Collected Thoughts

October 2013
October 3, 2013

I hope the current political theatre called the shutdown will teach the American people the nature of the political divisions we face and, consequently, allow them to make rational choices about their party affiliations. It has been clear since at least 1980, to anyone who has paid attention, that the two major parties are defined not by political principles but by psychological type. One of the parties attracts people who enjoy heterogeneous associations whereas the other is home to those who are strictly homogeneous. The Democratic Party is made up of all sorts of people, bright and stupid, energetic and lazy, intellectual and ignorant, generous and selfish. By contrast, the Republican Party is an association of only one sort.

Republicans are resentful people and virtually everything they do as political beings is designed to hurt someone they resent. They are so driven by resentment, in fact, that they are willing to hurt themselves if they think they can thereby hurt even more those they resent.

Since this is America, after all, racial attitudes are the primary drivers of resentment. The Republican Party is the white party because at least half -- and in some regions far more than half -- of the white people are outraged that persons other than themselves are assuming positions of leadership and prominence. “How dare they?” is the unspoken theme of their emotions.” The Republicans have been driven wild by the president not because of his policies but because of his appearance. If a white Republican had done exactly the same things Mr. Obama has done, there might be a little grumbling about his being too liberal, but Republicans would not only go along with him, they would cheer him on. Anyone who can’t recognize that simple and obvious truth is living in never-never land.

If you go down the list of topics the Republicans are charged up about you’ll see that in almost every instance they are motivated by emotional hostility. There is very little they want to be done. Their desires are focused on hurting people they see as being different from themselves.

They are against scientific research not because they have any thoughts about science, but because they resent scientists, those uppity people who think they are smarter than the solid denizens of the homeland.

Republicans scorn people who drive high-mileage cars not because they themselves actually like to spend more to get from one point to another but because the goody-goody people who want to use less gas are motivated not so much by money-saving as by their smarty notion that the earth’s resources are being depleted. Republicans detest research projects for renewable energy technology for the same reason.

They hate the idea of universal and efficient health care because, then, the people who don’t deserve it -- again, persons who are different from themselves -- are going to get it. Republicans have had ample opportunity to propose plans for improved health care, yet when they have been in political control, they have never made any move in that direction. That’s because they don’t want better health care, not even for themselves, that is if they can keep it away from people they don’t like.

They are always avid to reduce the amount of public assistance, even with respect to basic needs like food. Though they know it has become problematic to say that those who don’t work should starve -- even three-year olds, I guess -- all their policies support that approach to social engineering. Republicans are driven wild by the thought of all “those people” getting food stamps.

There is, of course, a smaller segment of Republicans who view resentment as a tool they can use to enrich themselves. We hear numerous arguments that the plutocratic element of the party is in control, and I suppose it is, in a sense. But without resentment among the masses of Republican voters, the plutocrats would be emasculated. You can scarcely win elections by proclaiming openly that you care only for the well-being of those who rake in at least a million dollars a year. Instead, you have to hint that all citizens, or at least all the white citizens, could attain million dollar incomes -- an obvious impossibility -- if they would just behave as they should, and go along with keeping the undeserving in their place..  And as long as resentment is working to generate dupes, the rich guys can sail along happily, buoyed by hatred.

The party of resentment, though, is always in danger of overreach. That’s because resentment leads ultimately to insanity. When the G.O.P. embraces as its principal leaders men like Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King, it’s coming close to exposing itself for what it actually is, and that, of course, is the main danger for Republicans

The danger for the rest of us remains, what it has persistently been, general public inattention. When people don’t know how crazy Louie Gohmert is because they have not heard of Louie Gohmert, then he can continue to build a base of followers unimpeded. The more his power grows, the less his derangement will get in his way. Past a certain point it could even become an asset.

The response, over the next two years, to the absurdity of attempting to destroy basic government services, could determine the nature of American politics for decades to come. If the American people allow resentment to climb into the saddle because they can’t be bothered to pay attention to it, then the future could become even more bleak than it now appears. We can only hope a majority of the people will wake up.

October 6, 2013

A pall has settled over the country as the American people begin to get an inkling, at long last, of what sort of government they have. That recognition may be of some benefit, but there will not be serious improvement until the people face a more searing truth: the government is an accurate portrayal of American society and themselves.

The nonsensical notion that we’re good but the government is bad has been indulged by so many for so long that the people have actually come to believe it. Yet what evidence is there for that belief? There isn’t any. How could there be?

The ignorance of the American people has become a standing joke, employed to great advantage on late night comedy shows. But amusing as it is to watch empty-headed people struggling with such questions as whether they like the Affordable Health Care Act more than they do Obamacare, the source behind that hilarity isn’t very funny. It tells us that the majority of Americans are so inattentive to reality they can be manipulated into believing anything.

You can believe, if you wish, that people have a right to be stupid, but as soon as you start embracing contradictions of that order you disassemble the distinction between right and wrong and throw all public decisions into a hamper owned by hucksters who have no interest in the general welfare. They can pull anything out they want to enrich themselves. And that’s precisely what they’re doing.

This is not a new condition in America. It’s simply a longstanding situation that is being brought closer to perfection. Since the nation was launched, Americans have prided themselves on having a country where people can get ahead. But get ahead of whom? And what happens to the people who are left behind? And what percentage of the totality of the people fall into that category? If we believe the headlines we have been served up over the past several years, it’s about 99%. So that’s what the United States is: a nation where 99% of the people are left behind so that 1% of the people can get ahead. And, if that is, indeed, who we are, how could we have a government that was concerned with the wellbeing of the the 99%? We couldn’t, and we don’t.

How can the tiny percentage of the people who are actually directing the country get away with what they’re doing? They employ propaganda which stupid people eat up. Have you noticed that when the government -- or that portion of it we call the national security state -- is about to do something hideous or absurd, the leaders start talking about what “we’re” going to do. Who makes up this “we”? Perhaps, if you have a memory somewhat better than the average American’s, you’ll recall that ten years ago “we” were going to bring democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq by bombing the smithereens out of the country and killing tens of thousands of people. “We” weren’t told that was what “we” were going to do; that’s just, in fact, what “we” did do, and “we” pretty quickly forgot about the freedom and democracy.

Earlier, when “we” decided to show Iraq who was really in charge in its area of the world, did   “we” register that “we” fired 940,000 projectiles from A-10 Warthog aircraft at the Iraqis, and that the casings for all of them were made of depleted uranium, and that when these projectiles explode they pollute the soil forever -- or practically forever, the half-life of the radioactive material the shells are made of being well over a billion years? And have “we” taken account of the extraordinary rise in birth defects in the areas “we” showered so liberally with “our” liberating bombs? Have “we” studied the photographs of the astounding number of headless babies born there (headless babies are really quite mesmerizing sights)? For that matter, how many of “us” have ever even heard of depleted uranium?

Ask yourself, are you really part of this “we”? And if you are, how and why are you part of it?

Remember the bumper stickers: “Support Our Troops”? I would sit staring at those stickers and ask myself, “How are they my troops?”

As long as the manipulators can make a majority of the people feel there is commonality between what those in charge do and what the people want done, there is no limit to what can be got away with. I hear people asking, “How can Congress behave as it’s behaving now?” Well, it’s our Congress isn’t it? The sad truth is it really is our Congress. We put its members into power, and we keep them there. Ted Cruz, and Louie Gohmert, and Steve King, and Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner weren’t projected into office by some higher power, or, for that matter, by a demonic force. American citizens decided to place them in positions where they can seriously affect the public health. Hard as it is to believe, people actually voted for these men.

Another longstanding American tradition is the practice of always projecting wrongdoing onto others. We never do wrong ourselves because, you know, “we’re good and they’re bad” ( I think we ought to replace “In God We Trust” on our coins with that phrase; it is, after all what we really believe). You can argue that all people, everywhere, feel that way, and you would have a slight point. It is a human characteristic to think better of oneself than of others. But there’s strong evidence that it is more arrogantly held in the United States than it is in any other country.

If we genuinely want to understand why the Congress is behaving like a pack of fools, I suggest that we start looking carefully at our neighbors and ourselves.

October 8, 2013

I scarcely ever open a newspaper or check out a website without coming on some caterwauling about how we all live in opinion bubbles nowadays. We never hear views we don’t already support and so we don’t broaden our perspectives. As a consequence society gets ever nastier and more divisive.

The implication is that if we would just listen to what the “other side” is saying, we would learn things we didn’t know, and therefore take more intelligent stances on public issues. It strikes me as an ill reasoned argument. People seldom disagree because of what they have heard; they disagree because of who they are.

I’ll grant that if someone has been fed a steady diet of lies and then encounters the truth, and if that person’s mind has remained open to the truth, positive change might occur. I guess it’s conceivable that there are some people who have received their “news” only from Rush Limbaugh and who would change their minds if they started getting more fact-based reports. That’s why it’s always worthwhile to counter falsehood with truth. But we need to remember that the great majority of people who take Rush as their news source do so because they like what he says. He confirms their prejudices and makes them feel righteous. They’re unlikely to surrender emotional satisfaction in return for evidence.

Almost never, by listening to people whose social views you oppose, do you learn anything new. That’s because, for the most part, they have nothing new to say. I, for example, have listened for many hours to arguments supporting state killing of helpless persons, which is, euphemistically, called the death penalty. I’m pretty sure there is no argument in favor of the death penalty I haven’t heard many times over. Proponents believe that if they can cite some crime so horrendous and vile it makes me gag I’ll come around. They tell me of people who have tortured and killed little children; they remind me of cannibals and serial killers. As their trump card, they bring up Adolf Hitler. Then, they sit back astounded that none of this has the slightest effect on my opposition. They can’t conceive that I hate the death penalty not because I fail to recognize that people do horrendous things but because the thing, itself, is vile and filthy. You can’t take a person -- I don’t care who he is or what he has done -- into a little room, strap him down on a table and pump poison into his veins without staining your soul. And when this is done in the name of justice, it becomes even more disgusting.

I’m well aware that most people -- in the United States, that is -- disagree with me. Many disagree vehemently. And I don’t care. Or at least I don’t care enough to allow them to sway my view of the thing. If I did, I would have to give up being who I am, and become something I can’t even recognize. I see no sense in doing that.

I’m aware that there are millions who feel the same way about beliefs I oppose. I have known many people who are so devoted to the notion of their group’s superiority to all other groups -- whether their group is based on race, religion, national identity, or whatever -- that to surrender that belief would be to surrender their own identity. I don’t expect most of them to do that, nor do I despise them for not doing it. But I do oppose them and I will work as hard as I can to reduce their social influence.

There’s no getting around the truth that, being who we are, there are going to be strong disagreements among us. Insisting that we would arrive at common stances if we just got out of our bubbles more often is naive. We can hope that over time, and with more searching education, the number of basic disagreement will decline. That appears to have happened in some parts of the world, but it hasn’t yet happened markedly in the United States nor is it likely to occur soon. Telling ourselves it will is delusional.

This morning I read an account of Jennifer Senior’s recent interview with Justice Scalia in which he chided her for appearing to take lightly his belief in Satan. He reminded her that belief in the devil is a longstanding thing professed by a majority of people. Whether he’s right about a majority, I don’t know, but he is right to imply that she has a mindset which can’t grasp what’s going on with him. So do I, for that matter. I’ve read quite a bit about Scalia’s opinions and almost never have any of them made sense to me. He and I have differing perceptions of reality. If I were in a combative mood, I could say I’m right and he’s wrong. But I don’t actually think of right and wrong in that way. We are divided not by morality, per se, but by opposing views of healthy life. I don’t want to live in the world he would create and I suppose he would dislike the world I want to work towards. I’m so weird, from his perspective, that I wish people would stop wanting to go out with big guns to kill little birds. I’m even weirder than that: I’d like for us to get along without using big guns for any purpose.

I suspect that if Mr. Scalia and I sat in a room together every day for a year, and fully expressed our views and desires to one another, we would come away without having altered either of us much at all. I’m pretty sure the same thing would happen if I sat with Rush Limbaugh. I’m virtually certain nothing would change if I talked to Louie Gohmert for five years. We might all have a good time, but that would be it.

So, to the goody-two-shoes who think the world can be made grand simply by our listening to one another, I can say only, “Wake up!”

October 14, 2013

The most common adjective applied to the Republican members of the House of Representatives lately has been “insane.”

When a major sector of the legislature of a nation is considered by a large portion of the citizens to have gone balmy, it seems that nation has a problem. That’s clear. What’s not so clear is the nature of the problem. People go crazy, yes. But if you don’t know why they’ve gone crazy you’re unlikely to know what to do about it.

If a third, or even a quarter, of the residents of a nation become immersed in such a stew of greed, resentment and bigotry all they can think about is hurting the rest of the people, then the nation is likely to become paralyzed, which is pretty much the condition of the United States right now. The flaccid, nearly brain-dead media of the country continue to blather about compromise, as though compromise were either possible or a solution. Compromise takes place only when each of two parties has something it wants which is acceptable, though not paramount, to the other. It is not a compromise to make a deal with a thug on the street who says he will take only half your money if you promise not to report the theft to the police.

The first thing necessary to break free of the extortion the Republicans are trying to force on the nation is to make clear what it is they want. If that were done, I think a majority of the people would see that Republican desires are unacceptable, and that a party constituted as they are at the moment cannot be considered legitimate.

Here are the half-dozen things Republicans want most:

  • For the white members of society to occupy a status above the non-white portion, and for the latter to function primarily as a servant class (with a very few being allowed to escape that condition in order that the Republicans can claim that they’re not racists).

  • For the richest third of the white people to have income at least ten times as great as the average for the rest of the population.

  • For the United States government to have a military force greater than that of all the rest of the world, and for that force to be used mainly to promote the profitability of American corporations.

  • For the education offered to most of the children of the country to be based on propaganda and not on critical examination or scientific fact.

  • For tax monies never to be used to supply the basic needs of life, i.e., food, an unpolluted environment, and medical care, to the people at large.

  • For the national government to promote a religious system, which is not called religious, but which preaches that a rigidly hierarchical social order is decreed by both nature and morality.

At the moment, the Republicans are saying that if they can’t have these things then nobody else can have anything. They believe they can terrify the rest of the nation into surrender. Whether it is an insane program, or not, I guess is debatable. But I don’t think there’s much question that if the general population understood what the Republicans are up to, they would reject it.

It’s true that a majority already reject it in a vague sort of way. But the actuality of Republican motives is not yet clearly enough etched in the national mind for the Republican program to be seen as a toxic element of social debate. It’s not yet obvious enough for people to begin to be ashamed to vote for a Republican candidate.

We have a wide array of journalistic efforts to describe the Republican goals accurately. And those efforts are making some headway. But at the moment the organizations which are the main sources of news for the American public are unwilling to tell the truth about the GOP. Why that is, I’m not sure. The most common explanation is that these organizations are controlled by persons of vast wealth who don’t want the people to know what the piling up of wealth in a few hands is doing to them. And that may be the main reason. It’s clear that many of the leaders of the Democratic Party, though not as opposed to general social well-being as the Republicans are, and probably not as racist, are still so committed to their own prestige they fear a genuine reordering of national purposes.

It will be interesting to see if a more frank and open journalistic effort can continue to make headway. Though I’m encouraged by many of the voices I hear -- Joseph Stiglitz, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Bacevich, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Turse, Matthew Yglesias, Chris Hedges,Thomas Frank, Eric Alterman, Gail Collins, Max Blumenthal, Radley Balco -- I have to remind myself that, probably, not even a quarter of Americans have ever heard a single one of these twelve names. And it may also be the case that many who practice the pathetic brand of journalism -- Wolf Blitzer, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Bill O’Reilly (though it’s questionable whether you can call what he does journalism in any sense) -- are better known than anyone who’s actually trying to explain how things work.

It is very hard to overcome the owners of the biggest propaganda machines. That’s what the Republicans are counting on. But then we come back to the question of insanity. It may be that the Republicans have gone batty enough that they will overplay their hand so badly even the torpid American public will wake up and begin to notice what’s occurring.

October 17, 2013

There appears to be a sense of relief in the country now that Congress has passed a bill to restore normal government operations and allow the Treasury to borrow money to pay the nation’s debts. I don’t want anything I write here to give an impression I don’t share that relief; I’m glad about what happened last night. But I can’t forget that we now return to the same difficulties that were hampering the nation before this latest round of silliness broke out.

The people who caused the absurdity over the past two weeks are still with us. I’ve seen comments assuring us that now they’ve been chastened they won’t be as absurd in the future. This is a mistake rising from the assumption that what they do is a reflection of policy rather than an emanation of who they are.

In every nation there is a group of people so sunk in ignorance the ability to speak truth to them has been eliminated. We have seen this characteristic in those called the Tea Party over and again. If we can trust polls, a majority of them continue to insist that the president of the United States was not born in a hospital in Hawaii. Virtually of all them think a major portion of the nation’s expenditures goes to foreign aid. They think the Social Security Trust Fund will shortly be bankrupt. They are convinced that illegal immigrants in the United States receive benefits from the government which aren’t available to ordinary citizens. They fear that the recently passed health care law provides for the killing of elderly persons. They have faith in the reality of a secret cabal in the highest ranks of government which is plotting to take away all their guns. They suspect there is a powerful plot to impose Sharia Law on the U.S. legal system. They are worried that Christianity will shortly be banned. One guy told me recently that there are vast rail yards filled with thousands of box cars being held in readiness to carry off to concentration camps everyone who holds traditional American values. I don’t know how many of the Tea Party faithful adhere to the latter assertion, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were a goodly percentage.

My point is you can’t have rational conversation with such persons. They are going to gather in knots and share their tales with one another. They are not going to read reliable news sources. They are going to provide perfect fodder for demagogues. They are pretty much beyond the reach of anyone other than shameless manipulators.

I shouldn’t get over-dramatic about this. Obviously, there are ill-informed people everywhere, just as there are people who are disposed to believe ridiculous things. America doesn’t have a monopoly on them. I have no sure knowledge whether there is a larger percentage of such persons in the United States than there is elsewhere. I think we can say, though, that the ignorant are more highly organized into political units than they used to be, and therefore that they can be used, primarily by financial groups, to block steps towards a more equitable social system. Now that these organizations are in place, it will be very hard to dissolve them. Truth is, they’re not going to be dissolved anytime soon. They will be with us and they will have to be confronted if the well-being of the American people is not to slip farther below other Western nations than it is already. We should expect neither political peace nor cooperation just because the right wing lost a political skirmish. They will be back telling fibs about what happened tomorrow, and they will be busy plotting to rip to shreds the social support systems which provide millions with the elements of a decent life.

One positive note I hear expressed fairly often is that these people are generally older than their opponents and, therefore, that they’ll die sooner. That strikes me as a pretty slender hope. Ideas reproduce themselves about as prolifically as humans do. Once they get lodged in a sector of the population they cling there tenaciously.

I’m not saying we should give up efforts at public education. Over the long run, that’s probably the strongest tactic. But neither should we underestimate the barriers to learning skillful demagogues can erect.

In patriotic propaganda, America has been depicted as a land of peace and plenty. But that’s scarcely an accurate portrayal. The United States has been a contentious nation since its inception. There never was a golden age here, nor has there been a time when a significant portion of the residents weren’t being severely oppressed. In our wish that it wasn’t that way, and that it won’t be that way in the future, we fall into delusion. And telling ourselves tall tales always leads to trouble.

After times like the one we experienced over the past two weeks, voices commonly arise to tell us the fever has broken, the abscess has been lanced. What we’ve endured was not a normal component of American life but rather a temporary disease which will now drain away.  It’s a bad metaphor because it’s not true. The Tea Party is not a sickness that can be cured. It’s a genuine part of America that has to be managed.

There has been much nostalgia lately about the good old days when Tip and Ronald Reagan got together and worked things out. We would do well to ask ourselves what that was. What exactly was it that was worked out? If we could see clearly where the results of that collaboration led, we would be less likely to assume the Tea Party can be welcomed into a warm and fuzzy bipartisanship guaranteeing a happy future.

October 18, 2013

I read an article by Michael P. Lynch in the New York Times this morning which reminded us of a useful truth. All the current talk about doing away with government is nonsense. There’s always going to be a government, and it’s always going to be powerful. The prime issue about government is who’s going to give it its direction.

The lame brains among us seem to think there was a time in America when there wasn’t much government, so that everybody could do as he wished. That’s an absurd notion. Government always protects some privileges, and in the past the privileges protected most potently belonged to local autocrats, who could get away with almost anything. If, for example, they wanted somebody lynched, all they had to was to nod their heads, almost imperceptibly, and a poor wretch was strung up, not necessarily because he had done anything, but usually to teach a lesson. After his death, nothing happened; there was no inquiry; nobody was held responsible. That’s what Tea Party people think of as limited government because they assume the people who will be oppressed, jailed, tortured, slaughtered, won’t be themselves.

At the moment, in America, there are numbers of people who hold powers similar to those local bosses used to wield. John Brennan, the head of the C.I.A., for example, could order someone killed and the chances are that person would be killed and nobody would raise any questions at all, or at least nobody who could get a hearing. I don’t know if Brennan has done anything of that sort. But my point is that almost none of us have any way of knowing whether he has or not. We do know that members of the agency he now heads did, over the past ten years, torture people to death, in direct violation of U.S. law, and that none of them have been held accountable. We know also that John Brennan is now trying to keep under wraps a six thousand page report produced by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which reveals quite a bit about the C.I.A. torture regime. Is this what the Tea Party considers limited government?

The main question presented to us by the recent shenanigans in the House of Representatives deals with the future of democracy in the United States. It does not deal with the future of government power. Government will continue to make immense decisions no matter how democracy fares. We need to get clear in our minds that the people who are currently shouting about limited government make up the anti-democratic element in the nation. They don’t want anything approaching majority rule because they know they are not in the majority.

This is not to say that majority rule is the perfect form of government. It presents us with serious problems. Statecraft in the United States has struggled since the 18th century to produce a system in which democratic decisions set the main directions of government, but in which there are also constitutional limitations on what majorities can do to the members of smaller groups. That work that is far from completed. But one thing’s for sure: it won’t be advanced by naive arguments that government can be done away with.

There seems to be a kind of grudging acceptance among many U.S. citizens that democracy is no longer possible, and that we have no choice but to give in to rule by those who possess vast power, or vast riches (which, in effect, are the same things). The well-being of the majority of the people simply doesn’t count for much, and there is no way for it to become the primary goal of government.

It’s difficult to know why people think this, but it’s probably due to the main feature of American propaganda, which proclaims that everyone can settle into the top ranks and leave almost everyone else behind. The notion that everybody can be rich is a logical contradiction presenting a peculiar attraction to the American mind.

Ultimately, I suppose, a people can decide how they want to live. If Americans conclude that the chance of joining plutocratic ranks is worth the price of plutocratic rule, they can adopt a system that will regularly mistreat at least 90% of themselves. It seems like a zany choice but, then, humans are more or less zany things. But if that’s what they’re going to do they ought, at least, to do it knowingly, and not tell themselves tales about the destruction of government being the path to freedom for all. A plutocratic system will have a plutocratic government which will, almost assuredly, be more powerful and more arbitrary than democratic government would be.

We all need to admit that any government will, at times, be irritating. That’s because it will occasionally get in the way of something we want to do. But to oppose government for that reason is like being against gravity because it keeps us from flapping our arms and flying. It’s a childish complaint.

Our difficulty in America now is that we have multitudes who lack the ability to think about government in any sensible manner. They can’t grasp that government is simply organized society working to achieve certain goals. It’s more than possible for those goals to become disagreeable for certain people. It is not possible for there to be no goals at all. People living together, as we’re destined to do in this over-crowded country, and this over-crowded world, are going to put goals into place and create an organization to back them up. The questions we have to address is what the goals are going to be, who they are going to reward, and how they are going to be supported.

Screaming, as the Tea Party continues to do, is not going to take away that reality.

October 20, 2013

There are certain truths one must keep in mind if he, or she, expects to read the current news with any discernment. One of the most important is that when anyone speaks favorably about a “grand bargain,” he is (1) a dope, and (2) an unacknowledged shill for those who want the United States to be a country in which the poor get ever poorer and the rich pile up wealth in more enormous heaps than have ever been seen before.

The two men most widely associated with this scheme are Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. You’ll recall that they were the co-chairmen of a Presidential Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform appointed by Barack Obama in 2010. That they were selected to propose a program for ordering the finances of the nation was an early indication that Obama wasn’t exactly who we had thought he was going to be, though, to the president’s credit, when the recommendations came forth, he pretty much ignored them. That may have been because they were absurdly skewed

The feature of the grand bargain that has to be kept in mind is that though it is always presented as a “balanced” (whenever you see that adjective you should sharpen your suspicions) plan, it’s really just a scheme to reduce the nation’s support for the sick and the non-wealthy by cutting Social Security and Medicare. The sober, serious figures who are avid for the cuts, remind us incessantly that these programs are far too expensive for the nation and will eventually drive the United States to ruin. But you need to recall that their definition of “ruin” primarily refers to the unwillingness or inability of the nation to maintain military and clandestine forces which will thoroughly dominate the world and serve the interests of American corporations. That the United States might not control the peoples of the world, and determine how they should live, is for the grand bargainers unthinkable. I use the latter term in its literal sense. These men are actually incapable of thinking such a thing.

If Medicare were unleashed from the influence of the insurance industry and if Social Security were supported by a tiny increase in taxes on the very wealthy, the nation could afford them indefinitely, and even enhance their benefits. But though that’s obvious, neither of these changes made it into the Commission’s report. The commission, which was charged with examining the entire array of the nation’s financial problems, was unable to broach the easiest solutions. Why do you suppose that was?

In any case, the grand bargain has now become a kind of fetish, the Holy Grail of a certain segment of the DC media establishment. It’s most prominent figure is probably Ron Fournier, former head of the Associated Press in the capital, and now employed by the National Journal. He has become something of a joke on Twitter because of his incessant demands that President Obama exercise “leadership,” when all he means by leadership is that Obama agree to major cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

Until just a few months ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman could scarcely finish an essay without including some sort of accolade for the grand bargain. Though he hasn’t been writing much about it lately, I expect we’ll see a new outbreak sometime in the future. Mr. Friedman holds the faith that the salvation of the world will come from the munificence of an increasing number of rich people, who, of course, will wish to spread their wealth among those less energetic and imaginative.

Tom Brokaw is for it, of course, as is Jamie Dimond, the nation’s formerly most astute banker, whose institution seems on the verge of coughing up a $16 billion fine for sleazy practices. If you want another rule of thumb about politics, it could be that you won’t go too far off by opposing anything Jamie Dimon is for, seeing, you know, that he’s a crook.

Do I have to say that David Brooks is for it? That would be silly, wouldn’t it?

I realize I may be waxing too sarcastic, and I would regret it, and even consider apologizing, were it not that I know establishment-thinking has to be jostled pretty rudely if there’s to be a chance of stopping it from ploughing ahead to disaster. My little bit in this effort is tiny, to be sure, but it may add a mite to the wave that has been building ever since Simpson and Bowles introduced their scheme. In a column in New Economic Perspectives last November, Michael Hoesler, warned the newly re-elected president not to allow his longing for an “oceanic” feeling to blind him to what was really taking place in the effort to foist some sort of grand bargain on him.  The current grand bargain, Hoestler pointed out, is neither grand nor a bargain. It is simply a way for the privileged to preen themselves on the idea that they have been fair at the same time they get everything they want.

Giving the privileged what they want has never been grand in any sensible way in the past. It is always involves looting the public treasury and dragging the public well-being down in the process. That it causes deluded people to be even more deluded, and even more pleased with themselves, is an unfortunate side effect, but the really bad thing about it is that it damages millions of lives.

The United States is engaged in a gigantic debate about whether the country’s purpose is to provide a place where a majority of its citizens can lead dignified and meaningful lives or to construct a power system that can control, intimidate, and kill anybody it decides is standing in its way. These goals are not compatible with one another. And there’s no doubt as to which side the grand bargain favors.

October 24, 2013

Old notebooks can be a treasure trove. They remind you of who you once were and how you have changed.

I pulled one off a rack this morning that I kept in the late summer and fall of 2003, i.e., exactly ten years ago. I started this web site the next spring, so the items in the notebook are  I found some I would stand by now, and others I would modify. Here, for example, is one of the latter (from December 12, 2003):

It took me far too long to recognize that when putative religions make propositional
statements about nature or history, they’re not functioning as religions at all, but as
pseudosciences. The greatest danger religion faces is for society to equate it with
pseudoscience, for then religious people become cultists, or simply kooks, and
surrender their status as seekers after meaning which transcends nature. To
comprehend the promise of faith is, perhaps, the most difficult intellectual challenge.
It’s certainly not helped by simple-minded confusion which seeks to set propositions
about history in the place of meaning. History provides no meaning. It is truly a tale
of sound and fury signifying nothing. Faith alone can summon the power to view
history from a meaningful perspective.

I’m no longer sure what concept of faith I had in mind when I wrote that. I suspect I was caught up in a romantic attempt to rescue something I still wanted to designate as religion from absurdity. But exactly what that something was (or is) lacked clarity. I guess I was reaching out towards a notion of human meaning, and being traditional enough to assign it a name that would win common consent. But over the past ten years I’ve become less tender of common consent and so I’m more willing to let “religion” be what it says it is, and to descend into absurdity if that’s its desire. After all, who am I to tell it what it’s to be? I still think it’s silly for religion to try to be a pseudoscience, but, again, if that’s what it wants, so be it.

Other of my thoughts from that time I would stand by more loyally. Here’s one about the major political event going on then I feel little need to alter at all (from October 3, 2003):

The primary condition of current public life is that the most obvious truths either
cannot be spoken, or, if they are spoken, they become issues of intense controversy.
One somehow becomes a radical by saying things that everyone knows. Iraq, for
example, did not have the kind of weapons the Bush administration said it knew
they had. This is so clear that only a person who had deliberately cut himself off
from news reports could fail to know it. Yet if any major figure were to say this
publicly he would be considered radical, daring, or extreme. To speak the simple
truth has become a wild act in our political discourse.

I would add to this now only by noting that there may be currently a few more voices who are willing to commit wild acts. As the lies told by establishment politicians pile up, the heap becomes so gargantuan it becomes even harder to be ignored than it was ten years ago. The recognition is a good thing, but the good of it has not yet been amply applied.

There were little comments then I might be more charitable about now. Here’s one from September 19, 2003:

When people say that a man can’t help being as dull as he is, then I say a mosquito
can’t help being a mosquito. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to swat it.

Over the past decade I’ve struggled mightily with the problems of determinism and blame. And guess what? I haven’t solved them. We see them being forced on us now by the advent of the so-called Tea Party. I saw an adherent last night on TV asserting with full assurance that Mr. Obama had hosted a prayer ceremony for a thousand members of the Muslim Brotherhood on the East Lawn of the White House. I’m pretty sure that informing him there is no east lawn of the White House wouldn’t change his mind in the least. Who’s to blame for his pathetic intellectual condition? Is it his own fault, or not? Is it the fault of the people who are manipulating him? Or both? These are vexing questions. It becomes ever clearer that a larger percentage of the American public than we used to think was the case are incapable of caring, or even, thinking, about truth. They believe anything their hatred and resentment tells them to believe. And what’s worse, the media generally report their beliefs as ordinary opinions. I honestly don’t know what to think about such people or how to interact with them. In the past, I probably would have dismissed them as dopes and said that if they want to be dopes, that was their own fault. Now, though, I am far less decisive about the nature of fault. I can’t say for sure where it comes from and, consequently, I can’t figure out how to respond to people who say absurd things and preen themselves on their supposed candor. The man I saw last night can be laughed at, of course. But I have to remind myself that he does harm, real harm. Should I be angry at him? Should I be angry at the people who signed up to be Hitler’s storm troopers and praised themselves for their patriotism? I wish some of you would help me think this through.

There are more things in my little ten-year-old notebook that may be worth speculating on, so perhaps you’ll see some of them in the near future.

October 25, 2013

I’ll take one more swoop into my 2003 notebook. I see that the first entry was about a paper I wrote for an academic conference about a year earlier:

Aaron Ridley says that the office of the scientist is to be the harbinger of nihilism.
I was trying to get at that concept in the paper on Nietzsche I wrote for the Conference
on Millennial Studies in November 2002. My point in that piece was that science
keeps us chasing a goal of perfect control that will always be frustrating, and will
eventually become desiccated. To pursue science forever, as a human end, is to
wind up with ashes in your mouth. Science, in Nietzschean terms, is a support
structure, not a god. I wonder if Ridley is going to say the same thing in Chapter
Five of Nietzsche’s Conscience.

I don’t remember if Ridley did say the same thing. I could look it up, but I’m not in the mood at the moment. Now I’m more interested in asking if I still think the same thing about science as a human end. I was probably too harsh to say that the persistent pursuit of science would lead to ashes in the mouth. I suspect that scientific discovery could continue to be exciting no matter how long it went on. But as a human end, I keep on thinking it doesn’t meet the mark. That, of course, throws me back on the question, “What does?”

Lately, I’ve been of a mind to answer, “Life itself.” I would qualify that by saying it has to be a life irradiated by something but I no longer think that something, or that series of somethings, has to be astounding. It might just as well be the mundane, if one can find the power in himself to transform the mundane into ever deeper discovery. Maybe this is just a way of saying you don’t have to be famous to matter in the history of the universe.

My first cup of coffee in the morning becomes, for me, a thing of increasing fascination. What is it about the taste? What is it about the morning? Perhaps all I’m doing is playing with Tennyson’s flower in a crannied wall. But that’s okay; it’s a good place to play. Where better?

If the events of everyday life can’t offer meaning then it seems pretty obvious that nothing can. What’s not so obvious is that it’s up to us to find the meaning. The human race has had a terrible time learning that very, very simple lesson. I keep thinking that we may be approaching a time in our collective evolution when we can learn something significant. You wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers or watching the evening political talk shows. But I do have the sense that old notions of importance are running out. Has there been that sense before? Probably, but I doubt it has been as potent.

On the second page of the notebook was this little note:

Later, on the afternoon of the 16th (that’s August), I went to Walgreen’s, in the
shopping center near Elizabeth’s house (in Chicago). I asked the clerk for a
stenographer’s pad. He didn’t know what that was, so I described it. And he said,
“Oh, you mean a steno pad.” And I said, “Yes.”

I don’t know why the incident struck me as meaningful, but it did. It had something to do with language -- the way it works, the way it decays. Language, of course, carries our history if we remain attentive to it. The young man in Walgreens had no notion that there were once hordes of office workers, mostly young women, who went into their supervisors’ offices, mostly men, and wrote down their words on pads for the later production of typescripts. That’s what “stenographer” means: a person who takes dictation. One might ask, “What does it matter if a guy working in a drugstore in 2003, knows that there were stenographers or even if he knows what ‘stenographer’ means?” That would be a point, but I don’t think it would be a fully cognizant point. I’ll admit, in the great rush of things that supposedly matter, it wouldn’t be way up on the list. But it does matter. That was the point I was getting at in my note. When people lose knowledge of the past, something actually is lost. And when people lose knowledge of the recent past, as they seem to be doing more radically lately, something more important is lost. Generations are no longer able to talk to one another. Time becomes an even more restrictive bubble than it is inevitably. We are quite stupid about our notions of freedom. We think it’s a matter of being able to do what we want. What it really is, or how it should be perceived, is as a wide range of abilities enabling a rich array of experiences. If a doltish clod can do what he wants, so what?

These are little things as we commonly assess them. But what if our assessment is wrong? We can scarcely tell ourselves that human assessment lately has been super. It would be more accurate to see it, mainly, as a synonym for stupidity. The transformation I spoke of earlier, if it’s going to happen, and if it’s going to make a difference, will be primarily a change in how we perceive the significance of things. Maybe the big will become small, and some of the formerly small will rise to magnificence. I hope so. If we go along as we have, equating the important with enormity, we really are on the path of the dinosaurs, and closer to the end than most of us now are capable of imagining.

P.S. If you would like to see the paper on Nietzsche’s view of science that I presented at the Millennial Studies Conference, you can find it in Stephen D. O’Leary and Glen S. McGhee, eds., War in Heaven , Heaven on Earth: Theories of the Apocalypse, Equinox Publishers, 2005. Come to think of it, you can find it even easier by going to the “Essays and Reviews” section of (Link)

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