Collected Thoughts

December 2013
December 4, 2013

In the late 1960s, on the wall of the Green Beret base at Nhatrang, Vietnam was posted a quotation from John F. Kennedy: “We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”

It’s a fascinating statement, deeply revelatory of a certain mind, not Kennedy’s mind, of course, but rather of the American socio-political mind, for which Kennedy was playing the puppet. In a brief twenty-one words are packed so many self-delusional concepts volumes could be written about them.

Consider the assertion that “destiny,” rather than any human choice or human motive, has assigned a certain duty to all the people of a vast nation. What in holy hell does that mean? Who is this destiny that makes such assignations? Where does it live? Where did it come from? How does it make up its mind?

It doesn’t mean anything, of course, because it was not intended to mean anything. It was constructed on the assumption that the audience to whom it was addressed had no interest in meaning. It wanted its ego tickled, and empty rhetoric, that is rhetoric devoid of meaning, was the perfect tickler. Mr. Kennedy specialized in rhetoric of that stripe because it brought him political success.

We can’t be sure whether Kennedy, himself, and the team around him who actually concocted the phrases associated with his presidency, were aware of the meaningless character of their effusions. Chances are it never occurred to them to ask. They were looking for words that would help them build their power status; any words that functioned to that effect, regardless of their meaning -- or lack of it -- were sufficient.

This is the American political formula -- and perhaps the formula around the world: find words that cause people to act without thinking.

All the millions of Americans were assigned by destiny to be watchmen on walls. And what were these walls? Well, gosh! that almost goes without saying doesn’t it? They were the walls of world freedom (at this point, if I were technologically proficient, I should post a clip of stirring, swelling music).

The watchmen element of this extended metaphor has to be made pretty broad in order to carry the weight it’s assigned. Strictly speaking, these destiny-determined millions weren’t simply going to watch. They were going to get busy sending vast forces thousands of miles away from our borders to conduct one of the biggest killing sprees of history. That was what destiny told us we had to do; we didn’t choose to do it.

And, to what, precisely did these inspiring words lead? To list the effects fully would require volumes. But here are just a half-dozen:

  • 58,000 young Americans were killed.

  • 5,000 U.S. allies were killed (mostly South Koreans)

  • 1,921,000 Vietnamese were killed.

  • Twelve million tons of U.S. munitions were exploded in South Vietnam, alone. This might be compared to the six million tons employed during the entire Second World War.

  • Eighteen million gallons of poisonous, carcinogenic chemicals were sprayed over six million acres of forests and farm lands.

  • Since the war, three million persons have been afflicted with serious diseases caused by Agent Orange alone.

Boy! When those watchmen on the walls get going, they really have at it, don’t they?

If the freedom of a single person was expanded by this heroic effort, the evidence for it has yet to emerge. There’s also very little evidence to indicate what kind of freedom our bright young rhetorician was talking about. But, then, that doesn’t matter, does it? If you’re watching on the walls of freedom, definition is not the point.

I trust by now I’ve made the point that I’m weary of political rhetoric arising from unexamined assumptions. And I’m particularly weary of it when it leads to vast death and destruction. It reflects an indifference to the actuality of human life so long as that life is not impinging directly on oneself. It’s the attitude of privileged elites who have decided they have the right to spend other people’s lives and not to worry about whether those people are aware of why they are being expended or whether they have anything to say about it. If anything could be a greater gob of spit in the face of democracy, I can’t think what it could be. Just because people can be led by the nose doesn’t justify the persons who do it.

Nothing disgusts me more than when a high-ranking official, such as the president, attends the funeral of a poor kid who has been slaughtered in some absurd political adventure and assures the grieving relatives that the nation will never forget the sacrifice that the son, or brother, or husband has made. That’s total dishonesty. The nation has forgot it already, and the official will leave the funeral bent on insuring that he has plenty more ready victims at his command. If that’s what politics actually is then it more than deserves its growing reputation.

We would do well to be especially wary when the political beguiler takes the form of a Hollywood glamor boy, as JFK did. A life lost leaves no less an empty hole just because the person who caused it is photogenic. The most famous political exhortation of my adult life is also the worst. I would like someone to explain why I shouldn’t ask what my country can do for me and the people I care about. If it’s not doing it for people like us, then who is it doing it for?

I almost wish I believed in an afterlife so that then, I could look forward to tracking JFK down, shoving him against a wall, and querying him about why I shouldn’t ask what my country could do for me. It might be fun but, then, if earthly characteristics carry over, I’d have to be ready to be dismissed as a worm.

December 9, 2013

I’ve been wondering if the same kind of transformation in social sensibility is occurring with other people as it has for me over the past decade. I suspect it is.

I grew up thinking, vaguely, of the United States as a more kindly society than was common in the rest of the world. We saw movies about vicious security officials in other nations and sank back into the comfort of supposing that our policing was similar to Andy Griffith’s approach in Mayberry. That was never the truth, of course, but it was our feeling. It permitted a kind of belonging that has now slipped away for many of us. I know it has for me.

When, for example, I hear the president announcing that “We’re doing this, or we’re doing that,” I no longer count myself as an element of that pronoun. Whoever that “we” is, I’m not a part of it. That realization first began to grow on me with the advent of “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. As they became ubiquitous, I began saying to myself, almost subconsciously, “They’re not my troops. I have no part in deciding what they do, nor do I get any benefit from their actions.”

I was taking the first steps in a move from association to alienation. Or, you might say, I was being shoved into those steps. As the years have passed, the steps have become less halting, more firm, more rapid.

I can still feel a connection with certain social and domestic programs that exist within the United States. I’m in favor of Humane Societies, and Social Security, and the Park Service, and my local government. But the big power centers in American life have left me behind. I want as little as possible to do with any major corporation, with Wall Street, with the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the Pentagon, the N.S.A., the Navy Seals, and certainly with anything connected to anti-terrorism. In fact, when I hear anyone speaking of the threat of terrorism, he or she, automatically assumes the role of a threat for me. And anybody who is waging a war against drugs gives me the creeps.

I’m not sure what part popular entertainment has played in my transformation. But I do know that frequently now, when I watch melodramas, I’m no longer on the side of the characters who are presumed to be the heroes. Saul, for example, Mandy Patinkin’s character on Homeland, strikes me as a raging sociopath, a more frightening figure than most of the serial killers I see depicted. I’m not sure how the writers on the show see Saul. Maybe they see him as a monster too. But if so, that, in itself, is a big turnover, presenting us with a hyper-patriot who has gone off the rails, frantically pursuing cockamamie schemes that could appeal only to a maniac.

Saul, in fact, may offer us a key to what’s happened to our institutions. It’s not so much that they’ve gone over to the dark side as that they’ve gone insane. But whether evil or nuts (and those may be distinctions which don’t actually exist), they’re still scary as hell.

What may be even more alarming than the transmogrification of our institutions is the recent sense many of us have developed about millions of our fellow citizens. We have always known, of course, that in any population there will be eccentrics and bizarre characters. In the past, I saw such persons as constituting only a small margin of society. I have now come to wonder if they may make up the majority. And if they do, what does that mean about my relationship to them?

I now, regularly, hear both public officials and ordinary citizens expressing opinions that come across as incoherent ravings. There was a time when I told myself I could converse with almost anyone. No longer. I don’t know what I could possibly say to the Sean Hannitys of America (to employ a representative figure). I don’t want to confront them because I can’t imagine any good coming from such interaction. Truth is, I don’t want even to be in the same room with them. Yet, there they are, in their myriads, making up an undeniable and significant portion of what I used to consider my country. What does that indicate about my function in it?

I am writing about a psychological relation, not a technical or legal one. I remain a citizen of the United States; I presume I will continue as one. But I no longer have any confidence about the nature of that continuation. What I may be fumbling towards is an understanding of minority status. I once felt myself to be an element of something I thought I shared with most other people. Now I know I’m not. Perhaps this is no more than an awakening to reality. Maybe there was never the alliance between myself and my surroundings that I thought existed. Perhaps I’ve always been cut off from the majority.

I can say one thing for sure, though: there’s a big difference between viewing oneself as a solid member and wondering about whether there’s a place for you at all. Your emotional universe is transformed; a certain sense of security is dissipated; a sense of belonging disappears. You become far more alone than you ever before thought you could be.

If this were happening to me alone, I’d be just one more guy wandering off the reservation. But what if it’s happening to great numbers of us, as I suspect it is. What will that do to the future?
Will it make it worse? Might it make it better?

All I know now is that when President Obama talks about “us” I’m not in there.

December 11, 2013

I don’t know much about economics but I suspect, strongly, that with current levels of automation and technology it would be possible for governments to provide all their citizens with living stipends. What do I mean by a living stipend? I mean a monthly deposit in a private account that would provide for comfortable, if simple, housing, a healthy diet, adequate clothing, means of transportation, and some modest measures of entertainment, such as television and internet access.

But, gasp Republicans, and some other people too, that would mean nobody would work anymore! That’s simply not true. There would be more than enough people who would wish for greater affluence than the stipend would make possible to keep an active and diverse economic network in place. It might well be the case that many activities now offering employment would disappear. But that would be all to the good. A great many jobs currently do harm rather than benefitting people. Think of all the lying and cheating that goes on in attempts to get people to pay money for goods and services that are bad for them. I suspect that if an honest survey could be made of what people do to receive wages most of it would be shown to be socially destructive. If we could clean behavior of that kind out of human activity, the world would immediately become a brighter and less vicious place.

Furthermore, if people could stop “working” they could begin to do more positive things, like reading and writing, painting pictures, helping neighbors, having conversations, taking hikes with friends, cleaning up their neighborhoods not for pay but just because they like clean neighborhoods, and so on. If you put your mind to thinking of all the things people might do if they didn’t have to engage in wage slavery, the number spirals on indefinitely. People might begin to do wonderful things no one has thought of yet.

The main reason, of course, why we need to move towards universal stipends is that without them capitalism will remain uncontrolled. And capitalism left to its own devices will destroy the world. There is no doubt about that. If the only way people can eat is to bow down to people who have managed to rake up piles of money, then the raking up of those piles will continue to be the frantic goal of humanity. And every bit of that raking produces pollution which the rakers don’t want to pay for cleaning up. Furthermore, the rakers will buy the political system in order to avoid any legal responsibility for maintaining a livable environment. They have already demonstrated that determination beyond question. Capitalism as the dominant system will end up choking us all in filth and carcinogens. If humanity wants to survive, capitalism has to be reduced to a modest element of human behavior.

I’m more than aware that the idea we should stop thinking of money-making as our primary activity is well beyond the grasp of most people. Propaganda has so inscribed the virtue of working for money on our minds that generations will be required to erase it. We are unlikely to achieve universal stipends any time soon. But we do need to make a start. We are running out of time because the capitalist system is poisoning us more and more each day.

National pension systems, such as Social Security, were among the first halting steps towards a more rational and kinder system of organizing society. They might be seen as the nuclei from which a finer system can grow. They not only need to be protected against the ravening capitalists, they need to be expanded. We have a few politicians, such as Elizabeth Warren, who are arguing for that already. They need our support. But in addition to bolstering those who are pushing in the right direction, we need to begin speaking openly of long-range goals. An idea can’t be worked on until it has been introduced. At the moment, the concept that we, collectively, owe everyone the means of a decent life, is so radical only a small number of people can hold it in their minds. That number needs to be expanded.

It’s certainly not the case that the social evolution I’m proposing will be easy. There are myriads of details that will have to be worked out. For example, what about children? Should they get the stipend from birth? My first inclination is to say no. After all, the reason capitalism’s toxicity is metastasizing as rapidly as it is the explosion over the past century of human population. Too many people are now living on the earth, and though the cooperative system I’m sketching here might allow them to live with less viciousness, it still could not sustain the current numbers. We don’t want people having children simply to increase family income.

The idea that it’s noble to work for wages in order to provide the basics for family existence clearly can’t be done away with overnight. Given the dog-eat-dog process capitalism has put in place, it has been noble to do that, and it will continue so for some time. It will take decades for wages to be generally viewed as what they have been over the past two centuries, a more capitalistically efficient substitute for peonage and human slavery.

Many people have suspected that the end of the 20th century marked a gigantic turning point in human affairs. I’m pretty sure they’re right. We can’t keep on as we have been. But we haven’t yet thought carefully about what a new direction might be. There’s little doubt it could lead towards a hideous dystopia. That’s generally what science fiction tells us is going to happen. I, myself, would like to see it lead somewhere else. And I’m pretty sure that can happen only if we start to build the idea of a decent life for all people, independent of their economic behavior.

December 13, 2013

In the final installment of essays Diane Ravitch has been publishing in Talking Points Memo, excerpted from her book, Reign of Error, she includes this sentence: “Today policy makers think of education solely in terms of its secondary purposes.” Though that’s true, and disheartening, it’s not definitive of the problem of education in the United States.

The problem of education is not mainly that officials put secondary purposes ahead of primary ones.  It is rather that relatively few persons in America today, and an equally sparse proportion of persons with public responsibilities, have a valid concept of what education is. They are supposedly promoting something avidly but they don’t grasp its constitution. That’s an enterprise obviously destined for failure.

Not only do they not have in mind a clear definition, they don’t even perceive the nature of the thing they are talking about.

If you pay attention to the verbs people use when they speak of education you can’t escape the truth that they think of it as an acquisition. It is something you get and, generally, something you pay money for. After all, in a capitalism-soaked culture anything worth having has to be bought. You buy your education from, say, Harvard, just as you buy your Prius from Toyota. And so long as education is seen as something to be purchased from some institution or other, it will wither as a cultural reality.

Later in her lead paragraph, Ms. Ravitch strays into the kind of error her book is designed to denounce: “The central purpose of education is to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.” We can hope, and perhaps assume, that education in a democratic polity will assist people in being sensible citizens. But that’s not the central purpose of education. If it were, it would mean that education is pointless for those who don’t live in democratic states. That clearly is not the case.

Education is not a possession; it is an experience, an experience of a sort that usually causes people to want more of it. It is an experience of communion.

It does, of course, produce effects on the people who have experienced it, and those effects can be spoken of, in a crass way, as possessions. But the primary purpose is the experience itself, not the effects. And the reason it is primary is that it leads on to additional gratifying experiences. Education is an experience that continues to replicate itself. And in doing so, it tends to make life worthwhile. What could be more practical than making life worthwhile?

What kind of communion are we speaking of? A communion with notable expression. And what do we mean by communion of that sort? We mean not only a digestion of that expression, such that it can be described -- to some extent -- and talked about, but also a taking of that expression into the self and allowing it to create thoughts and emotions that otherwise would not have occurred.

If a person reads Pride and Prejudice and then muses about it, she may not show effects in any obvious way. She may vote as she voted before; she may do housework as she did it before; she may drive her car as she drove it before. But she will have had an experience of education, and having had it, she will have become a somewhat different person. The faith of education is that she will have become a better person, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, a richer person.

The experience of humanity has indicated that certain expressions ordinarily produce more intense educational experiences than others. That’s why those expressions are shaped into curricula and taught in the schools. There can be no perfection in that process. Communion with Hamlet generally causes finer educational experience than a novel by Mickey Spillane does. But not always. The quality of the experience is the thing that defines the reality of education. That’s why, for each person, education has to be a work of exploration.

There is no proper set of books that must be read. But having said that, we need also to remind ourselves that the experiences of other people are something to be mindful of. If a writer has been read for centuries, and if people continue to testify that reading his or her works has produced wondrous experiences, then one would be well advised to see if those expressions can be fruitful for oneself.

Though the actual phenomena of education can be quite complex -- usually is complex -- there’s nothing complicated about knowing what education is. It’s simple in actuality. So why do we have so much trouble with it? There are two main reasons.

Education is an experience you can’t imagine until you’ve had it. And in order to introduce yourself to it, you normally have to place yourself -- temporarily -- under the guidance of someone who has had it. We call such persons teachers. Confusion arises because many people who have been denominated as teachers are not. They have merely gained certain employment and get paid for showing up in certain places during certain hours. They may never have experienced education themselves and consequently tend to be awkward about helping others experience it. As the percentage of people who have had educational experience declines, it becomes harder for those who have not had it to be introduced to it.

That’s the first difficulty. The second is even more perplexing. One of the effects of education is that it causes people to be less amenable to be used for purposes that have nothing to do with their own well-being. So when a society is dedicated to making use of persons in that way, which a dominantly capitalist society must always be, educational experience becomes a phenomenon to be diminished. You can see this process at work anytime you turn on your TV and pay attention to the commercials. Virtually every one of them is designed to take words and make them meaningless, to disable them, so to speak. Since words are necessary tools of most educational experience, the more they are emptied of content, the rarer education becomes. It’s a sad but inescapable truth, which American society is nowhere near to facing, that an avidly capitalistic culture will also be an educationally depleted one.

This being the case, public discourse about education will keep on being foolish. That doesn’t mean education can’t occur. Obviously it does all the time. It just means that the way it is talked about by officialdom won’t give it much of a boost. In fact, official talk will likely have an opposite effect.

December 15, 2013

There an attitude common among a majority of people that I have never been able to comprehend. I’m speaking of the practice of dismissing certain human behavior as though no human agency were involved. This happens most often with respect to military actions but it’s certainly not limited to them.

I recognize that the reality of free will is one of the most perplexing questions humans have ever addressed. Scientific determinism holds that everything that happens was caused by something which preceded it. If that’s the case, free will is an illusion, unless it can be shown to be a truly causative force in the same way a falling tree or a burning house is. And so far as I know, no one has been able to analyze the nature of such a force. This is a philosophical issue I assume will continue to be discussed and debated for centuries to come.

But today, here in this comment, I’m not concerned with philosophical conundrums. I’m trying to get at what people say they believe. And most people profess to believe in free will. Our entire legal system is built on that belief. When someone is convicted of murder, for example, the underlying presupposition is that he willed the murder he committed. If he didn’t, if he was behaving as a robot, then the whole notion of punishment and justice goes out the window.

The notion of free will and accompanying responsibility is broadly spread through society. It forms the basic nature of how we think about human interaction. Yet there are occasions when it seems simply to disappear, with no explanation of why it’s not around anymore.

I have been in numbers of groups when someone would describe an event so horrendous it staggered the imagination. Often these were occurrences associated with warfare. The widespread rape of Vietnamese women by U.S. soldiers in the 1960s and early 70s offers a host of graphic examples. Yet almost always when the subject arises in conversation, someone will say, “Well, that’s really terrible but it’s just the way war is.” It’s almost like saying, “Well, that just the way a hurricane behaves.” In either case, the comment indicates there’s simply nothing more to be said. But rapes and hurricanes are not the same sort of things. Human agency is at work in one of them and, presumably, not at work in the other.

I read recently about an incident from November 1966, when a patrol sergeant from the 1st Cavalry Division announced to his team that on their next mission they would kidnap a Vietnamese woman, rape her for four days, and then kill her. And that, according to the testimony of one of the members of the patrol, is exactly what happened. The woman, named Phan Thi Mao, was held for four days, raped on each of those days by a different soldier, and then, on the fifth day, murdered.

You can offer many explanations for something like this. You can say that the soldiers were in a temporary state of insanity induced by the horrors of war. You can say they would never do anything of this kind under ordinary circumstances. You could say that each of them felt intimidated by the others. You could say they had seen terrible things done to their comrades and as a result had lost all sense of restraint. All those things could have been true. But you cannot say that what they did, at the moment, was not a deliberative act. Four days, after all, is quite a long time. Over the entire period these men knew what was happening to the woman, and they knew what was going to happen. What occurred was not made inevitable by war. It happened because a group of people chose to make it happen. If someone in the group had made a different choice, then the outcome would have different. We can’t say what it would have been, but we can say it would have been different.

I’m not out to crucify anybody here. I’m not interested in what is generally called just punishment. But I do want to argue that in all cases of this kind, human agency is at work. When human choice leads to outcomes we would prefer not happen, we have not only the right, we have the duty to inquire into why they happened. We need, in short, to understand them in order to work against similar things in the future. We clearly need, first, to point out their reality and not just sweep them under the rug to be forgotten forever. And writing them off as merely the kind of thing that happens under certain circumstances is nuts.

It is not sane to perceive 90% of human behavior according to one system of explanation but to cordon off 10% of it as though it were no more than purely natural phenomena. If there’s something in the human makeup which causes human choice to be distinguishable from the actions of rocks and bushes and waterfalls, then that something bears on murder just as it does on a decision about which restaurant to visit or which movie to attend.  Phan Thi Mao did not die in November 1969 because she was struck by lightning or because her body was invaded by microbes. She died for reasons produced by how humans think. And they did think, no matter how skewed their thinking might seem to the rest of us.

So the next time you hear somebody say, “Well, that’s just how war is” or “That’s just how teenagers behave,” or “That just how people act in Alabama,” try to pause the conversation and respond, “Well, let’s look at that for a minute or two.”

December 17, 2013

I’m not sure if the personality type called puritanical has always been psychopathic. Would it be justified, for example, to say that Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were psychopaths? I guess I’d better leave that to historians of early New England. But when we come to my own time and place, I’m convinced that the desire to hurt people and the desire to insist on virtue are strongly allied.

How else do we explain that the United States, which is still sometimes referred to as the “Land of the Free,” has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and with a population only 5% of the world’s, supplies 25% of the persons locked up in prison? Surely, it has something to do with the way prosecutors in America use any sort of eccentric or outdated laws they can find to throw people in jail, and to keep them there for astoundingly long periods.

You could say, of course, that the prosecutors are merely mad-dog careerists who see each conviction as a star on their resumes (I, myself, have been guilty of hinting that at times). On the other hand, though, something more complex may be going on. You’ll notice that in public discourse, particularly when high-ranking officials are speaking, you’ll hear the word “justice” employed most often with respect to an attempt to kill somebody. The common phrase is “to bring someone to justice.” I’ve heard President Obama use it that way repeatedly. You could almost say it’s one of his favorite phrases. You’ll recall that Osama bin Laden was “brought to justice” by teams of helicopter-borne Navy Seals, who went into the house where Bin Laden was living in Pakistan and promptly shot him in the face. This was seen as an occasion for great celebration in the United States. And why was it such a grand thing? Because something both cruel and virtuous had been done. One might begin to wonder if virtue, American style, is possible unaccompanied by cruelty. If that belief is grasped steadily enough you find yourself approaching the notion that virtue and cruelty are pretty much the same thing.

People don’t say that to themselves consciously, of course, but what is professed consciously and what is ensconced in the beliefs of the soul are generally quite different things.

There has to be an underlying explanation for amazing cruelty imposed by persons who claim virtue as their motive for doing it. I read just this morning in an article by Joshua Holland on the Bill Moyers web site about several California fishermen convicted of purchasing products in plastic bags from a Central American country. The sale of these products in plastic bags was a technical violation of that county’s law, but the law in question had been a dead letter for years and was no longer enforced in its home country. It was, however still on the books, and a U.S. treaty called for enforcing it. So the fishermen were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to long prison terms. They didn’t know about the law; they had no idea they had done anything illegal, but that didn’t matter.

Here’s how The Economist, scarcely a hotbed of reform sentiment, reported the incident three and a half years ago:

In 2000 four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags
rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras
no longer enforces. They had fallen foul of the Lacey Act, which bars Americans
from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing. The original intent was to
prevent Americans from, say, poaching elephants in Kenya. But it has been inter-
preted to mean that they must abide by every footling wildlife regulation on Earth.
The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight
years apiece. Two are still in jail.

The usual response to such actions is mild anger followed quickly by forgetting. Seldom is there probing in search of what actually occurred. After all, prosecuting attorneys had to decide to push this case, had to call for a certain penalty, had to try to persuade a judge to impose it. What exactly was in their minds when they did all this? Was there any imagining of what it means to be snatched from one’s normal life and to be put into prison for eight years? That’s nearly three thousand mornings of waking up and being reminded that you’re in a miserable situation because you bought lobsters in plastic bags. What does that do to a human life? Did the people who managed the case think about that, wonder about it?

If the reports we read are in any way accurate, the chances are they didn’t. They saw a chance to get a conviction, and they took it. I recognize there may be subtleties to this case I’m not aware of that make it less absurd and vicious than it sounds. But the news is filled with so many reports of mindless prosecution done simply for the sake of imposing punishment we are obliged to suspect that the people who seek this suffering are either determined to ignore the human cost or incapable of understanding what it means. That’s a pretty good definition of a psychopathic personality.

If to this blankness of feeling we add a twisted notion of virtue, we come out with people who are ready to do almost anything if they think they can build a reputation out of it. And ambition of that stripe can also be employed to climb into positions of power.

Is it too much to think this has become the formula for success in America, and therefore that we are a country pretty much managed by psychopaths? I don’t guess I’m quite ready to say that yet. But I know this: when I meet someone with a hard, puritanical attitude my first impulse is to get as far away from him as I can.

December 19, 2013

I see that Salon has completed its list of the top hacks for 2013, with Mike Allen of Politico carrying off the top spot. The best paragraph in the article explaining his elevation takes the form of a theoretical exculpation:

Now, one possible defense of Allen is that what appears to be simple payola is actually
a more sociologically complex phenomenon. Allen, as Wemple reports, has personal
friendships with many of his sponsors, uses them as sources, and generally shares
their point of view on most issues even while failing to acknowledge he has a point
of view at all. This is less a defense than a concession that Allen is so hopelessly
embedded within the Establishment that he can’t cover it in a remotely fair way.

It’s difficult for me to judge the blame deserved for being embedded in the Establishment. You might say that if there’s going to be an Establishment then some people have to be embedded in it or else it couldn’t exist. So those embedded folk are just carrying out a necessary sociological function. That’s a tricky argument, though, because it might be used to justify any group action that has ever manifested itself on earth. And, surely, there have been some groups, large ones at that, and even rich ones, who have engaged in misguided behavior.

The business of blaming people is complicated. How can we decide how much personal responsibility they’re exercising and how much they’re controlled by forces they don’t begin to understand? It seems necessary to express disapproval of some actions, but the best way to approach those who carry them out isn’t obvious. We can fall back on the old saw of hating the deed but not the doer, but it has become such a cliché it’s hard to pay it any mind.

Perhaps a semi-humorous list like this one from Salon is not a bad way to go. It takes a stance on a certain brand of reporting without getting hideously vicious about the people who do it (what’s hideous in viciousness, of course, is another question).

The list this year is not surprising. It has the expected culprits -- Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, David Brooks, Richard Cohen, Peggy Noonan, Thomas Friedman. But it did have a quartet I didn’t expect, either because I didn’t think they fell into that company or I didn’t know much about them -- Benny Johnson at #3, Erick Erickson at #6, Henry Blodget at #7, and Malcolm Gladwell at #10.

“Hack” is defined in most dictionaries as “a journalist producing dull, unoriginal work.” I think Salon is making that charge about the people on its list, but its definition seems to go beyond the conventional one in that it also includes the implication of being mean-spirited and oblivious to suffering. Part of that attitude may come from being obsessed with what’s conventionally seen as success, i.e., riches, political power, celebrity, and, therefore may reflect no more than indifference to suffering. It is, of course, possible to perceive indifference to suffering and the positive imposition of it as pretty much the same thing, though I guess if we want to be super fair we would have to admit that one is, at least slightly, worse than the other. For example, I see Peggy Noonan as being pretty much an air-head whereas Jack Kingston, the Georgia Congressman, who wants poor school kids to pay for their lunches by sweeping the floor in the school dining rooms, is actually nasty. Their attitudes may lead to the same results but we should probably give Noonan the benefit of the doubt if we were comparing them.

We also have to confront the factor of stupidity when thinking about lists of this kind. None of these people are stupid in the conventional sense but they may well be captured by personal hobbyhorses that blind them to an inclusive view of social and political situations. When that’s the case the effect is similar to stupidity. I suspect the makers of the list had that brand of intellectual weakness in mind when they included Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen. The members of that trio don’t like to think of themselves as rigid advocates in the same manner as Erick Erickson, or, evidently, Benny Johnson do. Yet they almost always find a way to curve back to unexamined assumptions. You would, for example, find it difficult to discover Tom Friedman taking seriously the idea that technology is incapable of negating the overuse of natural resources. That would be all right if we had evidence that Friedman had examined carefully the interaction of technology and the depletion of natural goods. But most people who read him don’t find evidence in that vein.

One thing we can say of lists such as the one Salon has compiled is that they have, at most, slight effect. Most people never hear of them because they never hear of Salon, and many of those who do dismiss the judgments out of hand because they come from what’s considered a suspect ideological source. That, of course, is the price of advocacy journalism: to appeal only to a small minority.

Still, I think advocacy journalism does have its uses. In explaining why a person is on the hack list, the writers at Salon had to compile comments not just from the past three weeks but from over the course of the awardees’ careers. If you read the things David Brooks wrote when he was on the staff of The Weekly Standard, you’re likely to have a different view of what he writes now than if you were unaware of that period in his career. One should always take account of growth and maturation, but many readers think they still find in Brooks the same basic attitudes and beliefs he expressed when he was younger and more brash. In any case, to be given a survey of a writer’s assumptions over time is useful in trying to understand who he has become.

Another use of such criticism is that it allows one to check his own assessments against those of others. If twenty years ago I had read that someone had put Richard Cohen on a hack list I would have been offended. I used to read him with a good deal of approval. But over the years, I’ve begun to cool to his views more and more until I reached my current state of frostiness. I suppose, it’s soothing, somewhat, to find that I’m not the only one.

In the end, though, we need to see hack lists for what they are -- gossip. They have both the virtues and vices of most other gossip. They tell us what people are thinking but they usually fail to tell us solidly how correct that thinking is. There’s no getting around the need to stand on your own feet.

December 23, 2013

My remarks today are based on two propositions:

  • There is such a quality of mind as intelligence.
  • Policies supported by intelligence are more healthy for more people than policies supported by lesser intelligence.

Now I want to consider two sets of public figures. One set is composed of Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, and Matt Taibbi. In the other there is Bill Keller, John Cornyn,   and Paul Ryan. By musing on these two trios you begin to get a sense of the contrast I’m going to make. You’ll also see that I could have chosen a second set that would have made my argument more obvious, say Sean Hannity, Louie Gohmert and James Inhofe. I’m trying to give the side I oppose its best chance.

At this point I’ll admit that though intelligence exists, it’s not always easy to discern. The problems intelligence tries to solve are often tangled and even to make a beginning on them requires knowledge and some intellectual skill. If you listen to two sets of people contending over an issue it’s often not readily apparent which set is bringing the greater intelligence to the debate. I do think, though, that if you’ll listen and exercise reasonable patience, the relative intelligence of the two sets will eventually come through, i.e., one will emerge as more intelligent than the other.

The first, and the greatest, problem of democracy is how to get an electorate to listen and to exercise patience. I don’t know how to solve that problem. So it’s not one I’m going to struggle with here today. I’ll just let it lie, lurking in the background.

Though I suspect that most citizens in the United States will credit the existence of intelligence they won’t consider it to be of much use in addressing political issues. Politics, Americans think, is about what people want, regardless of why they want it. Something wanted for a stupid reason has the same standing in political struggle as something backed by high levels of intelligence. This is the bedrock assumption of the journalists and opinion-shapers called the mainstream media. I’ll agree that what people want, and believe, has to be taken into account. I won’t agree that the intelligence of their desires and beliefs should -- or can -- be eliminated from political argumentation. A third premise I draw from my first two is that when intelligent people win in politics, everybody benefits whereas when stupid people win everybody is hurt, although the hurt for certain small minorities doesn’t become apparent immediately. Consequently political debate ought to include discussion of who is arguing intelligently and who is not. This is almost never done in America, though, because the populace have been taught to fear being called “elitists.” There’s scarcely any discussion about why it’s bad to be an elitist but the term is mostly used in a sneering manner, and people understand that it’s unpleasant to be sneered at. So a goodly percentage of them shy away from elitists and elitist arguments.

To return to my pair of trios: it is obvious to me that the people in the first set are more intelligent than those in the second. Journalism world defines the first set as leftists and the second as centrists or rightists. Right there you have a problem because those terms mean virtually nothing so far as reality is concerned, and people who present political debate primarily as an argument between the left and right are demonstrating their desire to avoid the actual arguments that political thinkers need to address. If you read the essays of Paul Krugman and Bill Keller side by side, and pay attention to what’s being said, you’ll see that one relies much less on fuzzy abstractions than the other (fuzzy abstractions are the main masks less than bright people wear to look smart).

Bill Keller’s column this morning was titled “Inequality for Dummies.” It’s an ironic label because the text actually is for dummies and, yet, that’s clearly not what Keller meant to convey; he was hoping to assert the opposite. Even so, a thing we have to remember is that Keller may well be the least obtuse person we could find to fit reasonably among the characters in the lesser intelligence groupings. A group-mate in his trio is at least ten times as obtuse as he is. But he, himself, is bad enough to lead us to disaster. Consider some of the metaphors he employs:

  • The center-left sees the economic problem as more complicated than the left does.
  • The most important development would be to create opportunity rather than to alleviate suffering.
  • We don’t want to punish success.
  • The left doesn’t support government reform.

All these are abstract sentiments, lacking in any sort of specificity, and deficient both in precise language and in truth. For example, is everyone expected to agree about what “success” is or are we obliged to assume it means only piling up more money than most people are able to acquire and that no one could, or should, think it might mean something else. It is the language of people who play at intelligence but make no strenuous effort to reach out towards the genuine item. It is, in short, lazy thought.

Paul Krugman, from the other trio, also had a column in the Times this morning. Its character contrasts strongly with Keller’s. Krugman’s title is “Bits and Barbarism,” and it develops a thesis based on a sincere effort to grasp the nature of money. What is it any way? It’s the sort of question you would be unlikely to find Keller addressing. If one is unable to understand what money actually is, then one is unlikely to imagine the various ways it might be used for the benefit of society. That’s what Krugman tries to help us comprehend. He pushes us to take in new concepts rather than simply to accept what cliches tell us. He lets us know that money is a social construct and not something magical, following rules set by supra-human agency. There are various forms of money and each delivers different effects. We can, if we wish, choose among them. Keller, by contrast, implies that we have little choice at all.

When I read Elizabeth Warren’s statements and Matt Taibbi’s columns I get the same impression as I do from Krugman. They’re attempting to say something about reality and to help readers know they can make decisions based on reality. Truth is the main goal and persuasion comes along second. With Cornyn, Ryan, and even Keller, the main goal -- the purpose of writing -- is to induce people to act in certain ways. Truth is pertinent only if it serves that goal. When it doesn’t, it’s mostly ignored, or as the Victorians used to say, it doesn’t signify.

I usually learn something from reading Krugman, Warren, and Taibbi. I don’t think I have learned a single thing by listening to Cornyn and Ryan, or by reading Keller.

This points to the defining feature of intelligence; it’s what sets intelligence apart from other mental activities. Its first goal is to establish truth. It’s not concentrated on giving the appearance of being knowledgeable. Rather it wants to get things right. This is why intelligence is such a rare entity in politics. It doesn’t regularly tell the people what they want to hear.

We are obviously miles away from seeing truth established as the principal tool of politics. The current assumption that all politicians are liars tells us how far we have to go. Most politicians, of course, don’t want to get to that status. They know a majority of people have a very hard time distinguishing between truth and familiarity, so it is easier for candidates to get their way by shouting longer, louder, and more frequently than their opponents than it is by telling the truth. For this reason, I doubt politics can ever become an arena of intellectual integrity.

This, however, is no reason for giving up on the attempt to push intelligence into political decision-making.  Even a small dose makes a difference. Think of the headlines that have been generated by Elizabeth Warren’s presence in the Senate. Think of the water-cooler discussions sparked by Krugman’s columns. Imagine the number of times Matt Taibbi’s vividly telling expressions have been quoted. Voices like these maintain the possibility of virtues in public discourse that might otherwise disappear from public belief. If we reach the point that we think everything we see and hear in the newspapers, on the web, on TV, really is a lie, then hope shrinks to nothing.

December 27, 2013

A friend recommended I watch the interview Charlie Rose did with Tom Donilon on December 19th. So I did.

Mr. Donilon was President Obama’s National Security Advisor until last summer. He succeeded James Jones in the position in October 2010.

My friend, in suggesting that I watch the interview, was probably also asking what I thought of Mr. Donilon. So here’s what I think. It’s not as simple as saying “Yea” or “Nay.”

The main difficulty I have in thinking about current government officials lies in distinguishing how I rate their performance within the sclerotic system they inhabit from the hopes I have for all officials to be intelligent, brave and imaginative. The latter may be seen as too idealistic, or pure. And I could go along with that criticism if I thought the conventional system had the capacity to muddle through to something livable. But I find myself being shoved ever closer to the conviction that the latter is impossible.

Within the system, I see Donilon as being better than average. Is that good enough? No (and I don’t think we can get away from asking whether something is good enough). Donilon is clearly preferable to his predecessor, James L. Jones, a career officer of the Marines Corps, who, when he was the Corps commandant, told Toby Keith that it was his duty to record “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” with its immortal lines: “We’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.” Jones later criticized Donilon, saying that “he had no credibility with the military.” That, in my view, is a healthy, even essential, characteristic for a National Security Advisor

There are differences within the system, and I’m not one to say that the system itself is so overwhelmingly corrupt and stupid the differences don’t matter. I’d rather have someone who will march tentatively to disaster rather than one who wants to approach it at double time. Still, if we can’t find a way to make a fairly radical turn, the destination, whether reached next month or in three decades, won’t be pleasant.

As I listened to Donilon chat amiably with Charlie Rose, I couldn’t find much in him that would lead to dramatic change. Their first topic of conversation was the current negotiations with Iran, which Donilon firmly supports. The heart of his stance, as he explained it, comes from his assurance that the relief from sanctions granted so far doesn’t amount to much, and even it can be revoked almost instantly if Iran’s leaders show any inclination not to do as the U.S. wishes. The only moderately penetrating question Rose asked (he’s not much given to penetrating questions and his reluctance in that vein is probably the source of his popularity) had to do with the claim some people make that sanctions hurt only the general population and don’t have much effect on the leaders of the targeted country. Donilon breezed by it easily, repeating the standard line that the U.S. doesn’t intend to hurt anyone but simply to persuade the public in a rival nation to bring pressure on their government. Rose, of course, didn’t follow up.

It was impossible not to recall Madeline Albright’s interview with Leslie Stahl in 1996, when the U.S. delegate to the U.N and soon to be Secretary of State, said that the price of killing over a half-million children under the age of five in Iraq, through the use of sanctions, was worth it. She later, of course, tried to squirm out of the statement, calling it a stupid thing to say, but if you watched her in that interview it was hard not to conclude that she knew exactly what she was saying and that she meant it.

The sanctions against Iran have been retooled, supposedly to avoid the now-admitted disastrous effects on the people of Iraq, but the financial sanctions against Iran have been pursued so aggressively by the Treasury Department, that the supply of food and medicine to the Iranian people has been sharply curtailed. The price of many life-sustaining drugs has been inflated well beyond the ability of middle class Iranian families to purchase them. Here, for example, is what the FP Group says about the pressure on Iran’s population:

In fact the Treasury Department penalties are often quite unrelated to security
concerns. For example, the Treasury Department has pursued companies selling
medical supplies to Iran, even if they are only small quantities. Sandhill Scientific
Inc. was prosecuted for selling $6,700 of medical equipment to Iran, as was
Brasseler USA, for $5,000 in medical sales to Iran. There is no concern that the
goods might somehow help Iran's regime or its nuclear program. In fact, U.S.
officials noted that these medical supplies would probably have been eligible for
a U.S. export license on humanitarian grounds.

The devil’s in the details, isn’t he? Here’s one part of the U.S. government prosecuting people for “crimes” another part would have said were legal if it had been asked. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t come up in a Charlie Rose interview. Men in positions like Donilon’s don’t have to deal with it, even though it does kill people. Nor does he have to deal with the question of whether those deaths generate long-lasting contempt and hatred for the United States. And since he doesn’t have to, he doesn’t.

It would be refreshing to hear a high-ranking U.S. official say, “It never has been, it never will be, of benefit to the people of the United States to cause the deaths of children in other countries of the world.” You won’t hear Tom Donilon say that because it wouldn’t be politic, and perhaps because the thought has never occurred to him. Besides, from his point of view, it’s not the sort of thing any officer of the government ought to say. In the interview, he repeatedly refused to attribute any policy to cabinet officers by saying they don’t make decisions, they just carry out the president’s directives. To claim that the National Security Advisor doesn’t make decisions is obviously absurd, but it’s convenient, and it sounds comforting in the atmosphere of the Charlie Rose studio. Certainly, it’s not going to be challenged there.

Ultimately, you don’t find officials like Donilon making any precise connection between the perceived strength of the U.S. government and the well-being of the American people. I suspect that’s because they don’t think much about the latter. They see themselves as part of a team for enhancing the government’s potency and dominance. Their own prestige and sense of self-worth lies in that alone. Consequently, their personal attributes, though noticeable, tend not to matter very much. Tom Donilon is clearly a nicer person than Dick Cheney or John Brennan. Is his niceness going to do me, or my children, or my grandchildren any good? I would like to think so, but at the moment I can’t make myself believe that it will.

December 30, 2013

We have a process underway that seems destined to drive the country into pure frenzy. A right-winger will say something goofy. Then every liberal outlet will hop on the statement and publicize it as widely as possible. This provides strong motivation for some other right-winger to say something even crazier than the earlier statement.

It’s hard to see how this can come to an end. You might think that someone like Louie Gohmert or Steve King could concoct something so looney no one could hope to surpass it. But the ambition of right-wingers is irrepressible. After all, their entire concept of life is embedded in competition. Why would they ever give up trying to take the next step?

John Hagee, the renowned clergyman from Texas, is a durable competitor. During the holiday season he seems to have told every American who has reservations about the term “Merry Christmas,” to purchase a plane ticket out of the country and never to return. He appears unfazed by the difficulties this might entail. It’s his solution to the war on Christmas. That the war, itself, is a myth doesn’t bother him in the least. If he can’t have a real war then a made-up one will have to do, at least until the real thing can be brought to pass.

It’s hard to know why anyone should care about John Hagee’s fabled war. I know that Bill O’Reilly uses it to boost his ratings. But anyone who credits O’Reilly’s rhapsodies about the threat to Christmas in America has already wandered off so far into political dementia all we can hope for him is that he’ll lose the ability to find a polling place and instead of voting remain at home and pray fervently for the Almighty to bring the reign of the Anti-Christ to an end.

People can howl and moan about hostility to Christmas if they wish, but those who decide to take note of it would be well advised to do it humorously rather than indignantly. Humor eventually dies down but indignation has a half-life of at least several centuries.

One effect of this process is to select obscure persons who normally would not be known outside a fifty mile radius and bring them to national attention if their remarks are nutty enough. Matt Staver, an official at Liberty University, has recently garnered continental notice by announcing that if marriage between persons of the same sex becomes legal, society will be doomed by the disappearance of birth. He appears to be convinced that the only reason sexual congress between persons of different genders occurs is because same-sex activity has previously been discouraged by law. Disassemble that barrier and then everyone will take up with a person of his, or her, own gender, and babies will stop coming forth. I’m neither offended nor troubled by Mr. Staver’s opinions because I have a stronger faith in boy/girl activities than he has. In fact, I’m worried more about too many babies than I am about two few. If Staver’s prognostications have you concerned, I suggest repairing to the right column of the Huffington Post’s web page, where you’ll discover that there’s more than sufficient boy/girl stuff still going on.  This being the case, we ought to be gentle in our approach to Mr. Staver, allowing him comfortably to recede into the non-celebrity he has every right to occupy.

The most notable example of the process I’m writing about is Phil Robertson. I hadn’t heard of Mr. Robertson until the recent uproar broke forth. I had seen the title Duck Dynasty on TV guides, but I didn’t know what the subject matter of the program was. I have since learned it’s a series in which people chat about killing ducks. Not having anything in particular against ducks, and certainly not enough to want to slaughter them, I wasn’t likely to be drawn to the show. But now the ducks have receded into the background and Robertson’s views about same sex liaisons and the former happiness of black people has come to the fore. In fact, there has probably been more written about the latter than about any other subjects over the past two weeks. This has awarded Robertson greater celebrity than he had before and made him a champion to some. Jerry Fielding, a state legislator from Alabama, even managed to share some of the fame by declaring Mr. Robertson to be an American hero.

That Robertson and Fielding have views differing from other people’s wouldn’t seem to be a subject of great public surprise. There was nothing in Robertson’s opinions we hadn’t heard before. Great numbers of people -- tens of millions in America -- share them. Those who disagree might have said so, in passing, and then let the whole business fade away. But instead the indignation machinery cranked into full gear. A&E felt driven to suspend Robertson from Duck Dynasty, but not really, since the immediate programs coming up had already been filmed and the suspension was lifted in time for Robertson to participate in future productions. It was a sham punishment meaning nothing other than A&E’s hope to deflect criticism. Evidently, it worked. TV pundits by the dozens rushed to defend A&E against charges that the channel was crushing Robertson’s freedom of speech. It was one more gigantic fakery on all sides.

It all this were seen universally as nothing more than comic silliness then we would be confronted with little more than a colossal waste of time. I’m afraid, though, that’s not the case. We actually are approaching a cultural darkness in the United States (we may already be in it) caused by the creation of aggressive cults, several of them large enough to paralyze public action on social problems. There’s the hate Islam cult, the hate immigrants cult, the hate science cult, the hate social kindness cult, the hate comfort for people who don’t pile up money cult, the hate people with unfamiliar names cult, the hate people over there cult, the hate anybody who doesn’t look like us, act like us, and eat like us cult.  My point is that though these sentiments have existed throughout the history of the nation, they have not before metastasized into full cultic behavior. There was a time when they were mainly just mean-minded grumbling. Now, by contrast, we have an entire political party that has become a cult.

Those who have managed to escape the grip of the multiplying cults need to think about how to deal with them. There are many tactics. But at the least we ought to agree not to help them intensify. There’s no better nourishment for cults than the indignation of those who oppose them.  So we would do well to stop shoveling it at them in such gigantic portions. When someone with sentiments similar to Phil Robertson’s pops off, we could respond with something like, “That Phil -- or that Steve, or Louis, or O’Reilly -- he’s a card, isn’t he?” The cults can’t find much to gnaw on in that. If we can keep cult members in the roles of eccentric, drunken uncles, rather than boosting them to monsters, their potential for harm will be modified. It’s easier to deal with Archie Bunker than with Paul Ryan.

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