelers, dealers, money-grubbers, their world isn’t to my taste. But more important is whether they accomplish any of the good they claim they do. I don’t know. They do, though, like to preen themselves.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Keep in mind that idle thoughts are often just that, idle. But if one or two of the thoughts here managed to make someone angry, that would please me.

August 19, 2013

At the Barnes and Noble in the Harbour Center, Annapolis, I glanced through Robert Kagan’s The World America Made. The first couple of pages are filled with glowing recommendations from a variety of well-known voices -- not all of them right-wingers -- praising Kagan’s clarity, balance, knowledge, and wisdom. The book’s message is the necessity of American hard power, by which Kagan means the ability of the U. S. government to kill tens of thousands of people -- though he doesn’t come right out and say so -- whenever it decides such killing is required to maintain international order.

The interesting thing about the book, for me, is not its message but the mechanism chosen to deliver the message. The book is made up almost entirely of abstractions.

I’m pretty well convinced that a mind which operates solely through abstractions doesn’t operate well. I’m not saying -- and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m saying -- that minds can function free of abstractions. Obviously they can’t. On the other hand, a mind that never gets beyond abstractions is impaired.

Throughout The World America Made, American power appears as a near-perfect abstraction. If you read through the thirty-seven customer reviews posted on Amazon, you’ll find that virtually all of them rise from abstract opinions. The background picture the book and its reviewers conjure up is of a room of near-elderly men, sitting with drinks in hand, thinking of themselves as quite serious persons, and determining how the world should be ordered. They will be discussing whether socialism is inferior to capitalism, and how to maintain free trade, and how to keep markets productive, and so on. And should you ask any of them what he means by socialism, or capitalism, or free trade, or productive markets, you would likely be met with indignation.

Nowhere in my skimming of The World America Made did I find Kagan describing or assessing a specific product of American power. How about a jagged piece of shrapnel from an American-made and American-delivered bomb ripping into the stomach of three-year-old girl in a village near Khandahar? How about how the child’s intestines look as they leave her body and spread themselves across the sand? How about how they smell after they have lain ripening in the sun for three or four hours? How do we assess all that? If we assume that the child’s dying wails, and her mother’s shrieks, and her father’s perpetual hatred are costs incurred by the application of American power, then what specific benefits do we get from those costs? I suppose a typical general might say we get the death of a bad guy who lives next door. But then, we have to start asking what, exactly, would the bad guy have done had we not killed him, and how we think we know what he would have done, and what metrics we use to assess the weight of that badness. It is fatuous to say that we didn’t intend to kill the child. We know that if we use the methods American power has been in the habit of using to kill the men American power has determined to be bad, then we will, without doubt, kill little girls. Our claim not to want to kill them is neither here nor there. If we keep on doing things that will kill them then we should have the gumption to admit that, taking everything into account, we do want to kill them in order to kill other people.

One might argue that I’m asking for a weighing of significance that can’t be weighed. Fair enough. But I can answer just as forcefully that Kagan has no ability to weigh the significance of national power or of its use. He doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out. And all the so-called evidence he adduces is little more than spin-offs from the assertion that we’re good and they’re bad.

What we’re actually talking about when we deal with a subject like this is the question of seriousness. Who’s more serious, one who wants to stop doing things we know will kill little children or one who thinks that the knowing assessment of abstractions is the most important thing privileged men can do? And let’s not kid ourselves. The men and women who sit in conference rooms and choose policies and practices that will result in human slaughter are extremely privileged. They are exactly the sort of persons who have been choosing to slaughter millions throughout recorded history.

I wonder if it might be time to grow weary of them. I know that skimming Kagan’s book this morning made me tired. I spent no time or energy denouncing him as evil, or vicious, or arrogant. Instead, I found myself thinking, “My God! What a droop!”

I confess, I had the same feeling when I saw the now famous photograph of the privileged group at the White House staring at screens presumably showing them the killing of Osama bin Laden. For them, Bin Laden and the people around him who might be on the verge of violent death were no longer human beings; they had become abstractions to be measured by other abstractions. The watchers’ minds are so drained of specifics there’s no telling what they might decide to do. I admit I have no idea what they are capable of, or what they’re capable of resisting. Looking at them gave me the creeps.

Modes of thought have to change before behavior will change. The kind of thinking Robert Kagan represents, and is adept at, has been around for a very long time. I’m ready to see it swept into an intellectual dustbin so that perceptions of specific reality can receive much more careful attention.

©John R. Turner

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