Collected Thoughts

January 2014
January 2, 2014

Now, in what people call a new year, radical change is stirring in America. No one has the ability to say what it will bring. Great new goods could be on the way; hideous elements could be rising. Chances are both will appear. But to think this country will remain pretty much as it has been over the past three decades is to be intellectually comatose.

Quite a few years ago I skimmed through the entire file of The Richmond Enquirer for the four years from 1857 till 1860. Why I did such a thing is a tale of a certain sort of madness. The result was not what I anticipated. But there can be learning even in crazy enterprises, and what I took away from all that dreary reading was that masses of men who are considered to be able and bright, men who actually do have some talent, can be complete fools for years on end, such fools that any attempt to talk reason to them would be futile.

It was, after all, the second half of the 19th Century. The world had pronounced human slavery to be an abomination. Yet here were the editors of The Richmond Enquirer, day after day, month after month, asserting that slavery was the essence of civilization, a requirement so fundamental that anyone who wished to abolish it could be nothing but an agent of Satan. And keep in mind that the Enquirer was only one of many dozens of papers saying the same thing. Widespread social insanity is clearly a major element of human history.

Are there people in this country 157 years later who are as unbalanced at the editors of the Enquirer were. The answer is, obviously, yes. What’s not quite as obvious is that foolishness now is quite similar to foolishness then. It’s a refusal to recognize putridness, and an accompanying determination to maintain it as the groundwork of health and safety.

Yes, one might say, but seeing the putrid in one’s own time is not an easy thing. Some see it as one sort of business and some as its opposite.

Although that’s true, it’s not an excuse for failing to support intelligent policy. Surrender of that kind is what mainstream journalism terms “centrism,” that is trying to create a flourishing political framework by grafting putrefaction onto healthy tissue and calling it compromise. There are better ways, especially given that centrism has almost nothing good about it. Compromise makes sense when people agree that two separate things would both be desirable but differ about which one is more important at the moment. But to call an amalgam of the sound and the stupid compromise is a travesty of language. If one group wants to kill a hundred thousand people, and another doesn’t want to kill anybody, would it be a compromise to agree to kill fifty thousand?

The path to intelligent policy is adequate perspective. You can pretty well judge the worth of an proposition by gauging the breadth of view of those who support it. Bad policy comes from narrowness, which, in turn, is a product of unthinking egotism and selfishness. Apply that simple measure to the key difficulties of our time -- economic unfairness, militaristic dominance, religious intolerance, environmental pollution, criminal justice, international disagreements, educational philosophy, sane weapons, individual civil rights, meaningful personal relations -- and the positions to be at least considered separate pretty quickly from those to be dismissed. For example, the solution to the Islamic problem, if there is such a thing, is not to convert as many Muslims as possible to Christianity and kill the rest, as Ann Coulter proposed. Such a project is based on a fairly narrow notion of things.

Lest you think I’ve chosen an absurd example, just think what would happen if we would banish notions of that character from our public discourse. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would improve our prospects immeasurably. It’s easy to underestimate how much social energy is spewed out on nonsense of that sort.

A major change probably already underway is either a burgeoning of crazy talk in America or a marked subsidence of it. I don’t know which is more likely, but it’s hard to imagine its remaining where it is now. The way things go will depend to a considerable extent on what happens to the journalistic endeavor. For the past half-century we’ve had what has come to be called the mainstream media, anchored by the evening network news broadcasts. That system of telling the people what’s going on is in such a state of decay -- and let’s face it, corruption -- that although it could maintain its form for decades, its influence is shrinking to nothing. It’s already little more than fodder for comics. It seems almost certain that a new journalism will take the place of the talking-head anchors on TV. What’s it going to be?

The reason we can’t answer that question is the same reason we can’t predict much of anything about the future: there are too many variables bearing on it. The emerging journalism will depend, first, on the reading ability, and taste, of the American public. The measures of that quality are so numerous no one can start to give each its proper weight. The future of journalism is up for grabs and nobody knows where the grabbing power lies. The outcome could derive as much from luck as from anything else. And luck is fickle.

Anyone who is either pessimistic or optimistic is naive. My naiveté lies mostly on the pessimistic side. That’s because I’m better at detecting absurdity than I am at discovering emerging sanity. I’ve been trying to take that weakness into account in my thinking. But the degree I can be successful in that effort is as much of an unknown as anything else. I suspect, though, I will change.

January 9, 2014

The news can sometimes leave one in a state of wonderment.

This morning I learned that Cormac McCarthy’s former wife was having an argument with her current boyfriend -- about space aliens. The dispute got so fierce she pulled a gun from a body cavity not normally thought of as capable of housing a firearm and threatened him with it. But it all turned out okay because he was able to take the gun away from her before she shot him. The most telling comment I saw about the story was the question: “She pulled it from where?”

The governor of New Jersey’s presidential aspirations could be threatened by his aides deciding to get back at the mayor of Ft. Lee, a Democrat, who declined to endorse the governor in his recent campaign to be re-elected. Since Ft. Lee is the gateway to the George Washington Bridge, the obvious thing to do was to block off several lanes approaching the bridge so that traffic would back up for hours. So that’s what they did. Some people are angry about this, especially since medical emergency vehicles got caught in the jam-up, leading it seems to at least one death. One of the conspirators expressed mild concern about the children who were trapped all that time in cars, but the worry was eased by the reminder that most of them probably issued forth from Democratic parents. The governor says he didn’t know about any of this, and having considered it, and the seemingly indisputable evidence that it occurred, has concluded it was not a wise thing to do. He may take action against some of the conspirators.

Justin Lookadoo, who is a faith-based dating coach, a motivational speaker, and a former juvenile probation officer, has reminded young women that one of the best ways to get good dates is to stop talking. This is advice consistent with Providence because “God made guys as leaders. Dateable girls get that and let him do guy things.” I guess he might keep on doing guy things even if his girlfriend didn’t let him, what with his being a leader, and all. But Justin didn’t get into that.

Some doubt is now being expressed about the report that the President of North Korea had several of his political opponents eaten by ravenous dogs. There seems to be little doubt, though, that these people are actually dead. As far as I can tell, Dennis Rodman has yet to comment on the means employed to dispatch them.

I have noticed several articles about the “Bikini Bridge.” After glancing at some of them, I’m still not perfectly sure what it is. It seems to have something to do with a skimpy bathing suit that doesn’t fit as tightly as other bathing suits. I understand that the news covers fashion, but this modification -- if it exists -- seems to be getting more attention than, perhaps, is necessary.

There’s a developing controversy in Omaha about whether the police should take small children into custody because they are seen on videos using smutty language. The cops did it because they said it represents a cycle of violence and thuggery. I have noticed a tendency among some little kids to talk in ways that formerly would have resulted in fairly severe reprimands. I admit that I would prefer that children not use language of that sort. Still, I’m not sure how to prevent it, especially if their parents don’t object, or worse, think it’s cute. However one feels about the habit, you would think we could agree that it’s not a police matter. But it seems to be the case that more and more people think the police should be involved in everything. That’s a development that strikes me as even more ominous than questionable talk from little ones.

CNN has a story and video about what happens when someone urinates outside in really cold weather. The video indicates that the effluvia turn into a kind of fog. But Anderson Cooper was skeptical and suspected that the video was faked. He decided to consult a physicist about the process, and was told that although the scientist had not conducted research on that particular phenomenon, it does seem to be possible that some foggy moisture-vapor could be created. To be fair to Anderson, he did say it was a ridiculous issue, but, still, CNN included it in their programming.

A clergyman in Los Angeles decided to “try out” atheism for a year, more or less just to check it out. Exactly how that’s possible is difficult to imagine, but nonetheless he lost the employment related to his religious affiliation and was given a sharp nudge toward poverty. But atheists have come to the rescue -- at least partially. They set up a fund to support the experiment and so far 900 people have donated $19,000. The clergyman -- or you might say, former clergyman -- was asked how he believes the test will turn out. About that he professes to be agnostic.

Some of these stories are merely amusing, some absurdly zany, some have a darker edge. I don’t suppose I object to any one of them, in itself. But I am concerned that news of this sort is driving out news that people need if they are to respond intelligently to situations that affect the well-being of thousands, even millions, of human beings. The latter require thought, and I sense that most people are starting to see thought as too laborious to be endured. The problem is that somebody will be thinking about the millions and how they can be used. And if those who think in that mode become a small minority while the majority turn to what used to be considered tabloid entertainment, I doubt the outcome will be healthy for any of us.

January 16, 2014

In the introduction of his fat book titled, Stripping Bare the Body, Mark Danner includes this remark:

The United States gazes out upon the world with a self-satisfied confidence in the
superfluity of its power; the mistakes flowing from its ignorance it can and does
survive, for the costs are borne by the objects of its gaze. They, for their part, look
back upon us clear-eyed, with calculation and cunning; they know us better than
we know them. They have no choice.

I’m inclined to agree with the statement, but then I step back, troubled by the subject of the first sentence. Who, or what, is this thing doing the gazing? Am I an element of it? Is Dick Cheney an element of it? And if we’re both elements, what kind of freakish entity, for God’s sake, are we talking about?

If a noun can’t be defined with sufficient clarity to allow people to know what it means, does it deserve a place in serious sentences? It’s obvious, of course, that a group of people can be brought together, in which few share much with others besides the accident of time and place. Is a group of that stripe what we have in mind when we speak of the United States? If it is, does it make sense to say that this group, as a whole, actually does anything?

For some time, I’ve been on a mission, of sorts, to persuade people to use words whose meaning they understand. Such an effort is an annoying habit, of course. For the most part, people don’t like to be asked what they mean by the words they use because it forces them to recognize they don’t know. Is there any hope for such a mission, or any good in it?

I suspect that ill-defined terms do most harm when they’re related to vast power conglomerates, and work to convince people that such organizations have a coherence they don’t have.  If there is any truth that can be stated about the United States, it is that the United States is many, many things, so many, in fact, they can’t be counted. Noam Chomsky, for example, is a potent American voice as is Rush Limbaugh. Does the coupling of those two figures tell us anything about the nature of the thing they both inhabit? I suppose one might take from it that the thing permits freedom of speech, but even that is questionable.

We can’t expect to have perfect reforms, but might we hope that when people speak of the United States they begin to distinguish what element of it they’re talking about? When we mention the U.S. government, can we acknowledge that the Park Service is a very different thing from the National Security Agency, and not just lump them under the damnable and virtually meaningless abstraction, “government?”

In the example from Mark Danner quoted above, I suspect we can say that the noun “United States” is being used, primarily, to designate the military-espionage elements of the national government and not thousands of other things that might, in our loose way of talking, be alluded to with the same term. I hope so at least. I would prefer that the judgment not apply to me.

January 17, 2014

I just read an essay by David Sirota, the Denver journalist and radio figure, which reported that numerous high-ranking U.S. officials have expressed not only a desire to see Edward Snowden assassinated but have said they would like to take part in the killing themselves.

Talk of this character bewilders me. What is it? Is it just blowhard popping off, or does it reflect a genuine intent? I’d like to think it’s the former, but the more I listen to voices like Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I’m shoved towards thinking it goes beyond that.

Sirota concludes that given the actions of the government and the rhetoric of many of its officials, no one who witnesses executive branch crimes can feel physically safe in reporting on them. I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that’s precisely how the spy agencies of the government want people to feel.

We hear a lot about the bifurcation of the American nation, the splitting apart of the citizenry into groups that not only disagree with one another but have descended into bloody thoughts towards the other. That’s disheartening but I suppose it’s the way of the world. The layers of innocence that used to protect us against such realizations are being peeled away, and as they disappear, we all begin to feel less sure of our place and more threatened. Though I don’t enjoy the feeling, when I think about it I realize it’s probably more healthy to face it than to tootle along in complete ignorance. At the very least it should encourage me, and everyone else, to ask what it is that would cause one citizen to be willing and eager to inflict bodily harm on another.

Here’s what a current NSA analyst is reported to have said about Snowden: “In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself. A lot of people share this sentiment.”

Do you suppose this person has ever thought seriously about what it would be physically to destroy another person’s life? Does he dream about how he would do it, about the instruments he would use?

I’d like to conclude that those who make statements of that ilk have never thought carefully about anything, that they operate from a basically juvenile, blank mind, that they haven’t ever come to grips with what it means to be themselves. But I can’t be sure. Maybe that’s actually a genuine characteristic of many people. Maybe it’s so ingrained it can’t be washed out.

The reason I’m struggling with these question is that an answer, if I could ever find one, would tell me whether my function in life should be to reason with other people or give up that attempt and try to find ways to thwart them. It may be a question I’ll go back and forth on as long as I live.

I don’t suppose I have any practical way to impede a person who was really trying to kill Edward Snowden. If I did, I would employ it, at the same time hoping I would stay clear of any desire to kill the prospective killer. But even about that I don’t guess I can be perfectly sure.

Killing is a complex problem, perhaps the most complex we face.

January 18, 2014

David Brooks has decided that the main economic problem in the United States is not inequality of income. The problem is poor people. And the one has nothing to do with the other.

An interesting feature of David Brooks’s columns in the New York Times is that in the threads of readers’ comments following them, almost no one likes what Brooks has to say. That’s not definitive evidence about the quality of his thought but it is a curiosity. I wonder what he thinks about his readers’ opinions, or if he notices them at all.

Recently he has published two pieces which have been widely regarded as surpassing any of his past stupidity (or at least any he’s evinced since he came to the Times), one about the wisdom of decriminalizing marijuana cigarettes and the other the one alluded to above. That judgment fits fairly well with my sense of his writerly evolution and it causes me to wonder if he’s in the midst of a vein of pathological transformation. I know very little about his private life, though I did read recently that he and his wife have decided to divorce. That probably is placing a psychological burden on him, but I don’t know if it’s affecting his writing. I wish him well with any personal problems he’s addressing but I can’t say I wish him public success if he’s going to keep on in the direction he seems to be going.

As I’ve read Brooks over the years, I think I’ve detected a strain of self-distrust, or even self-disdain, in his sentiments. It’s as though he wants to be somebody he can’t be, like he would actually prefer to be a guy appearing in a Dodge commercial and intoning about “guts, glory and Ram.” The absurdity of the image for Brooks is pathetic, and if it is an influence on his psyche it could explain some of his latterly obtuseness. The two columns I’ve mentioned here, that have won him floods of scorn, are both Redneck effusions, though voiced in the language of privileged Eastern education. He seems to think that the morality of simple-minded people who are religiously devoted to their own inclinations (which outsiders see as bigotry) have something vital and uplifting in them he can’t access but that he wants to promote and be associated with. But, of course, he doesn’t know how because there is little about such people he actually understands.

Bring a picture of David Brooks dressed up in a soldier-suit, or sitting on a horse, to your mind and you’ll have a visual representation of the dissociative forces I suspect are at work in him.

Brooks’s psychological condition, though interesting to speculate about, shouldn’t, however, be a major public concern. He has one of the most potent platforms in America, and the legitimate question is how well he’s using it. As you’ve doubtless picked up from these comments and other things I’ve written, I don’t think he’s using it well. I don’t know how the New York Times decides on the length of an editorial writer’s stay, but if Brooks continues with the strand of blank-thinking these columns display, I’d be surprised if questions didn’t start to arise.

He was evidently chosen for his current post by Gail Collins who was looking for a conservative writer to replace William Safire, one who like Safire could voice “conservative” opinions (whatever that means) without causing Times readers to throw the paper on the floor and jump up and down on it. Brooks may have fit that need for a while, but whether he will in the future, if his thought pursues its current direction, is dubious.

Personally, I’d just as soon the Times keep him on. He still can irritate me enough to set my mind to wondering, which, I suppose is about all you can expect from a newspaper columnist.

January 19, 2014

Tom Friedman has decided what President Obama’s State of the Union message should be about. It should concern itself solely with education, and it should replicate a recent speech by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The problem with American education, says Mr. Duncan, is not dysfunctional schools or weak teachers. Rather it is parents and students. They don’t take education seriously.

If a big difficulty is arising because a set of people are not serious about something they need to be serious about, you might think the first question would be why. But Mr. Friedman doesn’t say a word about that. And, at least in the Friedmanesque explication, neither does Mr. Duncan. Friedman, you see, is not much into inquiry. He’s a master of admonition. He’s telling people what they ought to do and he doesn’t give a damn about why they refuse to do it. It’s an ironic practice, particularly when one is addressing education, which presumably deals with inquiry above anything else. But, then, that may not be Friedman’s presumption. It’s hard to tell because he doesn’t give us much clarity about what he thinks education is. It seems to be, in his mind, no more than expending labor on the tasks set by teachers for students. And not just a little labor, either; it needs to be a lot -- so much it’s exhausting. That’s what parents in South Korea demand of their children, and it goes without saying that South Korean parents should be the model. But why? Friedman has no time to get into questions like that.

Though Friedman says almost nothing about curriculum, or about how the curriculum should be employed, you can read between the lines and conclude that he mostly has rigorous, repetitive training in mind, so that students can do arithmetic almost without thinking, and recite endless facts on end. Is it unfair to suspect that the likely outcome for students trained in this way will be to become compliant corporate employees, and thus provide the corporations which enroll them an edge on other corporations?

An older notion of education held that its primary purpose is to ponder the question of what is a good life. It’s a question which if you even begin to answer it demands considerable subtlety. I’ve never seen Tom Friedman mention subtlety.

Does he think that the life of a submissive corporate employee is the good life? I’ve got no objection to his arguing for that, if that’s indeed what he thinks. But I do object to his behaving as though the good of such a life is a self-evident truth.

It’s true that I know little about what goes on in South Korean schools. Perhaps they are superior to American schools. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were. I’m not assuming that the United States currently has wonderful schools. I do know this, though: the United States is not South Korea. And so it’s not obvious that we need the same sort of schools they do, even granting for a moment the hypothesis that their schools are first-rate.

I had positive sentiments about Arne Duncan when he was appointed to head the Department of Education. As I’ve listened to him since that time, however, I’ve sensed that the only measure of educational attainment he cares anything about is how students score on international tests. In his mind, attaining a high score is identical with having a good education. But is it? Should high scores on tests be the primary goal of American schools? Maybe they should. But I don’t hear any explanations about why they should from either Arne Duncan or Tom Friedman. They seem never to question the manifest nature of that objective.

I doubt we should take our lead on education from men who question as little as Friedman and Duncan do. They come across as almost perfectly orthodox, and I tend to be mindful of George Orwell’s reminder that “Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” I’d feel better about American schools if I knew they were consistently putting statements from voices like Orwell before their students, and asking, “Is this right? What does it mean?”

It’s hard to agree that the president should fashion the State of the Union Address in the way Friedman advises. I would enjoy hearing something from Mr. Obama about education and schools. But it would be pleasant if it could be intelligent.

January 20, 2014

I waked up early in the morning and after lying for a while trying to return to sleep, I got up at 3:45, thinking I would read a bit. But what I did was to go straight to my computer. I browsed through The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Talking Points Memo, Salon, and Slate, web publications I read every day. Then, at 5:15, before I returned to bed, I took out a little notebook and wrote:

Perhaps I’m addicted to Internet “news.” If I am, I ought to do something about it.
But what?

I went for many years of my life paying slight attention to what appeared in news publications. I suppose I scanned the headlines of whatever local paper was available to me, but that was about it. I didn’t know what was going on, as we say. In that I guess I was like most of my fellow citizen still are. I didn’t feel any lack in my life. I had plenty to do and plenty of interests. I wasn’t aware that the workings of the larger forces in the world had anything to do with me. Even when there was a serious threat of war at a time I was in the Army and about to be sent to a place I didn’t want to go it made scant impression on me.

I was exactly the sort of citizen the higher-ups in government want. They make noises about the benefits of an informed public. It’s nothing but cotton-candy rhetoric. They have no use for persons outside their ranks who pay attention to what the decision-makers are doing. They see themselves as the ones in the know who should be left alone to carry out their plans.

I guess I went along with that notion. Another thought I jotted in my notebook recently would not have occurred to me then:

A person willing to depend on good people to supply decent government has the
most inept political philosophy imaginable.

It was the war in Vietnam that began to rouse me from my stupor, particularly the war in its later stages. I finally came to see it was an enterprise of enormous stupidity, and from that insight cascaded a series of realizations which hadn’t troubled me before:

To attain a high position in government requires nothing but ambition and low
scheming. It takes no talent and certainly no wisdom.

The people thought to be in the know can be extremely ignorant.

Most politicians don’t mean what they say.

They see persons “below” them as commodities.

They are more likely than most people to get caught up in vacuous abstractions --
the domino theory, for example -- and once they are captured by an abstraction
they remain in thrall to it. Few of them have the intellectual capacity to escape.

They view government service primarily as an opportunity for celebrity.

From these perceptions followed a certain chagrin. I had been a dupe throughout my life. And so, I resolved not to be a dupe anymore. I hadn’t yet, though, grasped the truth that stepping outside dupery is difficult. The world is set up to keep me in that state.

It’s hard to get an accurate reading of even a single major political figure. Think of the present president of the United States. Having read volumes about him, I have no confidence I know what he really cares about or really stands for. He strikes me a bundle of contradictions. And maybe he is. How can I find out?

So the initial question returns: what is one to do about being addicted to the news?

If the Internet were merely vast, the problem might be manageable. But that’s a woeful understatement. The Internet is endless. I stumbled on a page yesterday devoted to the pathetic question of whether evolution or creationism ought to be taught in the schools. I didn’t count the links to the articles listed, but there were hundreds. No matter what you’re trying to investigate, you can’t read even one percent of the items dealing with it. If you tried you would die before you got halfway there. It’s as though the Internet was designed to drive you insane. And perhaps it was.

I don’t know how to use it. The best I can recommend is to find some voices you feel you can trust, and read them regularly. I, for example, will listen to what Glenn Greenwald has to say. I feel no need to pay attention to what Charles Krauthammer writes. I read him occasionally, but principally for amusement, not instruction. I know, people say that’s confining yourself to a bubble of like-minded persons. But how about confining yourself to a bubble of sane persons? Is that also a bad idea?

It would be crazy for me to say I’ve figured out how to use the Internet. I don’t even know if the adjective “addicted” applies. The best I can suggest is to be mindful of the limits of time and space and how they bear on becoming the person one wishes to be. I do, though, think we all have a duty not to be complete dupes.

In the future when I wake up in the middle of the night I’m going to try to read something more considered than what one usually finds on the Internet. We’ll see how that goes.

January 24, 2014

I’m not given to regretting much about my life. I can’t say it has been surpassingly glorious but on the other hand I have a hard time imagining anything I’m sure would have been better. There is one feature, though, I know I do regret and as I grow older the regret becomes sharper. That is my failure to learn other languages.

I’ve played with learning some, French and Spanish to a small extent, German a little more. But I’ve never come close to mastery in either reading or speech. Now, here when I probably can do little about it, I feel like an ignoramus.

Living in the United States, one can delude himself that English is all he needs. It’s a gigantic country, and has the advantage of sharing a language with countries richer culturally than itself. Furthermore, it’s true that if one is to have but a single language English is the preferred choice in the 21st Century. That’s because it’s the second language for more people than any other. It may also be the richest language in the extent of its vocabulary. Even so, it’s not enough for fully encountering the world.

I’m not a purist about translation. Reading translations of fine books written originally in French and German, which are the ones I’m most familiar with, is certainly an enriching experience. But in translation something is bound to be lost. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example is thought to be one of the most provocative thinkers ever but also a great German stylist. We can get the essence of his thought from translation but I’m sure we don’t sense fully the sharpness of his style. Consider one of his most famous sentences:

Vorausgesetzt, dass die Wahrheit ein Weib ist --, wie?

And then its common translation in English:

Supposing that Truth is a woman --, what then?

Let’s face it; they’re both wonderful sentences. But I sense that the simple “wie” packs in more than the two English words. In the original, the meaning is not just “what then” but something beyond that phrase which conveys a vast range of possibilities. And it is accomplished with a single word. That degree of difference spread through all the sentences of a sizable book is bound to produce an enhanced reading experience.

A language is more than carrier of meaning. It’s also a flavor, and although you can pick up some of the flavor without taking in precise meaning, without the combination of both, much is lost.

I’m thinking about this now because in a few months I’m going to make my first trip to France and Italy -- a pathetic admission for a person of my age. Earlier I became entranced with the British Isles, and went there many times -- seventeen times in all, I think. It has been wonderful to drive over England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland on numerous occasions. I’ve learned about those places more deeply than a simple tourist ever could. But it’s knowledge which has come with sacrifice. I spent all my time and money in one fairly contained area and therefore missed a wider spread. Now I’m attempting a minor repair.

I admit, I’m a bit anxious about going to countries where I can’t speak the language. I’ve heard all sorts of tales about how foreigners are treated there. Some say the inhabitants will be friendly and helpful. Some say you can expect some snootiness. I suppose one is likely to experience both, more of the former than the latter, I hope. I don’t guess a few gibes are anything to fear. Still -- as Nietzsche might say.

I intend to learn some phrases before I go. But I know my pronunciation will be atrocious. It’s also hard to listen to an unfamiliar language. It speeds by so fast that in recognizing one word you miss many others. I’ve been to Montreal on numerous occasions but have made little headway in understanding what people are saying. Perhaps I’ll try to watch a French film most days between now and then and see it that helps.

The languages of the world are a great treasure. I don’t know how they will fare as the centuries roll along. Some will surely disappear, at least as everyday speech. It’s often hard to hold onto a language, even when there’s a will. Ireland has tried to maintain Erse, but you can’t find many people in Ireland who can actually speak it.

It has been argued that it would be better if we had a universal language. I don’t know about that, but I doubt it. The loss, I think, would outweigh the gain.

In any case, I continue to regret my ignorance, and if I had my life to live over, my experience with various languages would be -- I think -- the only major thing I would try to change.

January 25, 2014

Fear and anger lead inevitably to hateful behavior. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that, we have to conclude, understands little about social health.

At the moment, the American public is wracked by fear and anger, so if we want to work towards a more healthy society -- that is a society in which people wish to help others more than they wish to hurt them -- we need to ask why fear and anger are so abundant. That they are abundant no sane person can deny. One of our political parties has been captured so completely by them it has no purpose other than expressing those emotions.

The reasons why fear and anger run rampant in a society are obviously complex and numerous. I doubt it would be possible, ever, to lay them out in their entirety.  Still, I think there are components we can see fairly clearly if we’ll open our eyes. In the United States, for example, fear and anger are boosted considerably by the economic philosophy a majority   feel obliged to profess. It is clearly a philosophy of cruelty, rapaciousness, and oppression. What everyone is supposed to do is to climb to the top of the heap. And if, in clawing your way up, you have to step on other people’s heads, that’s just the way it is. These practices are called enterprise and are justified by the supposed glory of competition. But what they are actually is a process of grinding the majority for the vacuous pleasures of the rich.

To be able to do this, to be able to scramble up over others, is called the American Dream. In reality, it’s a nightmare.

One might argue that this is the story of humanity over the whole globe. But in some  places the practices of selfishness have been tamped down by making the social goal the simple physical well-being of all people. When that’s the purpose of society, then riches for the few can no longer be the main thing, and the social mind begins to work in a different way.

The reason it doesn’t work that way in America is people have been taught that competition is the essence of life. But that’s not true. Competition is the essence of games, and life is not a game. Games obviously can constitute a small portion of life. They add a kind of spice. But they are not the whole of it or anywhere near the whole of it. When people begin to think they are, sickness comes over them.

One of the books being discussed in the New York Times Book Review tomorrow is Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. Mr. Stossel, the editor of the Atlantic, has evidently been tortured by acute anxiety all his life. From reading reviews, I’ve picked up that he doesn’t yet know precisely why, but he seems to be moving towards the belief that anxiety is a social disease. If you live in a certain kind of society, you’ll get it, at least to some degree. If that is his belief, I think he’s right.

Americans teach one another that anxiety is the price of getting ahead. They seldom have much specificity about what one is getting ahead to, or why he should wish to get there. But there’s no doubt that getting ahead is the goal, the purpose, the golden ring. People who are driven to get ahead are heroes; people who don’t much give a damn about it are slobs. Why this is the case is not open to discussion.

A distinction necessary for thinking clearly about matters of this kind is the difference between the desire to get ahead and curiosity. They are clearly not the same thing, and in a way they are opposites. Though it’s true the pursuit of curiosity can lead to riches, that’s not always the case, and when it does happen, if curiosity is genuinely involved, than it, rather than the rewards that might come from it, is the driving force. Curiosity is not a sickness. The desire to get ahead is.

I do think a healthy society will promote curiosity, because curiosity adds vivacity to life. There’s an excitement in finding out something not heretofore known. And it seldom leads to fear or anger. It might well lead to frustration, but that’s another thing. The desire to get ahead, on the other hand, is always surrounded by fear and anger because it always involves holding people behind you. If they’re not behind, then you’re not ahead. To the extent that’s simply a game, then it can be tolerable. But if it becomes life itself, bad stuff is going to happen. And when getting ahead is mainly a process of getting rich, the bad stuff will be even worse.

To live among people who are fearful and angry is distasteful, and to do it just so we can have rich people to ogle is a bad deal.

January 27, 2014

I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying that journalism is in a state of major transformation. Anybody who’s capable of imagining such a thing as journalism knows that. Yet what I suspect most people haven’t contemplated is how radical that transformation is going to be. It’s going to involve not only new methods of accessing the “news”; it will change our concept of what the news is. And that will be a healthy thing because the notion most people still have of the news is severely flawed.

As I did, you probably grew up with the notion that certain institutions constitute a network of authority which can be counted on to provide you with a respectable, sensible view of the major things happening in the world, and, especially, happening in your own country. Major elements of that network might be The New York Times, CBS News, your own hometown newspaper. It was assumed that if you paid attention to them you wouldn’t know everything, of course, but you would know enough to function as a responsible citizen and what you did know would be essentially true.

That idea of trustworthy authority is disintegrating. Many people don’t want to give it up. There’s a comfort in it, and an ease. But no matter how much they think they can count on it as a secure foundation, it’s not going to provide them with an adequate basis of knowledge. You can read the New York Times from page one to the end and still be essentially ignorant about what’s happening in the world around you. That’s because the people who put the New York Times together -- and CBS News, and your local paper -- can’t pursue an adequate approach to truth. They may well want to do it -- probably do want to do it -- but they don’t know how.

I am not saying, by the way, that the New York Times is worthless. I’m merely saying that it’s not adequate and it can’t be adequate by reason of who and what it is. Here’s a tiny bit of evidence: the most respected American in the world in terms of foreign policy analysis is almost never mentioned in the New York Times. That’s because his analysis is not thinkable for the powers who rule at New York Times. Last December, for example, he wrote this: “for 60 years without a break the United States has been torturing Iranians.” If you look at the evidence that’s clearly true. But the New York Times can’t tell you that truth because it doesn’t fit with the paper’s self-image.  Yet, if you don’t know that truth, you can’t understand why the Iranian government views the U.S. government as it does. There are other issues, of course. Has the United States been justified, in some sense, in pursuing torturous policies towards Iran? Has Iran done even worse things to interests the United States feel obliged to protect? These are worth discussion. But the harm the United States has done to Iranians for many decades needs to be a part of that discussion. And you won’t get that part from the Times. I’m not arguing -- here at least -- that one should favor Noam Chomsky’s analysis over that of the New York Times. I’m simply saying that Chomsky’s perspective needs to be a part of the discussion and the New York Times doesn’t want it to be a part of the discussion. That’s because the Times is more driven to be respectable than it is to be truthful.

That notion of respectability will be increasingly dismissed in the coming age of journalism.

Ezra Klein announced a couple days ago that he is leaving the Washington Post -- the Post, by the way, is much worse in its devotion to respectability than the Times is -- to join a new enterprise which will be hosted by Vox Media. He gave as his reason that newspapers, like the Post, can’t engage in explanatory journalism, and he feels the need to be involved in explanation. Kline didn’t delve deeply into why newspapers can’t explain much. He was trying to give the impression there’s just something about the model that makes it impossible (after all, he wants to leave his employer on good terms). If you read carefully, though, his statement becomes clear. The Post sees itself as an element of the establishment, and from Kline’s perspective, establishment views are too restrictive to permit good journalism.

More and more journalists will be taking similar steps in the coming years, and they will be the brightest and most energetic in their profession. You could term this the no-more-Tom-Brokaw movement. Former network news anchors were once the most emulated figures in journalism. That’s changing, and we can be glad it is.

Glenn Greenwald made a comparable announcement last fall, reporting that he is joining with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill to set up a news organization backed by the money of Pierre Omidyar. It’s likely that more enterprises of this sort will be launched in the coming year.

The coming news efforts won’t be identical with one another, but I think they will share a feature which will become a requisite for serious journalism in the next several decades. That will be the recognition that one can’t explain anything without taking a stand. That doesn’t mean cutting  loose from standards. Accuracy in news will always be a virtue. But there is no such thing as complete objectivity. In order to explain anything, you have to explain it from somewhere. The idea that journalism can be free of any sense of what’s desirable is simply a ruse for concealing one’s propaganda. That’s what the mainstream media have been doing for generations, and its disgusting character is now becoming evident.

I hope the reigning standard for journalism will become honesty rather than objectivity. If we’re going to trust what reporters tell us then we’ve got to know who they are, what they care about, and how they think. They have to be open about those aspects of themselves. They don’t have to push them in readers’ faces all the time, but neither can they be coy about them.

The way Glenn Greenwald describes this is putting journalistic integrity above any other loyalty. One can’t be a servant of a government, or a society, or a religion, if one is to be a competent journalist. Real reporters don’t ride in tanks cheering any set of troops along. And if they see something that makes them sick, they should say so regardless of who did it, and let readers decide if it makes them sick too.

I hope that’s the brand of journalism which will emerge from the melee we find ourselves in now. If it does, we all should know more about the world surrounding us. Maybe then we can decide more sensibly what to do about it.

January 28, 2014

Thomas Perkins hates Nazis and he also hates people who criticize the super-rich in America. The latter, he says, are much like Nazis. During the time he was being interviewed about these fierce emotions, he was wearing a watch which retails for $330,000. He probably can’t understand why some people might dislike him for that, but if he had a theory it would doubtless be that those people are envious. If you are yearning for a watch like Tom’s but feel you can’t afford it, now is the time for you. The seller is offering it for a big discount -- $66,000 off. Don’t wait, though. The bargain might disappear at any time.

Hair Ben-Artzi hates certain sorts of marriages. He says he will bury himself if his nephew, who happens also to be the son of the Israeli prime minister, marries the Norwegian girl he is currently dating. I guess that would be distressing but, still, burying oneself seems fairly extreme. I hope Hair is joking, though it doesn’t sound as if he is. I suppose some Norwegians could be hating Hair for the stance he’s taking about one of their young women, but maybe the frigidity of Norway lessens the inclination towards hatred and plunges it below what it is in more southerly districts.

Mavis Leno -- you know, Jay’s Mavis -- hates Conan O’Brien for implying it was Jay who took the Tonight Show back from Conan after it had been surrendered. She says Jay had no part in it; it; it was all NBC’s doing. There are rumors that Jay and Jimmy Fallon, who shortly is to take over, are not fond of one another, though whether their emotions rise to hatred is questionable. There are even some who still say that Jay and David Letterman hate each other but, to my mind, that’s just poppycock. Even so, there seems to be quite a bit of hatred swirling in Jay’s vicinity.

I had a relative, since departed, who hated a lot more people than he didn’t hate. The reason was there were more people unlike him than those who resembled him in complexion, religion, taste for certain sorts of foods, and so on. He told me once he hated everyone who wasn’t a regular guy.

Rush Limbaugh hates everybody, but that’s just because he’s a big conservative, and conservatives live for hatred. What else is there?

There must be something eminently tempting about hatred or else so many people wouldn’t get wrapped up in it. It certainly has a longstanding pedigree. Achilles hated Hector so much, he lashed Hector’s body to his chariot and dragged it seven times around the walls of Troy (or, at least, seven is the figure I vaguely remember from my reading of the Iliad; in any case, it was quite a few). We don’t know exactly when that happened but it seems to have been about 3,200 years ago. And hatred has been cranking along steadily since then.

One of the appealing features of hatred is that it relieves people of responsibility. If you hate somebody then you can do things to him that would otherwise be despicable. But since you hate him, it’s okay. This is what makes revenge so glorious and the motivation for so many noble deeds.

Hatred is also a self-identifying characteristic. If someone, for example, hates gay people, it’s a way of saying that he, himself, has no feelings of the sort gay people evince. There have been, though, quite a few instances of people who for years claimed to hate gay people (or fags, as they tend to be called in that instance) who are later found to be indulging in the acts they supposedly despise. Whether these are instances of that many-headed monster, self-hatred, I can’t say.

Recently, I have seen frequent references to self-hating Jews, implying that they hate themselves because they are Jews. This is a term I distinctly dislike. If a person is a Jew -- or anything else, for that matter -- it seems to me he has the right to form opinions based on his own judgment and not get tagged as self-hating simply because a majority in his identity group take stances different from himself. If we follow the logic of the term we would have to conclude that anyone in a minority hates himself because he shares some characteristic with the majority. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

We could go on almost endlessly with the various forms of hatred. There are so many that some think hatred is bred into the human psyche and that, consequently, there’s no use in trying to root it out. This strikes me as a defeatist attitude. Whether there’s such a thing as human nature is a vexing question. I tend to be dubious about the concept but I suppose there could be something to it. But what? Does it include a love of hatred?  Of course, the question remains whether we want to give up hatred, which I suppose is a matter of individual taste. Still, if we could dissuade guys like Hair from burying themselves, I think, all in all, that would be a good thing.

January 31, 2014

Cory Robin had a provocative essay in Salon yesterday which was supposed to be a tribute to Pete Seeger, but which was mainly about the unnamed people who assist the villains of history. After all, Hitler had somebody who was cooking his meals. The piece raised for me a riddle I’ve never been able to solve, and probably never will: how much responsibility should we assign to people who don’t know what’s going on -- because of laziness, indifference, or simple-mindedness? When you raise that question you’re talking about most of the people of any country and certainly about a majority of citizens in the United States.

You can’t think about the issue without reminding yourself how much labor is involved in being even minimally informed. The world is a vast and complex place. How much of it is any person responsible for knowing or caring about? If I take myself, for example, I realize there are political upheavals going on in the Ukraine, and that some voices are saying they could have world-wide significance, but I don’t know what the issues there are, nor do I have any sense of who I think is  right or wrong. With respect to the Ukraine, I’m a neutered mind. Should I be ashamed of myself?

Such queries are troubling me more than usual because I’ve been reading Mark Danner’s fine book: Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War. The first two sections -- each quite extensive -- deal with Haiti in the 35 years after Papa Doc Duvalier took over in 1957, and with the wars in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 until 1995, as Serbia tried to establish as much control over the area as it could. Both are truly hideous stories, involving crime, chaos, torture and murder on a scale it’s hard to imagine. If you let your mind flow into the pain and misery suffered by hundreds of thousands of people during those eras, you can find yourself completely emptied out, and sick, smashed by the conviction that the human race is just no damned good.

I’m talking about twelve year old girls being raped to death, about three year old babies having their skulls spit apart by laughing men with machetes while their screaming mothers were held and forced to watch by other laughing men, about concentration camps in which every night for months on end gangs of captors came in with leaded pipes, chains, pieces of lumber and beat dozens of starving inmates to death, about hundreds of people being rounded up and marched into sports stadiums where they were shot to pieces with automatic weapons. Who does such things? The answer as far as I can tell is just ordinary guys.

I was an adult during those times. I noticed a few news stories about some of the happenings. I watched the TV news almost every night. How much did I know of what was really occurring? Not very much. Whose fault was that, the news sources I consulted, or my own? Both I guess. In matters of this sort there’s plenty of blame to go around. Besides, assigning blame is not the point. The point is, rather, to see if we can find ways to prevent ongoing behavior of this sort and to head off instances of it in the near future.

I don’t know if we can or not, but I have limply come to two conclusions:

  • No one should remain as unaware of world conditions as I was during much of my adult life. Knowing about things doesn’t guarantee that we can discover means to do anything about them. But being ignorant insures that we will do nothing. The responsibility of awareness is something we should all take up.

  • As Americans we should all work to return our military to a defensive posture. We say that our military operations are planned by a Department of Defense. For the past three decades that has been an egregious misnomer. “Defense” means defending people against horrible things. It does not mean punishing anyone, or carrying out revenge, or ensuring that economic institutions can make big profits. During the time that murderous Serbian units were running amok in Bosnia, there were fairly simple and not very dangerous acts that could have been taken to save the lives of the people being murdered. Yet for years the U.S. government did nothing. And the reason it did nothing was that major figures, such as Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell were more worried about their political standing than they were about defending people against suffering. I think we should weed such people out of our government, and send a message to political leaders that we want our military to be used for defense and for nothing else.

Those two developments won’t do away with all political and nationalistic stupidity and cruelty. But they would certainly damp them down.

Cory Robin ended his essay with this paragraph:

While we rightly recall today the heroism of Pete Seeger in refusing to make
the blacklist a career - indeed, sacrificing his career in order to unmake the
blacklist - we have to ask ourselves how many of us would have chosen the path
he did. Particularly in the United States, where the obligations of career are nearly
the first item on our list of civic duties.

The kind of blacklist Robin was speaking of is a first step towards the sort of depravity described above. He’s right to imply that career ought to appear somewhere lower on our list of obligations than the duty to impede mass suffering of that kind.

©John R. Turner

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