Collected Thoughts

September 2013
September 15, 2013

If I were more enterprising than I am, I would launch a “League for Reining In Noxious Words” (LRNW). Newspapers, television, and the internet are littered with so many stomach-churning locutions they have become serious threats to digestive order. The general character of these terms is propagandistic, with the intention of inducing people to get weepy over speech that ought to be reserved for comedy shows. The truly horrible thing about nauseous vocabulary is that it steadily functions to achieve precisely what its control-freak progenitors have designed it for.

Here are a half-dozen starters for anyone who wants to get the league underway:

  • “Hero” should be limited to characters who flourished at least three thousand years ago, or, perhaps, to those who appear in comic books; also, it probably should not be applied to anyone who was actually a historical personage. It’s okay for guys like Achilles, but when you see it pasted on anybody who lived within the past five hundred years, you should put your hand on your wallet and know you’re under assault. Praising someone as a hero is invariably an attempt to get you to support a political activity which if you really understood would make you want to wretch. The more I read about the past, the more I see that people who are generally called heroes in textbooks would be more accurately labeled “egomaniacs.” Keep in mind, you can laud a person for being brave, and performing helpful acts without resorting to this odious term.

  • “Terrorism” over the past dozen years has lost all denotive function and is applied almost always to justify hideous acts no decent person should contemplate. No definition of terrorism is ever used in the media or by politicians to help you grasp what’s going on. In fact, the purpose of the word is just the opposite: to delude, confuse and lead people by the nose. The responses that governments make to what they call terrorism are always terroristic, that is, if we’re accepting the word in the form governments push at us. In the United States, the legislation that has been enacted for combatting terrorism has all been wasteful, and most of it has been destructive of the freedoms the government claims to be defending. “Terrorism” is a stupid, bad, harmful word.

  • “Exceptionalism” is used for nothing except bombastic, arrogant bragging. If people want to call themselves exceptional, they should be asked what they are exceptions to. As far as I can tell, the only reason to use the word is to insult the people who, for some reason, have been excluded from the charmed ring of one’s own status. Suppose you went to a dinner party and someone there said, “My children are superior to all other children (including yours, of course); they’re exceptional.” What you think of him? Would you find him a gracious companion? The question, “Why do they hate us so?” has become a kind of joke in American discourse. But if you really want to know why the United States and Americans are despised by much of the world, all you need to do is think about “exceptionalism” and you’ll have made a good beginning.

  • “The Holy Land” seems to refer to a tiny portion of the world where it’s okay to do horrible things to many of the people who live there. Why does that make it holy? Why, in fact, is any portion of the earth’s surface any more holy than any other? I’m aware, of course, of the history behind the term. It’s based in mythology. But since it is, why not reserve it for mythological discourse, and stop using it in modern political conversation, where it can function only to inflame hatred. It seems to me we have enough hatred in the world without ginning it up out of mythological tales.

  • “Libertarian” is an adjective that means nothing, or at least nothing honest. It’s used to mask selfish, nasty motives that nobody wants to admit to openly. Pasting a term on them that vaguely connotes a devotion to freedom gives cover for filthy political machinations. Rand Paul, for example, is supposedly a libertarian, but if you examine what he actually wants for his fellow citizens it’s hideously harsh and punitive. He and others like him need to be flushed out from behind a sweet-sounding term and made to defend what they actually want to bring about. A good way to start would be to strip away the word they’re hiding behind.

  • “Security” is a term increasingly applied to government officials who care very little about the safety and well-being of their fellow citizens. If they did, they would be directing their attention to the array of threats that have the potential to ruin lives instead of concentrating only on the comparative few that help government functionaries build an empire for themselves. All of us would do well to find out about the 10,740 square foot palace at Ft. Belvoir which NSA (you know what the “S” stands for, I hope) Director Keith Alexander is building for himself, with a Star Trek-like command chair facing a 22 foot  television screen, the whole labyrinth being named “Information Dominance Center.” Anyone that gives a warm and fuzzy feeling of safety to is doubtless beyond the reach of any honest words.

If we could abolish, or rein in, the use of just these six, we would by that act alone create a more courteous and informative public arena. But I’m afraid they’re so chiseled on the brains of those who see themselves as very important persons, it would be a monumental task even to make that small beginning.

September 16, 2013

Most mornings I do a brief survey of news and opinion from various sources, make a few notes, and let it all recede into an archive of the mind. It’s not a useless process but, on the other hand, it’s not particularly efficient either.

The thought comes to me that maybe I should try to use my surveys -- on at least some days -- to function as conversation starters. If, for example, I listed a half-dozen articles, or so, and then made a few brief remarks about some of them, it might lead others to consult some of the pieces and discuss them with friends. As you know, I’m a great believer in sharing opinions.

So, here’s a list of six from this Monday morning:

• Peter Ludlow,
  “The Banality of Systemic Evil,”
  New York Times, September 15, 2013
  (Keywords: Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes)

• Richard Wolffe,
  “The Inside Story of the White House Cliques,”
  Salon, September 16, 2013
  (Keywords: outsiders vs. insiders)

• Andrew J. Bacevich,
  “David Brooks Is Constantly Wrong,”
  Salon, September 15, 2013
  (Keywords: Jane Addams, John Wayne)

• Frank Rich,
  “Obama’s True Motives on Syria,”
  New York Magazine, September 13, 2013
  (Keywords: Same theory as drone warfare).

• Patrick Smith,
  “Was America Ever Exceptional?”
  Salon, September 16, 2013
  (Keywords: strength vs. power)

• Dennis Loo,
  “Eugene Robinson on Syria, Obama and American Exceptionalism,”
  OpEdNews, September 15, 2013
  (Keywords: ad hominem arguments against Putin)

You may have noted that several of my friends and I have been carrying on a conversation about the nature of evil for several weeks now. It hasn’t been as divisive as you might suppose. We certainly don’t agree on everything, but, on the other hand, there are wide overlaps in our opinions. For one thing, we all seem to recognize that evil acts can flow from the behavior of people who wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as evil or even bad, merely people who want to be agreeable and do their jobs. We’ve pretty well concluded that agreeable people, though pleasant, are not likely to be the saviors of humankind. I was glad to see that Peter Ludlow’s article more or less goes along with that general stance, and fleshes out some of our thoughts about the relationship of systems to evil acts.

Richard Wolffe’s piece gets at the dispute that is always raging in politics between those who wish to rely on insider know-how and those who think widespread open arguments are the way to get things done. There are arguments in favor of either method, but it seems fairly clear to me that the notion of cultivating the insider approach has become overblown in American practice. Not only does it undermine democracy, it also serves to reward people who don’t do much that’s worth reward. Wolffe shows that this has been largely the case in the White House during Obama’s presidency.

I respect Andrew Bacevich’s views about war and peace about as much as those of any political thinker of our generation. His evolution from a long-term army officer to a hard-thinking political scientist is, to my mind, one of the finest career developments of our time. On the other hand, I have about as little respect for Brooks’s views on these subjects as it’s possible to have. Bacevich offers a convincing portrayal of Brooks’s incessant wrongness. I wish he had pushed farther and given us his thoughts about what drives Brooks to be as consistently wrong as he is. I’ve had ideas on that subject myself, but nothing in which I have perfect confidence.

I’ve missed Frank Rich’s columns at the New York Times. Since transferring to New York Magazine, Rich has continued to hold forth on politics, but not so much in the well-developed form his long columns in the Sunday Times allowed. His piece this morning on Obama’s motives with respect to Syria moves back a bit towards his former efforts. As you might imagine, the president wins little praise from him. Perhaps his most memorable comment is, “I guess this proves that if you mate a hawk with a dove, you end up with the rhetorical equivalent of turducken.” But the most substantive point Rich makes is that Obama thinks he can employ the same tactic in Syria that he thinks is working in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, that is limited-strike assassination. It’s not a measure Rich has much use for.

Patrick Smith’s essay draws a distinction between national strength and national power. Strength, which is both good and sustainable, lies in democratic institutions and in the character of the people. Power, by contrast, is simply the ability to impose outcomes by military force. It is not sustainable and leads to inevitable breakdown.  The United States, he says, was once truly exceptional, but that was because of the vast natural resources available to the country, not because of any institutional or moral superiority. But by the end of the 19th century all those resources were being exploited, and the government chose to turn to power, rather than strength to maintain its position. It was a bad decision, one we now need to learn how to reject.

Dennis Loo’s take on Eugene Robinson’s recent column caused me some sadness. I have generally found Robinson to be a thoughtful voice on national affairs. But in his response to Vladimir Putin’s editorial in the New York Times, he seems to have let his emotions run away with him. He fell into an ad hominem argument, urging, in effect, that because Obama is a better person than Putin is, that Putin’s arguments are flawed. But, as Loo notes, even a jerk can tell the truth at times. And when he does, it’s still the truth.

If I were super brilliant, I could sum up all these argument in a pithy sentence, but being no more than myself, about all I can say is I see an increasing number of theses which tell us that we, as a nation, have lost our way, and need to open our eyes to find it again.

September 17, 2013

In trying to think through the complexities of various political and international disputes I’ve gradually reached two conclusions which, I suspect, would help us all make personal decisions with a diminished degree of anguish. The first is more obvious than the second.

Neither I nor anybody else can say, with complete confidence, what will produce desired results in complicated situations. We often find ourselves forced to take a stance, and it seems to be almost human nature that once we have chosen a course we try to defend it as though it were the perfect answer. But since we don’t know that it is, we would be more honest to admit that our decision is based on imperfect knowledge, and will be judged by a future we can’t predict. We’ve created a political culture in which such modesty has become suicidal for political operatives. And we’re all suffering from the need of politicians to bluff, and bluster, and pretend they have incontrovertible answers.

It would be refreshing, wouldn’t it, to hear a politician say, “I’m not sure this will work, but given that we’ve got to do something, this is the best I can advise at the moment.” But just think how such a statement would be pilloried by both the media and opponents. Politicians know this, of course, and so they think they have no course but act like pompous fools. Recall every time you’ve seen Lindsey Graham on TV and you’ll get what I mean.

This is the obvious conclusion; now on to the one that’s not so obvious.

We have become so obsessed with the notion of the right thing that we’ve lost sight of a fundamental truth: what might actually be the right thing for one person might not be a sensible course for another.

I’ve been reading Peter Beinart’s engaging account of U.S. foreign policy over the past century, concentrating on Woodrow Wilson’s management of World War I, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, and George Bush’s venture in Iraq. The book is titled, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, which I suppose gives a pretty good idea of Beinart’s thesis. The book makes clear that an overblown confidence in power led to failure for all three presidents. But it also argues that numerous persons who have a strong historical reputations were dead wrong in their analysis of the situation at hand. John Dewey, for example, who, after the horrors of the 1914-1918 war became a thoroughgoing pacifist and argued against U.S. participation in the struggle against Nazi Germany, is painted as politically naive. And perhaps he was. But I’m not sure that Dewey was wrong to stand up against the essential evil of war. The dominant opinion now is that organizing for and carrying out the military defeat of Germany was a grand thing to do. I can certainly feel the power of that argument. But I also have to remember that doing what was done cost fifty-five million lives. And when I recall that number, and imagine the scenes that built it up, I find myself asking two questions:

  • Can anything be said to be worth that cost?

  • Might something other than all out war have been used to constrain the depredations of the National Socialist regime?

I don’t have pure answers for either of those questions. Nor can I quarrel vehemently with someone who might answer them differently than I would. But I do see that without the arguments of pacifism, the questions probably would never be addressed. All I’m claiming here is that individuals can be right to take stances that a majority of their fellow humans, and even the judgment of subsequent historians, reject. It may be that someone’s own character requires that he or she support positions that few, particularly over the limited period of a single century, would credit as worthy. I certainly can’t prove that such a person would be wrong to do that.

The truth is that at any given time no one can read the full influence of a current position over the long stretch of the future. And since we don’t, and can’t, know what the influence will be, we have to find some other measure than ultimate beneficence to judge the rightness of personal behavior.

We have to ask, for example, was it sincere? Was it based on the best knowledge of the time? Was it in keeping with a person’s heartfelt character? Was it arrived at after hard intellectual work and open consideration of arguments against it? Did it do good for some people even if it didn’t do good for all?

These are difficult, perhaps impossible, questions. But they need to be considered. And if someone answers them differently than we do, we would do well to set aside judgments of right and wrong, and try, instead, to learn more about them than we have learned at the moment.

This is not to say we can always defer action until our thoughts have been sorted out. Obviously, we can’t. We can do only what we can and must, knowing what we know. But maybe the world would become more healthy and generous if we began to recognize that the people opposing us may well find themselves in the same fix we find ourselves.

I’m not against judging inadequate behavior, that is behavior based only on virulent selfishness, or psychological indulgence, or ignorance, or bigotry. All I’m suggesting is that when we see something we don’t like, we ask if it had its own integrity. And I’m also suggesting that we apply that standard to ourselves, and dump guilt, if we find we were trying to do the right thing, even though we might have been confused about it.

September 18, 2013

Tom Friedman posted a column this morning about the burden of being an American, as contrasted with the easy spirits of a pink-haired clerk in a Swiss store. As with most of Mr. Friedman’s efforts, I didn’t find his thoughts about the responsibility of Americanness compelling. But it did remind me of a topic that has occupied my mind lately, that is the depressing effect of trying to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

Most mornings, a check of the news sources gets me down in dumps.

One way to try to deal with dreary moods is to tell myself that the human race is a mess, just as it has always been, and that it’s not going to change. I have known people who are buoyed along cheerfully by that view. But it doesn’t seem to do much for me. Though I’ve been accused of being sardonic, I’m not that sardonic.

I saw a movie a few nights ago where one of the characters, reflecting on an anniversary relating to Albert Einstein, reminded his companion that the great physicist had said there were only two infinite things -- the universe and human stupidity. The character paused, then added, “I’m not so sure about the universe.”

One might ask why humans are so stupid. The only answer I can come up with is that it’s hard not to be, and humans, for the most part, don’t like hard things.

I’ve heard it said that stupidity is preferable to intelligence because stupid people are happy whereas intelligent people, being aware, find it impossible to be happy. Even if that were true, which I don’t think it is, it wouldn’t clinch the case for stupidity. Who says happiness is the prime goal? Mainly, only stupid people.

A thing to remember is that what we call the news is not the only subject of interest to us. There are many topics to divert the mind from the current state of humanity. We should regularly recall Samuel Johnson’s reminder: "How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” It’s true that our own personal conditions usually press more heavily on what counts for us than do the thoughts of the president or of his opponents. There are times when we can be elevated regardless of how foolishly they are behaving.

The past news, which we call history, can afford us a kind of distance and allow a form of reflection which the present can’t supply. We can tell ourselves that what happened centuries ago doesn’t have much impact on our lives now. And though that’s not true, the sense that it is makes possible a disinterested effort to analyze human behavior in a puzzle-solving way. Some people enjoy doing that, and whether they approach the task seriously or simply for the sake of romance it can take the mind away from yesterday’s disasters.

Science is undoubted the greatest diversion. Finding out how natural things work, and, then, trying to apply that knowledge for the sake of increased power or convenience drives much of the economic engine and convinces multitudes that they’re doing something important. You can do that without giving a damn about whether Putin is a monster or a peacemaker. I have known scientists who never read a newspaper and have no idea about current politics. And some of them have seemed happy enough.

What you can do with science, you can do in a slightly different way with art. Give yourself to it, immerse yourself in it, and forget about everything else.

In the end, though, the world and that portion of it we call humanity break through to affect us all. Because of some idiot Congressman from Kansas a scientist is deprived of the funds to carry on his research. Because of a meaningless war pushed by profit-mongers, tragedy intrudes into private life. Because of so-called public morality, artists are hampered in pursuing their visions. You can tell yourself it won’t, but the world will get to you sooner or later, often in some way you never anticipated. Most people take for granted what is, and forget that the world, tomorrow, can rip it apart.

Consequently, some attention to, and care for, the human world is required of every intelligent person. And if that task gets you down, you still have to take it as a necessary part of living, that is, if you want to call yourself intellectually responsible. I had a friend who used to tell me that if you aren’t sad most of the time then you’re a cretin. I don’t know if I would yet go that far, but there’s something to be said for the view.

We have to find ways to live with a surrounding sadness, maybe not happily but, at least, with a determination to keep going which can deliver some satisfaction. And I think we need to hope that the world will, over time, get less depressing than it is. I don’t know that we can find much evidence for that view. But you don’t need evidence for hope, that is unless what you’re hoping for is contrary to evidence. And one of the truths that can be comforting is that evidence doesn’t seem to be on the side of either optimism or pessimism. There’s so much of it, it can be read either way.

Then, there are the little daily things, which I think are far more important than most people give them credit for being. There’s a cup of coffee. There’s the sun going down while you sit on the porch. Sometimes the team you’re rooting for wins. Sometimes there’s modest excitement in a TV show. Sometimes, though this probably needs to be less frequent, there’s a glass of Scotch.

September 20, 2013

If I wrote proper columns, I would have to call this piece “The Unreachables.”

The news outlets are filled with exclamations about the situation the country is in, facing the actual possibility of having to shut down vital government functions and of defaulting on the national debt. “How could things have got this way?” the pundits ask. Paul Krugman’s column this morning is titled, “The Crazy Party.” Right beside it appears Timothy Egan’s report that the people who support the radical measures pushed by the GOP are the ones who will be most hurt by them. Owsley County, Kentucky, for example is 98% white and 81% Republican. It has the lowest household income of any county in the United States. Half of its residents receive federal food subsidies. Yet they vote for a House member who regularly approves measures to take away the little that they have. What’s going on?

If you go to places like Owsley County it won’t take you long to find an answer for that question.

The people there are sealed off from accurate information and given their own background and the intentions of the operatives who plot to use them, there’s little chance that they will break out of the cocoon of falsehood surrounding them.

As perhaps you know, I frequently visit a county in Florida which resembles Owsley County in many respects. Though the people there are not as economically deprived as are the residents of the poverty pockets of Kentucky, it is still the poorest and least well-educated county in Florida. Every time I go there I hear yet another story about the evils of liberals and Democrats. So far, not a one of them has remotely approached the truth.

A few months ago a friendly lady there told me she didn’t think it was fair for illegal aliens to be offered low interest government loans to open businesses when Americans couldn’t get them. When I asked her how she knew, I got the typical response: “Oh, everybody knows that.”

After a bit of conversation in which I managed to point out that it would be impossible for Congress to pass such a measure as the one she was sure was benefitting illegal aliens, she seemed pretty close to doubting her information. But I know from experience that doubt won’t stay alive for even half a day as she returns to her normal rounds. The miasma of lies surrounding her is too thick for critical thought to have a chance.

Well, she’s just a dope, you might think. But that’s not true. She’s a kindly-hearted woman with many decent instincts. The trouble is there’s nothing in her heritage or personal background to prompt her to seek information outside the gossip she engages in with her neighbors. There are many millions like her in the United States, and they provide fertile soil for manipulators. They take accounts about how some banks have made home loans to persons without social security  numbers -- which is actually a banking scam though it may well have helped some decent people -- and transform them into a nation-wide federal business loan program for which “only” illegal aliens are eligible. Who wants to go along with people who do stuff like that? the right-wing propaganda machine asks. And then, “Vote Republican” is the message that follows.

The actual problem the nation is facing is that you can’t use the tactics to circulate truth that the Republicans use to circulate lies. Truth, in order to make its way, requires evidence -- evidence that can be checked. Most Americans are not into checking evidence, as least as far as politics are concerned.

I have talked with several people who claim to hate the Affordable Health Care Act. When I ask why they dislike it so much, I haven’t yet received an accurate criticism. The reasons they don’t like it are all lies. And those lies certainly didn’t rise up by accident.

If the party that likes to tell lies can prevail over parties that deal, at least partly, in truth, then we have no chance of reasonable government in the United States.

I don’t want to be too alarmist. I can’t be sure the liars will always win. Our best hope comes from their being always on the verge of overreaching themselves. Also, over time, lies burn themselves out. But they’re like actual physical fires; they can do immense damage before they use up all their fuel. Yet when we turn to consider their fuel, which in this case are gullible, ill-informed, non-critical-minded citizens, I confess I don’t know what to do.

Traditionally we have told ourselves that if we support goods schools, then we will have an intelligent adult population which will examine political propositions carefully. And if we did have good schools that would probably be true. But we don’t. Our failure in that respect becomes more evident each day. To be fair, I don’t think it’s the case that the schools are worse than they used to be. But the gap between what people need to know to function sensibly in the social environment we have now and what they do, in fact, know is widening. In other words, the educational challenge is greater than it used to be.

We can’t rely on the schools alone to pull knowledge and need closer together. There have to be more and stronger outlets of truth, and assurance that they get the support they require. We see some of that going on in the modern media, particularly among new electronic sources. But, I’m afraid, we also see the opposite. Yet even if the positive outlets multiply, there’s the complementary need for them to connect with additional audiences.

I don’t know how to reach the voters who currently make up the tinder for the Republican propaganda machine. But I think I do know that breaking through to them is the primary problem for American social and political reform.

September 23, 2013

Conventional liberal morality argues that one should be open-minded and willing to consider any idea that’s put forward. It’s a pleasant notion and one we should all promote whenever it’s possible. But we also need to recognize that in many cases it’s not possible. And if it’s not, there’s no sense in telling yourself tales about it.

There are some situations almost everyone recognizes as impossible. If, for example, you fall in with a group of people who want to oppress and punish a given ethnic group because its members are all said to be low and immoral, there’s scarcely anything to be said. After you acknowledge that you disagree, it’s probably best just to get away.

There are, however, some topics that aren’t as obviously absurd or vicious. I’ve gradually come to see that sorting these topics out in your own mind is one of the requirements for a sensible life. I read a couple articles just this morning which reminded me how pressing that duty is.

In the New Republic, there’s an unusually long essay by Alec MacGillis about Bill Clinton and his formerly close associate, Doug Band, who served for years as Mr. Clinton’s personal aide, keeping his calendar, arranging his meetings, and deciding who was worthy to get through to the former president. The article is fascinating for what it tells us about the bond between Clinton and Band, but it’s even more interesting for the light it sheds on the circles in which Mr. Clinton moves, especially since he left the White House.

To put it bluntly, Clinton spends most of his time among exceedingly wealthy people, all of whom want to make use of him in ways that will increase their riches and power. The former president, in turn, wants to make use of them, perhaps not always for reasons as sleazy as theirs, but still, in a manner requiring deep insincerity. Among such people there can be nothing which can reasonably be termed friendship. The latter requires some honesty, and with the high-rollers, honesty is forbidden. It would be considered bad taste, actually. And with the people clustering around Mr. Clinton, the possibility of it has probably been long since forgotten.

I’ve never sashayed in the social world Clinton frequents, but I have spent quite a few miserable evenings several levels down the pyramid, where figures who normally breathed the atmosphere of the elevated regions were, temporarily, slumming. Meetings of college and university boards of trustees, for example, occasionally attract grand personages to help them mimic the tone and manner of the great.

I have never heard anything at a board of trustees meeting or similar gathering that was worth attending to, or thinking about. And this includes remarks in personal interchanges with George Patton, Jr., Lynne Cheney, Patrick Leahy, Donald Graham, Madeleine Kunin, Vernon Walters, William Bennett, and a few others of similar note. People of this sort in public are talking for two purposes, either to brush off people unworthy of their attention (without appearing to be complete jerks) or to curry favor. And when either of those desires is the motive, nothing of substance will be said. I’m not suggesting that the seven persons named above are on the same intellectual level. I, for example, have little use for the views of George Patton whereas I generally respect Patrick Leahy. But the social and political atmosphere in which all of them move requires a certain banality. And I confess, I worry that their habitual surroundings generally work to stain their brains.

Consequently -- to return to the theme of this piece -- a social setting where everyone there is trying to get something out of the others, need not be taken seriously and hardly ever justifies subsequent investigation. The best thing to do after you have been at one of them is to go home and brush your teeth.

The other item from this morning’s reading that got me to thinking in this vein was Paul Krugman’s column, “Free To Be Hungry.” Krugman made the obvious point, that persons who voted to cut the food stamp program are “meanspirited class warriors.” But his remark reminded me of a certain attitude towards money which does away with any duty to take its supporters seriously. A comment by a Georgia Congressman last week, to the effect that he was tired of having to live off his public salary of $172,000, demonstrates what I mean. When a person expresses disgust at the adequacy of an annual income in that range, I no longer care what he thinks about anything concerning politics or society. That’s not to say I dismiss him as a human being. I hope he has a physically healthy life; I hope his family is safe. But his thoughts about anything having to do with public policy are worthless. If you spend your time trying to think up counters to that sort of dopey remark, you’ll end up both thwarted and frustrated. Nothing you might say to him could penetrate his brain. He’s not worth a conversation. If you’re trying to show others what he is, that could be worth some effort. But so far as engaging him, or those like him, in actual discourse, forget it. It’s not going to happen.

These are just two of numbers of conditions in which one should, regretfully, desert the ideal. Anyone who says something honestly, which doesn’t rise out of bile, viciousness, pure selfishness, or bigotry should be listened to. But if we are going to listen to things worth hearing, we need to find ways to recognize the character of idiotic blather that will just waste our time, as well as making us feel ill. I wish it weren’t so, but experience I can’t any longer deny tells me it is.

September 25, 2013

Frequently now I come across statements that the earth cannot sustain for very much longer the number of humans it now has. Something will happen to reduce the human population fairly radically, and the only questions are what it will be and how much death and suffering it will cause.

I don’t know how many people can live reasonably on this planet. Most of the estimates I see from persons who study the question range from one to two billion, although I have seen figures even lower than that. But let’s posit, as a hypothesis, that one and a half billion people can live here in a healthy and sustainable way. That would mean that we can have only about 21% of the people we have now. How can that level be approached?

The methods fall into two broad categories: catastrophes and intelligent human policy. It might be said that the former is far more likely, since, up till now, intelligent policy has not been a hallmark of the human race. We can hope for a change, of course, and work for it, but I suppose it’s only sane to expect something other than an attack of good sense affecting enough humans to give it a chance.

Two catastrophes seem to stand out from the rest among futurists: major atomic war and a biological epidemic that modern medicine has no means to thwart. Though I have worried at times about an atomic blowup, I tend to think it’s unlikely. There appears to be enough recognition of what it would entail among those with the ability to set it off that not many people would be up for it. We can’t rule its possibility out, of course, and people who aren’t completely crazy will continue to work for the destruction of all atomic weapons among all the countries of the world. But I suspect, even short of an effective ban, atomic warfare will not do away with 80% of humans or of any number approaching that figure.

A huge epidemic has a better chance. There’s considerable evidence that we’re breeding superbugs, and that the idiocy of using antibiotics to increase the profits of meat producers will give the new little monsters a better chance than they would have had. Even so, modern medicine, when thrown into a crisis situation, would probably come up with something to stop a killer epidemic before it had done away with five billion people. I suspect that sometime within fifty years there will be a gigantic sickness that will be truly horrible. I doubt, however, there will be one that will solve the population problem.

A more likely scenario than full-scale catastrophe would be a grinding, centuries-long depletion of natural resources along with changing weather that will make human survival much more difficult. This, I think, is almost a certainty. The main question about it is not whether it will occur but how the world will respond to it politically. If we base our projections on past behavior, the response will be quite stupid, with people like those who now make up the Republican Party -- and we need to remember, they don’t exist only here in America -- attempting to build compounds where they will be safe while they maintain military forces that can steal resources from the rest of humanity. We saw a depiction of that solution recently in the film Elysium. You might think it would work for an elite, if you didn’t take into account the monumental hatred that would be generated among 90% of humanity  (certainly no more than ten percent could be accommodated in the compounds). It’s that hatred the United States government is now attempting to disarm by calling it “terrorism.” It’s a policy that won’t work.

The one hopeful sign that has been fairly well established lately is that when women are well-educated, and helped to develop their minds, they have fewer babies. If all the women of the world had received the same upbringing the women of western Europe have experienced, the world population would begin to decline steadily. Whether the rate would be fast enough to avert disaster is uncertain. But I suspect there’s a chance. There would, of course, be economic problems accompanying population decline, but they would be minor compared to what’s going to happen if we keep on trying to have seven billion people alive on earth.

There are people arguing that enhanced technology can take care of any number of people. That argument is foolish. Though technology might provide alleviation in certain aspects of life, it cannot overcome radical depletion of the material goods necessary for human life -- clean drinking water, for example. At the moment that depletion is proceeding rapidly.

There is, of course, the possibility that God will intervene and bring human history to a close before everything flies apart. It’s the solution some religious believers are relying on. If that’s what you think is going to occur then I’m afraid I have to bid you farewell as a serious conversational partner.

So, for the moment, I argue that there are two main things to be done. We should do all in our power to see that girls, as they grow up, be encouraged to read good books and have serious conversations -- and boys, too, for that matter. And we should push hard to reduce the wasting of resources through excessive and dumb consumption. If, for example, the United States should ban the manufacture or importation of any car that wouldn’t go, at least, forty miles on a gallon of gasoline that wouldn’t solve our problems but it would give us more time to work on them.

If we fail to take up intelligent moves of that sort, most people will have only one of two choices: either to defend or to assault the compounds. Whichever side is successful, the outcome will be pure, widespread brutality.

If that happens, in my lifetime, I’m going to try to find a little cave somewhere and turn my eyes away from watching humanity go to hell.

©John R. Turner

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