Collected Thoughts

November 2013
November 2, 2013

A night in Walterboro, South Carolina reminded me of an ongoing perplexity: how should one regard people who are pleasant in mundane interactions but who are political idiots?

A reputation for good manners still clings to the South. It’s not as manifest as it was fifty years ago, but it continues to exist and behind it there’s at least a trace of reality. You’re likely to receive a warmer welcome checking into a motel in South Carolina than you are doing the same thing in New Jersey.

“Yes,” many say. “But it’s all a sham; it doesn’t mean a damn thing.” Maybe not. But when you’re weary after a day’s driving, sincerity in a fleeting relationship doesn’t count for as much as pleasantness. There’s something to be said for good manners even if they emerge from hypocrisy.

Commerce isn’t the only venue in the South where manners rise above average. The same thing happens in chance meetings of strangers, in small acts of assistance, in willingness to pass out information about local attractions, and so forth. The common refrain heard about Southerners is that they’re nice people. But what is niceness in small matters worth in the face of monstrousness in large ones?

There’s no doubt that the people of the Southern states regularly vote for vicious social policies and for Congressional representatives who are epitomes of falsehood. By what standard can men like Jeff Sessions, Paul Broun, Louie Gohmert, Richard Shelby and Eric Cantor be justified?

Whenever we ask questions of this sort it becomes a duty to recall that not all residents of the Southern states behave this way. Even so, a majority of the voters do, and many, and perhaps most, persons who make up that majority exhibit pleasant manners in everyday life. So how do we sensibly conflate virtue in small matters and vice in large ones? An answer to that question is both exquisitely and painfully complicated. It is also dependent on a particular time and place. The political idiocy of good people is always grounded in distinctive circumstances.

Ignorance is the most common answer for Southern meanness. Every American citizen must have seen at least a dozen movies in which Southern provincials brutalized someone because of pathetic beliefs rising from simple-mindedness. There is an ample supply of such mental ineptitude in the South, but the same condition is spread over all America in, perhaps, only slightly less thick swathes than in the South. I doubt that ignorance alone is an adequate explanation for Southern politics.

Inevitably we are forced back on the stain that won’t go away -- racial resentment.

It’s often argued that Southerners are no longer racist in the way they were a half-century ago. And that’s true. Blatant racist expression, once ubiquitous and respectable, has been banished from ordinary society and pressed into a few backwater redoubts. It’s still heard, but now only rarely, and mostly from ancient men. But we need to remember something: the South as a whole people has never expressed regret for its past, nor has it vowed to turn away from it. Southern pride continues to incorporate some of the worst behavior history records. You could say that it’s just a version of American pride, which does the same thing. And that would be true. It’s just that Southern brutality towards its distinctive minority exceeds that of the rest of the country, with the possible exception of American brutality generally toward the indigenous peoples who inhabited this land prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The effects of bad behavior continue until the behavior has been acknowledged as bad, until all smarmy rationalization has been set aside. It’s one thing to understand why certain things happened; it’s another to push that understanding to the point of saying they were acceptable. The Southern treatment of the black population was never acceptable and it’s not acceptable now. At the very least the Southern people need to make that simple acknowledgement if they expect to escape the curse of their history.

There is no need for the South to wallow in guilt. It just needs to say that, yes, our grandparents, and great-grandparents, and so on back to the beginnings of our society, though decent and loving people in many respects, behaved abominably in one great respect. We no longer believe in their right to have behaved in that way.

The South, however, is not ready to make that statement. And until it is Southern politics will remain cankered.

I noted earlier that an adequate explanation of Southern politics  is bound to be complicated. So racism alone, even given its deceptive evolution, can’t tell the whole story.  There are so many influences that to pursue them all to their roots would require volumes. So here I’ll mention just the one that comes next to racism in promoting degradation, and that is religion. The region is famous for its religiosity. Journalism regularly presents it as the most ardently Christian section of the country. But mainstream reporting, having scant use for subtlety, doesn’t often spell out the form of Christianity flourishing in the South. It’s a form that’s barely recognized by many Christians in other sections of the nation.

Evangelical Protestantism as it’s observed in the Southern states is obsessively punitive. An ungodly -- you might say -- percentage of the sermons pumped out in small Southern churches each Sunday are taken up with the terrible things God will do to you if you don’t toe the line. And it goes almost without saying that the true Christian’s duty is to assist God in his work of retribution. Southern Christians are big on letting you know what you are going to suffer if you dare to differ from themselves.

It’s a habit that makes it easy to bring the hammer down on those who don’t embrace enterprise of the brand white Christians celebrate.

Southern Christians are more eager than any other people I have heard of to deny rewards to those who are considered not to have deserved them. As I have noted elsewhere, they stand ready to injure themselves if by doing it they can hurt the undeserving people even more.

This mixture of lingering, near-unconscious racism and punitive religion goes a way toward explaining the peculiar nature of Southern politics. It’s not everything, but it makes up a goodly part.

The sad thing is, it’s hard to know what to do about it. For a long time many have put their faith in education. But Southern politicians have erected a potent defense mechanism against education which grinds the pure thing up into a flat sausage of job preparation, maudlin patriotism, xenophobia, and a denial of many findings of science.

I wish I could find reasons for optimism, and hope that the basic friendly Southern nature would move towards an alliance with good sense. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t see it happening.

November 3, 2013

The most serious problem in the United States now receives virtually no attention in the press. There are pockets of misinformation littering the country in which general word-of-mouth assumptions are not only mistaken but are hideously false. When the citizens of these spots attempt to make personal decisions requiring knowledge of government actions and world conditions they, more often than not, choose behavior that’s harmful not only to the nation but to themselves. One might argue that these people could get better information if they tried; they supposedly have the same access to the internet as anyone else. But that’s not entirely true. First, they have traditionally depended on what “everybody knows,” as their basic source of what’s going on. It may be a credulous trait but it’s a habit that’s hard to break, particularly in small communities. Second, more people than you might suppose remain fairly innocent of available sources of information. For those who rely on the New York Times as an essence of life, it’s hard to imagine that there are multitudes who have never heard of the Times. But that’s their situation, and, for them, you can forget about even more probing sources such as The Guardian or Salon.

I don’t know how many areas of this sort there are in the country; there are probably thousands. But I do know the consequences of living in one; they are horrific. And how do I know? Because I’m in one right now.

The recent furor about the Affordable Health Care Act provides ample testimony as to how a misinformation pocket works. I was at a large social gathering just yesterday where the number of erroneous statements I overheard in casual conversations was startling. One of the most common was that “Obama Care” is somehow going to foul up Medicare. Exactly how this is going to happen people aren’t sure, but they are convinced it’s underway. I heard one lady declare that she had never thought of herself as a violent person, but if this messing up of Medicare continues she might actually be driven to do something dire. On the rare occasions when I ventured to say that the recent legislation has nothing to do with Medicare, I was looked at as if I had descended into pure lunacy. I was going against what everybody knows, so I had to be crazy.

You might think that these confusions are simply inherent among persons with less than critical minds. But that’s not an adequate explanation of what’s occurring in America now. The confusions are deliberate. They have been planted by persons who know exactly what they are doing. The American people are in the habit of saying that all politicians lie, but they have not begun to grasp how systematic and coordinated campaigns of falsehood are. Nor have they yet   faced the truth that one of the major political parties has long since decided that spreading misinformation has to be their principal campaign tactic. Nothing the leaders of this group wish to achieve could come about if the American people were generally well-informed. Though it’s the case that propaganda of all sorts has normally functioned by shading the truth, the current methods being employed are more blatant than any in modern history. Richard Nixon was a Galahad compared to his twenty-first century descendants.

There’s a deep-seated American romanticism about the ultimate wisdom of the people. It’s grounded in Lincoln’s argument that though you can fool all the people some of the time, you can’t fool them all the time. Though that probably remains true, it fails to take into account what can be accomplished by fooling some of the people all the time, which is precisely what the pockets of misinformation are set up to do.

A certain percentage of the people, driven by misinformation and submerged bigotry, can block many, and perhaps a large percentage, of the measures a modern society requires for healthy development.  It is absurd that a society as wealthy as the United States does not provide a health system that is readily available to all citizens, regardless of their income. It is not a matter of economic ability. The country could do it with comparative ease if it wished. The will to do it has been torpedoed by those who are determined to rake wealth for themselves out of the process of medical care. This they can do only by spreading lies. So they spread them.

Not only do lies have to be spread, they have to be seeded in areas where they can sprout and create such tangles the people can’t find their way to sensible solutions. The pockets of misinformation are the seedbeds of commercial duplicity. The people who live in them are incessantly flattered with the notion that they, somehow, are more virtuous than their fellow citizens, and that their reliance on word of mouth to form their opinions is an essential measure  virtuous people take. They don’t pay attention to all these fancy arguments in fancy publications; they know the truth simply by drawing in the atmosphere of their communities. They seldom stop to ask who it is that is actually in charge of these communities. They don’t, in short, follow the money.

The editors of the New York Times this morning published a solid essay titled “Insurance Policies Not Worth Keeping,” which laid out in adequate detail why the arguments against the new national health insurance provisions are severely misleading. If the country could digest that essay, most of the opposition to the Affordable Health Care Act would fade away. But that’s just the point: most of the country can’t digest it because most of the country will never see it. And the people in the misinformation pockets will be ruthlessly screened away from it.

That’s our basic problem. We cannot get accurate information to enough of the people to help them make reasonable public decisions. Until we can, we’ll continue to flounder. Misinformation pockets are poisoning the republic.

November 7, 2013

Two friends and I have been having a conversation about President Obama and his administration so far. Though we agree on some features there are quite a few others that elicit differing views. All three of us are generally favorable when we consider the recent history of the presidency. But there are also sharp criticisms.

I don’t recall that at any one time I’ve sketched out the main features of my assessment, so I decided to make an effort in that direction now, in hopes of becoming a better participant in the conversation.

I should start by admitting that on election night in 2008, I was very pleased. Truth is, I was more than pleased; I was elated to a degree I now see as foolish. I was going against my settled conviction that no politician is going to be thoroughly sensible or courageous. Politicians don’t reach prominent positions by being that way. Before anything else, they have to be schemers, and that habit once engrained doesn’t wash out. That I thought Obama was an exception marked my ability, still, to descend into childish romanticism.

I felt the first chill of disillusion on inauguration day. The speech was basically cold. I’m not against frigidity on certain occasions, but the launching of what I had hoped was a kind of rebirth of politics in America wasn’t one of them.

The first theme of administration gave me the creeps. Bipartisanship, in and of itself, is worthless. A politician may practice bipartisanship in the interest of getting the best policy possible. That’s an ineradicable element of the process, and nobody should slam a politician for embracing it at times. But to make it the central feature of what one wishes to accomplish, as Obama appeared to be doing, bespoke an ambition to rule the heap rather than to bring something out of it. And in this case, it indicated a fundamental ignorance of the people on the other side.

It was that ignorance which led to the lackluster results of Obama’s first year. He had announced that the first goal of his presidency was a comprehensive health care law. But once he took office, the comprehensive part seemed to be forgotten, and the goal shifted to health care reform the Republicans would, if not embrace, at least acquiesce in. If a person doesn’t understand that Republicans aren’t interested in reform of any sort, he probably should take up something other than politics. It’s likely that Obama did recognize it, but an arrogant belief that his powers of persuasion were so great he could bring them around was given precedence over a measure the American people should have had decades ago. Had the president marshaled all the forces at his command in January 2009, and pushed a well-devised law through as fast as possible, we would have ended up, by June of that year, with a much stronger and efficient system than the one we got. The irony is it would have been less controversial than what was achieved by months of niggling debate and acquiescence in so-called compromises. The weird thing is that here, five years later, the president seems still unable to grasp that he was mistaken to have proceeded as he did. I guess you could say it’s not presidential to admit mistakes even when one recognizes them. But, I confess, I continue to worry that even the recognition is lacking. And if it is, it indicates a flat learning curve.

The misnamed “Obamacare” is better than what we had before, and we have to give Obama credit for it. But it’s so much less than what it could pretty easily have been, it’s likely always to be tinged with a shade of failure.

Another problematic feature of Obama’s record is his stance on civil liberties and his administration’s dismissal of the sovereignty of other nations. I doubt that many anticipated Obama’s ruthlessness towards dissent aimed at uncovering illegal government operations. His administration is now widely seen as the most punitive government in American history. It’s a reputation I doubt will be viewed favorably by future historians. There’s a kind of Czar-like element in Obama’s make-up which comports uneasily with his impulse towards liberal social programs. It’s almost Manichaean; I was surprised to see it emerge.

Mr. Obama has not lived up to what I had hoped. But I shouldn’t let my disappointment blind me to his accomplishments. It may be that the president’s principal heritage will consist more of his major public statements than of his political achievements. He has given voice to far more than he has effected practically. But words live in ways that acts sometimes don’t. Obama has been a superlative public speaker and it’s almost certain that many of his phrases will be linked to him more firmly than legislation he has guided through the Congress or foreign policy initiatives he has designed.

I continue to hope that he will modify some of the darker aspects of his presidency which have flourished up till now, and that he will step away from the role of super security state mogul which appears to have enthralled him. I think he needs our criticism more than he needs our support, and my stance on that point leads more than anything else to my differences with my friends. I see the president as talented; I do not see him as wise. I think he has mostly generous impulses, but he also fails in that respect in serious ways.

I wish him well, for his own benefit as well as ours. I would like very much to regain some of the feeling I had about him when he walked out on the platform in Grant Park shortly after his victory had been announced.

After all, he’s a hell of a lot better than John McCain or Mitt Romney would have been.

November 10, 2013

In Hardee County, as perhaps some of you know, my thoughts are regularly driven towards the quality of the social mind and how it interacts with the well-being of individual persons. I flatter myself that I see examples of those interactions every day.

I guess someone might be asking, “What do you mean by the quality of the social mind?”

I mean, basically, just one thing: the ability to make accurate distinctions.

In my current social setting, there’s considerable talk about how it can be known that a person, because of age, is no longer able to look after or to make basic decisions for himself or herself. Those who are reputed to be in that situation generally don’t agree with those who are ready to take away their decision-making powers. For the most part the old people want to continue to look after themselves and don’t see why they can’t.

There are two categories of officials who intervene in these disputes -- doctors and judges. This is where the distinction-making ability comes into play. Most of the people I hear discussing these issues fail to grasp that a medical decision is necessarily based on different criteria than a judicial decision. In fact, many don’t see that a judicial decision is even called for. If a doctor, regardless of the quality of his judgment, opines that a person should no longer live in her own home, younger relatives pretty quickly decide that the doctor’s advice has to be followed and that the elderly person must be extracted from her home and taken to reside in some place where her freedom is severely restrained. Whether they have the legal authority to do this seems not to concern them. And the sad thing is that often it’s not a question for the elderly person either. She may not like what’s happening; she may be intensely angry about what her relatives are doing. But in most cases it seems not to occur to her that she has legal rights.

I suppose you could argue that unawareness of her legal rights is ample testimony to her incompetence, but if that’s the standard we’re going to apply, then probably half the adults in the United States should be locked up in a care facility.

Generally when physicians say that someone can no longer care for herself they are thinking only of physical safety and they’re trying to apply a fairly high standard. That’s what they’ve been trained to think about so that’s what they do think about. They’re not concerned with mental distress, they’re not concerned with dignity, they’re not concerned with life’s meaning; that’s not their business. Nor is it their business to ask what the rights of a citizen are. Among the ranks of civil libertarians you seldom find doctors in the higher reaches.

The irony of the doctors’ stance on safety is that it often results in placing people in institutions that can reasonably be called death machines. These places take away the will to live, and that kind of depredation can be more lethal than disease or weakness. My own father’s death was hastened by at least a year because his neighbors decided it was not safe for him to live at home anymore, and told me they were going to call the social services if I didn’t come and do something about him. They were mostly concerned that he had stopped going to bed at night, and slept sitting in his chair. Obviously, they said, that wasn’t healthy and he should be placed somewhere that would require him to sleep in a bed. Frustrated, and not knowing what else to do, I sought guardianship over my father -- which was ridiculously easy to get -- and arranged for him to be moved to a so-called assisted living facility, where he lasted precisely twenty-nine days. When I was called to be told that he was sinking away, I asked that he be allowed to rest in his room till the end, but I was informed that was quite impossible. He had to be moved to a hospital, where they managed to run up many thousands of dollars of expenses before he expired about eight hours later.

A month earlier, he had been getting up from his chair every morning and cooking his own breakfast. But you see, he wasn’t safe there.

Were his neighbors monsters? Of course not. They were kindly people who had been very helpful to him. But they were -- as most people are -- almost completely controlled by the social mind that operated among them. And it was a seriously deficient mind. It was unable to make a distinction between putative safety and the real thing. It could not process subtleties, nor could it examine what was meant by the words it used. Everyone there knew what safety meant. It consisted in sleeping in a meticulously clean bed rather than in a worn chair.

I’ve concentrated on end-of-life issues here because I’ve heard them discussed recently. But they constitute only one of a multitude of problems in which an inept social mind takes over decisions and resolves them in a manner harmful to individual persons. The social mind which is, as I’ve remarked before, what “everybody knows,” sees itself -- if it can be said to have a self -- as unchallengeable, and forces people into the sad situation of proclaiming, “I don’t know what else to do.” There are always a number of things that can be done, a majority of them usually outside the reach of the social mind. Sometimes, of course, after all options have been examined, the dictates of the social mind turn out to be best, or the least bad. The frequency of that occurrence depends on the quality of the social mind, itself, and its ability to see differences for what they are. But among the scores of social minds operating in the United States now, the ones that can make accurate distinctions are rare.

I, by the way, continue to castigate myself every day for the way I let the social mind push me in addressing the final segment of my father’s life.

November 12, 2013

For the first time in quite a while, I’m missing a meeting of the Johnson Society. That’s because I’m in Florida and the meeting is taking place tonight just outside Plainfield, Vermont. The topic for discussion is “meaning,” which I guess is broad enough to allow participants to bring up anything that means something to them.

The first issue for me is whether meaning has any agency outside humanity or is strictly a human construct. I’m fairly well convinced the latter is the case, though I’m not offended by arguments in favor of the existence of extra-human meaning. The notion that humans exist in meaning rather make meaning for themselves is a theological proposition and ultimately devolves towards the question of whether or not there is something that can reasonably be called “God.” And we all know that when you get to talking about the existence of God you’re signing up for going on forever.

I’ll leave trans-human meaning to theologians more subtle than myself and spend the rest of this musing on the various kinds of meanings humans concoct. There’s a parallel between the universal versus human breakdown and the one arising from the division of groups versus individuals. We have a propensity to assume that bigger is grander, and therefore that the meaning groups seek to establish is more important than the meaning an individual person finds for himself or herself. This, I think, is a goofy assumption. Why should a person give himself more to Christian meaning, or Judaic meaning, or American meaning than to seeking out meaning for himself?  I realize there’s a desire to huddle in nests and chirp together, but might it be worthwhile to ask oneself about the costs of such huddling? Isn’t it, basically, a form of slavery? Someone other than yourself has told you what you should care about, what you should think, what you should be. That sounds like a pretty good definition of slavery to me.

Obviously, we can’t all be unique. We share many feelings with others because we all live on the same earth, breathe the same air, are subject to the same force of gravity, and so forth. It’s inevitable that something which is meaningful to one person will have meaning for many others. I see no reason to anguish about that. It would be idiotic to give up falling in love just because other people have fallen in love. On the other hand, you may wish to fall in love in a manner somewhat different from the lovings you’ve observed in society and seen depicted in movies. And if you do, why should you not be loyal to your own loving rather than pledging allegiance to the more common forms society pushes you towards? There is a price, of course, for maintaining individual integrity. Other people will scorn you for it. And there’s also a danger. What you think is coming from your basic self, from who you really are, could be seeping out from some cockeyed idea of being special. To build meaning from flawed thinking of that kind is to consign yourself to perpetual adolescence. Still, once you have thought hard, and stripped away the foolishness, if you still find your meaning different from what the group says it ought to be, I think it’s okay to tell the group to bug off, discretely of course.

I see nothing wrong with incorporating group meaning into your own creation. After all, everyone has to start from somewhere. As children, we simply accept. That’s all we can do. But growing up is a process of stripping away some of the beliefs and attitudes dumped into our minds by our early social group, and reaching out to others we have either discovered or created. The combination we end up with, of the conventional, the fresh, and the distinctive is ultimately the statement of who we are. I go back and forth on the question of whether everyone gets to be who he deserves to be. But that’s mainly because I don’t know what “deserves” means. There are always problems of meaning lurking beyond the stage we are in at the moment, and to think you have resolved them all is to be insane.

A thing to keep in mind is that we don’t start out equal. In the beginning each of us is in the control of a social mind, and the social minds littered across America, as well as across the world, are astoundingly varied. I don’t think, though, that any one of them possesses perfectly paralyzing powers. A lively personality can escape even the worse of them. History is a record of that happening over and over again. Even if you should grow up in a community that tells you there’s more meaning to be found in Rick Warren than there is in Shakespeare, you can gradually come to see the dementia in that depiction of meaning. Furthermore, if you grow up in a world that professes to value Shakespeare above other literature, but does it stupidly, you can get out of that too.

It’s most healthy to think of “meaning” as an adjunct to opportunity and freedom. If there were no meaning, those terms would be empty also. In constructing meaning you seize your opportunities and define your freedom. But more important even than that is you convey life to living; you keep it exciting and invigorating. You make it worthwhile to get out of bed in the morning. After all other things have been said, meaning remains as the force that allows you to think that you are a thing that needs to be and needs to have been.

But, then, you have to remind yourself that you don’t know what “needs” means, and so you are set off again.

November 15, 2013

I’ve been thinking about the required insanities of various social minds. I assume that all social minds have them, but some have more than others. One of my life’s goals is to reside within the borders of a social mind possessed by fewer insanities than most other social minds exhibit.

At the moment, I’m doing okay. I live mainly in Montpelier, Vermont. It’s not a perfect place and it embraces some required insanities. But when I compare it to other places I know fairly well, it comes out looking pretty good.

At the moment, though, I’m not in Montpelier. I’m writing these words in the lobby of the Emeritus ‘rest home” in Lakeland, Florida. My wife’s aunt is locked up here, and right now my wife, along with her mother, is visiting the incarcerated one. I have thoughts about the necessity of the incarceration but I’m not going to dwell on them here. Rather, I’ll muse a bit about another required -- or at least acceptable -- insanitity of the region I find myself in now.

A couple of days ago, the State of Florida killed a man. About twenty-two years ago, when he was nineteen years old, he was convicted of murdering a twenty-eight year old woman. The dead woman’s mother and sister came to the prison to watch the man being killed, and after it was done, they both expressed considerable elation. The sister said she was happy her sibling had finally received justice, and hoped that wherever she is, she is now smiling “down” cheerfully.

I don’t suppose anyone thought to remind her that dead people can’t receive justice. Perhaps that would have been considered impolite. The reason dead people can’t receive justice is they can’t receive anything. That’s what being dead means.

Any emotions experienced as result of the lethal action could be felt only by living persons. The Lakeland Ledger reported that the afternoon before the killing the guy met with his mother and other relatives. The paper didn’t bother to report on the feelings of those people, nor did it quote them. I don’t know if that was because the people didn’t say anything or because the Ledger didn’t think anything they had to say was worth reporting. The Ledger did, however, list the items the man was served for his last meal. They didn’t appear to make up a very healthy menu, but considering the circumstances, I don’t suppose that was a matter of much concern.

The most striking feature of the Ledger’s article was the absence of any mention of what changes had taken place in the condemned man over the course of his imprisonment. After all, more than half his life had been spent in that condition. He was surely not the same person he had been as a nineteen year old. Was he now regretful about the death of the murdered woman? Had he developed thoughts about the upbringing that led him to commit a dreadful act when he was a teenager (assuming he committed the murder)? Did he have any advice for young men in the same situation he found himself in twenty-two years ago? Were there features of his growing up that he wished had been different? Answers to such questions would have been more interesting than reading about the items he ingested the last time he ingested anything. But, evidently, the Ledger didn’t think so. He was a murderer so now he was getting justice, which consisted of being slaughtered. That was pretty much all there was to it, along with the joy of those happy to see him die.

The mother of the murdered woman said that now, maybe, she could get back to a regular life. If you took that statement literally, you would have to assume that killing the murderer was more important to her than the death of her daughter. That wouldn’t be fair, of course. It’s probable that she said what she did because the surrounding social mind had coached her to make that kind of utterance. In some form or other she had been told that her life couldn’t really resume until the murderer had been killed. So, I suppose she came to believe it. It was -- and is -- an insane pronouncement, but, you know, the social mind had told her it’s what people say, so she said it. How else can people think what to say? You can’t expect them, actually, to search their own hearts and minds. You can’t expect them to say anything distinctive to themselves. The social mind wouldn’t like that. If people became something other than cliché-machines, what would happen to morality? What would happen to justice?

We can wonder if the mother of the killed man can now return to a regular life. Maybe she already had, having known for quite a number of years that, in all probability, her son was going to be poisoned. I doubt, somehow, that the “regularity” of her life will ever attract the Ledger’s attention.

People get killed all the time, of course. They are done in by car wrecks, drug overdoses, knife wounds in kitchens, the driving of boats at high speeds into submerged trees, getting so drunk they can’t resist falling off balconies, bumping their heads when they fall down stairs, and so on. Only a minority of these require subsequent justice, and an even smaller number necessitate killing somebody else. But the people extinguished are just as dead as the people whose death requires a public trial. And I assume the suffering of those who love them is just as great.

Within the precincts of most social minds, people are a long way from learning to express themselves about dire human misfortune in a manner that can be considered, even remotely, sane.

November 17, 2013

The comments I made a couple days ago about the irrationalities and self-delusions involved in the so-called “death penalty,” reminded me once again of my need to think through and describe the main features of a killing culture. I need also to admit that there may be no way to construct a seamless morality out of opposition to killing. It is rather one of those basic decisions that determine one’s identity. Being drawn to killing as a way of solving cultural problems is a fundamental trait of personality, as is a dislike of it.

I’m not sure when I first realized that I despise the act of killing. I grew up as what might be called a normal kid, playing cowboys and Indians, and visualizing myself as mowing down hordes of a vast enemy as they assaulted my redoubt. But sometime in my youth I began to realize what actually takes place in armed conflict between persons or groups. I thought about a bullet entering living flesh and what it really did as it ripped through tendons, muscles and bone. I imagined the agony in my heart should I observe that happening to someone I cared for.  And from there it was just a short step to imagining the misery in other peoples’ hearts as they saw that done to people they cherished. But all this failed to cohere until I began to concentrate on the ultimate consequence: at one moment there is a living, breathing, perceiving being, and a short second later it has been turned into a mass of soon to be putrefying flesh. I decided I didn’t like that process. Why? I can’t say for sure. I just know I don’t like it and I doubt very much that anything can be done to make me like it. Even if the whole world should call it glorious and cheer as loudly as their lungs will permit, I don’t think I will cheer, or glorify.

So that’s where I am, in this respect, and I have no wish to be anywhere else. And that means I am never inclined to apologize for satirizing other people as they whoop it up for killing. I wish them well in other matters. I hope they have happy lives. But I don’t mind causing them discomfort when they celebrate the act of killing.

When you make the kind of emotional and life-changing transition I’ve mentioned here, you pretty quickly realize you’ve taken up, to some degree, an outcast status. Many people will regard you as weirdly eccentric and many others will be angry at you. You have to accept these attitudes as the price for taking the stance you have. There’s nothing heroic about it (as you know I don’t believe in historical heroes, only mythological ones). It’s less than comely puff yourself up.  I’m speaking only of an acceptable price.

This is all preliminary: now on to the point that we inhabit a killing culture, one of the most avid on earth, at least over the past four hundred years.

The fabled founders of the New England colonies, who have rightly been credited with setting many American directions, may well have come to this hemisphere in search of what they deemed freedom for themselves. But they had virtually no commitment to freedom in general. Right from the start they began to exterminate the earlier inhabitants of the land, who were interested in continuing to live as they wished, and over the course of a relatively short space the Saints made pretty thorough work of it. They, of course, manufactured supposed assaults on themselves to justify their aggressions. But in following that course they did no more than rapacious groups always do. In the Pequot War of 1637, which was nothing more than a pure act of genocide in the interest of land-grabbing, the colonists very nearly killed off an entire people, burning women and children to death in their dwellings. God, as always, played a large part in the operation. After the killing was completed, John Underhill, one of the leaders of the slaughter, noted, “We had sufficient light from the word of God for the proceedings.”

The alliance between God and mass killing has continued in the United States right to the present day. It’s no accident that the developed nation most ready recently to launch wars, is also widely cited as the most religious nation among the “advanced” countries.

Americans seem peculiarly blind to the truth that cultural attitudes drive cultural habits. The frequent attempts to reduce violence in America by restricting the number and type of guns in circulation seem never to get around to the question of why there are so many guns in the first place. If Americans didn’t have an insatiable lust for guns, the market for them would be severely diminished. And why this lust for guns? Because the act of shooting someone is seen in the United States, primarily, as noble and redeeming behavior. Sure, there’s a faux regret when people shoot for the “wrong” reasons, but shooting itself is an essential element of the American character.

Two weeks ago, a teenaged girl, who may have been suffering from the effects of an automobile accident (probably caused by her drunkenness), stumbled onto a porch in suburban Detroit, in the early morning hours, presumably in search of help. The owner of the house came to the door with a shotgun in hand and fired it point-blank into the girl’s face. What happens when you are shot in the face at short range with a shotgun? Your face is ripped off and you die. It’s true that there are many questions yet to be answered about how and why it happened. But we do know that a man came to his own front door with a shotgun in his hand and blew a girl’s face off. That strikes me as a remarkable occurrence.

There will be an assortment of explanations about why the man did what he did. But of one thing we can be fairly certain: this tragic “mistake” would not have occurred unless the man had been a resident of a killing culture. He was predisposed in a certain direction, and that predisposition came to him as a result of the attitudes surrounding him as he grew up.

From 1637 until 2013, it has continued to be an ingrained assumption of the American mind that you need to be ready to kill in defense of whatever it is you think is worth defending. Sometimes it’s your property, sometimes it’s your house, sometimes it’s your dignity. There seems to be no end of reasons that justify killing for many Americans. So as long as those reasons have currency and authority, we’ll keep on killing.

As I said, I don’t want to get into the morality of this, but I don’t mind getting into aesthetics of it. I think it’s a nasty and ugly frame of mind. So, as long as I can argue about anything, I’ll keep on arguing against it.

November 26, 2013

We got home to Montpelier last night, after driving 540 miles from Annapolis. We can make statements like that now and find nothing remarkable in them. And when we do it causes us to forget what an astounding thing it is to seal yourself inside a metal capsule and hurl yourself along highways clotted with similar capsules for more than five hundred miles in a single day. The journey yesterday was the conclusion of a driving trip to Florida begun almost a month ago.

Since we set off on October 29th, we have driven more than four thousand miles, which required about 87 gallons of gasoline, even with our Prius. The gas probably cost slightly more than three hundred dollars, though I confess I didn’t keep a precise record.

The thing on my mind today is the number of decisions required in driving that far, some of them actually matters of life or death. We make them, and at the moment they seem immense, and then they normally flow into the past, leaving virtually no impression on our memories.

It’s actually a surprising thing that you can drive that way on roads with thousands of other drivers making decisions, and survive. It becomes even more surprising when you recollect how many of the decisions you observe are absurd and, in some cases, nearly murderous. I saw more of the latter over the past four weeks than I think I have seen before.

On at least four occasions, driving at speeds in excess of seventy miles per hour, cars cut into the lane in front of me and missed my bumper by no more than a foot. Then, within twenty seconds of barely avoiding my car those same drivers zigzagged into other lanes and missed other cars by the same margin. It seems to be the case that some drivers navigate the highways for hundreds of miles maneuvering in that manner. What do you suppose is in their minds?

At one point, while I was driving in the left lane beside a large truck, the driver simply swerved into my lane, leaving me nothing to do but to pull onto the shoulder. If there had been no shoulder there, I don’t know what would have happened, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been good.

On many three-lane highways, while I was driving slightly over the limit in the middle lane, dozens of cars would pass me in course of just a few minutes, all of them moving at least twenty miles per hour faster than I was going. In the South, where the speed limits are 70 mph, simple arithmetic tells you what their speed had to be. The worst offenders in this respect were the drivers of large pickup trucks. The majority of them appear to believe they have a God-given right to run people with less powerful vehicles off the road. Their behavior is one more piece of evidence that in America power transmogrifies into right.

Certain scenes I encountered during this trip stuck in my mind as representative of our social condition. Approaching the Springfield, Virginia area from the south, along the Shirley Highway, one finds himself entering a surreal territory, with so many highways twisting beneath, above and around one another you can feel you’ve stepped out of life and into a science fiction movie. All of them are packed with vehicles and all the vehicles are moving more than seventy miles an hour. Myriads of drivers appear to find the speed so limiting they go manic, probing frantically into whatever small spaces they can find between the cars around them. If you open your senses to the entire thing, you become overwhelmed by the thought that you’ve drifted into a gigantic asylum for the insane. The truth is, though, you haven’t drifted into it; you’ve gone there on purpose. And if you’ve retained some element of lucidity, you start to wonder what’s happening to yourself.

The same character of condition happens as you leave the New Jersey Turnpike, go onto the George Washington Bridge, and began the wild navigation across Manhattan Island. Every time I do it, I’m afflicted with the idea I’ll never get out.

I admit, I’m part of the problem. I’m adding to the crush, to the craziness. The other drivers around me, who strike me as potential murderers, are just like myself -- people who are trying to get through alive. We’re all going together to create something none of us wants. And that statement is descriptive of the nature of modern, urban society. Who wants it? Nobody. Who helps bring it into being? Everybody. Collaborating with millions to do something almost nobody desires is a pretty good definition of nuttiness. Yet, here we are, pursuing it like rabid rats, with, evidently, no ability to pause, or to think.

How will it be fifty years from now? I don’t suppose it’s any mystery why most fanciful treatments of the future paint it as dystopia. We see it ahead of us more clearly than we see anything of the past.

Does this mean I’ll stop taking driving trips? Probably not. There are people I, presumably, need to see, need to help. And they’re located thousands of miles from where I normally find myself. So, I’ll keep on trying to get to them, adding to the insanity in the process.

Road trips in modern America are parables of the current social dilemma. In doing what seems necessary for ourselves and those close to us, we add to the disorder and hardship of all. Can we think our way clear of this contradiction? I don’t know. But I do know that if we are going to move towards a clear world ahead, it’s going to take strikingly different ideas from the ones operating among us now.

November 28, 2013

The story of human history is a doleful tale. I tell myself I have a duty to learn it more fully but I confess I’m often deterred by the depressing effect it has on me. Perhaps it’s that way for others too and that may be one reason why, generally, the American people are such complete historical ignoramuses.

The desire to avoid getting down in the dumps, though, isn’t the whole story. Just as strong, surely, in the United States, is the ongoing thrust for self-delusion. We want, with a pathetic eagerness, to think well of ourselves and that’s hard to do if you know how the nation has actually behaved. Americans detest the truth that their country was conceived in genocide and nursed in slavery and racism. We try, now, to say we’re different and to make amends for some of the horrible things done in the past. But even in the midst of admitting -- at least implicitly -- the need for those actions, we still want to hold onto the notion that the American story has been glorious. It’s a near-perfect formula for national schizophrenia. I suspect it can be cured only by a strong dose of reality.

Reality doesn’t require, as many fear, complete rejection of American development. There clearly are things in our national past that are worth honoring and continuing to promote. Even though the movement for national independence was not the pure desire for freedom extolled in Fourth of July folderol, some of the ideals professed in the founding documents were advances over most governmental theories of the time, and continue to be concepts deserving support. What we need now to acknowledge is how badly the nation lived up to them.

If you take the simple phrase, “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” and apply it to American attitudes, you see how hypocritical the national ethos has been. Even if you bend over backwards and say that “all men” was intended then to include persons of both sexes, which clearly was not the belief of most of the men who voted to pull away from the British empire, there remains still a bloated failure to be faithful to the sentiment. The people of the United States in the late 18th century, and the people of the United States in the early 21st century, had, and have, a notion that some people are less fully human than others, and that those who are less human do not deserve to be included within the protection of the Constitution of the United States.

That belief has been held not only by the arrant bigots among us but by most Americans, including some lauded as champions of freedom. When, for example, Thomas Jefferson moved to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, he gave no thought whatsoever to the desires of the persons living in that territory. They were not included in the definition of “men” he penned into the Declaration of Independence and, therefore, were not created equal to everyone else and did not have unalienable rights. They were, in the parlance of the time, “savages,” and therefore had no rights at all. His attitude continued to be the attitude of the nation for nearly a century after his presidency and produced countless events of slaughter, torture and infant-killing. We should never forget the patriotic words of John House, who during the “Black Hawk War,” stumbled on an Indian baby secured to a piece of bark, probably by its mother who had been killed. House picked the child up and promptly shot it, delivering the immortal words: “Kill the nits and you’ll have no lice.” The nits, clearly, were not an element of the men endowed with unalienable rights. House was doing no more than making real the sentiments of one of America’s most respectable persons, Timothy Dwight, the long-time president of Yale University, who justified the killing of babies with this couplet in America’s first epic poem, The Conquest of Canaan:

Should then these infants to dread manhood rise,
What unheard crimes would smoke thro earth and skies.

Better to kill them than to let them grow up and do bad stuff. The judgment reminds me of a sentiment expressed by a majority of responders to a question in the Lakeland Ledger a couple weeks ago about whether public funds should be spent to help young men escape the control of violent gangs. Most of the readers said, no. Rather, the police should be ready to take care of the problem by being quick on the draw. I leave it to you to imagine the complexion of the newspaper respondents as compared with that of the young men who were to be the objects of police vigilance.

So it has gone on, from the Black Hawk War, to Wounded Knee, to the Philippines, to El Salvador and the village of El Mozote at Christmas time in 1981, to Vietnam and My Lai, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. It’s not the whole of the American story but it certainly is a big piece of it, too big a piece to be either dismissed or forgotten if we want to learn anything useful from it.

The great Victorian historian Edward Augustus Freeman, when he visited the United States in 1881, joked: “This would be a great land if only every Irishman would kill a negro and be hanged for it.” In, perhaps, a more serious vein, Freeman wrote in one of his essays:

A belief or a feeling which has a practical effect on the conduct of great masses of
men, sometimes on the conduct of whole nations, may be very false and very
mischievous; but it is in every case a great and serious fact, to be looked gravely
in the face.

He was commenting about the effect of racial attitudes on history. Perhaps most of us would no longer go along completely with his own racial attitudes. At least I hope we wouldn’t. But, on the other hand, I would like us to agree with him thoroughly about looking racial attitudes “gravely in the face.” In that respect, at least, Freeman understood what history is about.

November 30, 2013

Yesterday I skimmed through some of the notes I made while reading Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision, which, by the way, is a book I would recommend to everyone (or, at least, everyone who can read). Early in his account, Wolin comments that politics is an activity which expresses society’s constant need for readjustment.

The remark prompted me to jot down a couple thoughts about readjustments politics in the United States need now.

In other words, politics is an activity of thought which tries to tell us where we should
be going as social beings, and why we should be going there. In explaining the “why”
the theorist has to project some vision of the good. He also has to struggle with the truth
that the good for one might not be good for another, or, at the least, might not be seen as
good by one or another.

We fight not only about who should get the good but also about what the good is. The
latter contention is, in truth, more fundamental that the former. We can more easily
resolve issues of fairness in distribution than we can disagreements over what ought
to be distributed. It may not be possible to arrive at understanding where differing
perceptions of the good are involved. This is a difficulty common politicians don’t
want to admit exists. Think of Joe Biden trying to wrestle with this question.

Avid democrats may say the good has to be identified with the will of the majority.
But when it comes actually to choosing, nobody believes that. It’s an assertion that
receives nods in the abstract but has no followers when specifics come to bear

Practical politicians generally flounder when they are asked about the fundamentals
of politics. That’s because they haven’t thought about fundamentals. They think almost
always about immediate advantage.

Another limitation of practical politicians, of course, is they know little about the
discourse of the past, little of the values people once expressed and may now be
lingering in the back closets of their minds.

I wrote that in early March. Here, eight months later I still hold to it pretty well. But over that short period, I’ve become even more pessimistic about the talent the present system brings to our political operations. Given the frantic nature of modern life, and the pressure politicians feel to raise money in order simply to stay in the game, it’s exceedingly rare for any man or woman in the upper ranks of politics to be either desirous or able to give reasoned thought to the problems the nation faces.  If government not already being run by blank minds, we’re pretty close.

Even back in March -- later in my reading -- I added a note which shows I was already on the path to a kind of radicalism I didn’t think, even five years ago, I could entertain.

There is no withstanding the corruption inherent in the current system -- which is
the combination of liberal capitalism with representative government. In other words,
in the current system the government is bought, and it stays bought.

So what does all this tell us about the current condition of my political evolution? It’s not easy for me to say. There are, though, some fairly solid planks in my personal political platform which weren’t there a while back. First, I think the basically positive framing we have given to the term “capitalism,” has to change. Particularly since capitalism has become firmly linked with ever-increasing corporate power, the term supports political behavior neither I nor anyone who’s not a rapacious CEO should have use for. We can live well without gigantic corporations and, consequently I would like to see ever more stringent restrictions placed on them. If they cry that such moves will hamper them and thereby take away jobs, I’m more than ready to answer,”Well, let’s see.”

We can no longer expect persons with vast wealth, or unexamined political power, to support the public well-being. It was naive ever to have expected it. Such people constitute a danger to the majority and should be viewed, primarily, as threats. We don’t need them in order to manage society, and the messages they continue to deliver about themselves are both manipulative and false.

I am ever more mindful of John Locke’s warning that it is no restriction of liberty to be held back from bogs and precipices. The way freedom has been discussed in American politics over the past three decades has been absurd. It has been associated, almost exclusively, with the ability to pile up heaps of money. Wall Street continues to howl that laws which hold its denizens back from defrauding the public are a betrayal of the American tradition of every man for himself. If it is, so be it. I would rather have a republic in which most people can live securely than to honor a tradition which benefits a few money maniacs. The idea of a billionaire is an abomination. We don’t need such people.

The threats which the United States faces from abroad are virtually nothing compared with the threats arising from its own plutocracy and imperial militarists. They are not interested in defending us; they are concerned with using us for their own benefit, and this remains true even if they don’t know it. Self-delusion operates among them even more fiercely than it does among ordinary simple minds.

These are merely four easy-to-understand planks. Certainly none of them are original with me. They have been pushed at us by many cogent voices over at least a century. But I think never before has there been greater need and more opportunity to give them a firm stance in the American political discussion. If we want a decent country, we can no longer allow them to be shoved onto the margins as they have been up until now. Moving them to the center is the best way I can conceive of heeding Wolin’s definition of politics as necessary adjustment. And at this point it would take a flaccid brain to question the necessity.

©John R. Turner

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