February 2, 2014
Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting in Montpelier sponsored by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on NSA surveillance and the loss of privacy in America. His guests were Vermont’s lone Congressman, Peter Welch, David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center, and Heidi Boghosian, who is the executive director of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
Mr. Cole was there to speak on government actions that are infringing on Constitutional rights to privacy whereas Ms. Boghosian came to talk about corporate data collection, which often goes beyond simple commercial interests.
There was a fair-sized crowd. The upper auditorium of the city hall was full. Probably about three hundred people attended. I didn’t try to count.
Senator Sanders is quite good in conducting meetings of this sort. He has done many of them, and all I’ve attended have been thoughtful, courteous, and marked by an easy informality. It helps, of course, that Bernie is a very popular figure in Vermont. I doubt there is any member of the Senate who is more liked and respected by his constituency than Sanders is. People trust him and are convinced he has their interests at heart. I know of no one who thinks Bernie has been bought by anybody. But then, as Congressman Welch remarked, Vermont’s delegates to the national legislature don’t have to be bought. He offered the perhaps hokey but nonetheless heartening comment that we -- meaning the people of Vermont -- are the wind at their backs.
I think he’s right. Democracy works in Vermont better than it does in most parts of the nation. That’s because an unusual portion of the Vermont population is interested in public affairs and reasonably well-informed. Why this should have come to be the case, I don’t know. But I’m glad it is.
Mr. Sanders’s thesis was that government surveillance in the United States is a serious problem, but most citizens don’t understand that it is. They have it in mind that so long as they aren’t involved in nefarious business, they don’t need to worry about the government’s knowing virtually everything they do, say, and even think. Sanders wants to convince people that’s a naive notion. You would think they wouldn’t need convincing, but he’s right that they do.
During his talk, David Cole backed up the senator, saying, "When our government is adopting programs as broad as this, which affect every last one of us, and doing it in secret and lying to keep it secret, we have frustrated the process of democracy." There was wide agreement in the room on that point. In fact, the fear that democracy in America is becoming impossible underlay almost all the questions and remarks that came from the audience.
That’s a remarkable and fairly frightening situation: that people living in a state where democracy works fairly well are becoming convinced that it cannot work in their nation. And the reason it can’t work was clear to everyone. Persons of vast wealth are conducting such enormous propaganda campaigns that a majority of American citizens have little knowledge of what’s occurring in their politics. Sanders himself said several times that people who think that money doesn’t have a big effect on how representatives in Congress vote have their heads in a cloud.
David Cole reminded the audience that only an engaged and informed citizenry can protect democracy. Neither legislation, nor the Constitution, nor tradition can do it by itself. But that left us with the question: how do we get an engaged and informed citizenry? Sanders had noted earlier that more people are concerned with the latest doings of the Kardashian sisters than they are with the behavior of the NSA.
A member of the audience made the encouraging remark that things now are no worse than they have been before, that there have always been forces in America wishing to transform the country into a plutocratic enclave. But, he said, there have also always been people like ourselves, ready to resist tyrannical movements and expose the self-interested antics of sociopaths. This was greeted with some cheering and much clapping. Still, I’m not sure how much genuine confidence he inspired.
The truth is, none of us know what’s going to happen, or what the United States will be like fifty years from now. We can work towards desirable outcomes, we can hope, we can say we have faith in the ultimate rectitude of the people. But no one knows. History tells us that not only nations but the people in them decay.
Decay in America is taking the form of trashy minds, which we have in plenitude. Why they are so numerous is hard to say. We clearly have opportunity in America to make our minds more substantial than they are. Do we fail because of a multitude of temptations, because we can’t resist cheap propaganda, because many of us are caught up in pathetic bigotries, because we have become convinced there is nothing worthwhile in life but money? All these things are at work in America. But will they prevail?
I think we have to admit that we don’t know. The people in the city hall in Montpelier yesterday gave me hope. Perhaps there are enough people resembling them, spread across the nation, to hold off disaster. But I can’t be sure and neither can anyone else.
To be caught up in the floods of history, is a strange and frightening thing. Maybe that’s why most people try to ignore it. I don’t know if Bernie can do much about that, but, at least, he’s trying.
February 3, 2014
There is such a vast literature on the corruption and mendacity of the U.S. military/intelligence complex that it’s daunting even to try to suggest its scope. To say that it’s immense may be one of the most serious understatements of all time.
If you want to get a beginning sense of what’s been written, go to the “Public Intelligence Blog” and scan down the list of reviews of books on intelligence, and then reflect that the list has been updated only to August 2011.
Or just survey the books and articles written by the investigators I read most often, and then recall that they make up only a tiny collection out of hundreds. Here they are: Melvin A. Goodman, Ray McGovern, Jeremy Scahill, Andrew Bacevich, Nick Turse, Tom Engelhardt, Mark Mazzetti, Seymour Hersh, Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, Glenn Greenwald.
Here’s what I don’t understand. With information on this scale, laying out the waste, the lying, the stealing, the politicizing of intelligence, the vicious indifference to the loss of human life, how can it be that polls continue to show that the military and associated enterprises are the most respected institutions in the United States? Is it the result of a gigantic propaganda effort, of wishful thinking, of Hollywood melodrama, of scarcely believable ignorance, of vestigial, not-to -be-challenged, tribalism, or of some combination of all of them. I tend to think it’s the latter but whatever it is, we know that all you have to do to create a hero in the public’s eyes is to dress a guy up in a soldier suit. And it really helps if he’s got a lot a fancy gear hanging off his belt.
This is not good. It transforms us into a mob of dupes.
I know what some people say: the leaders may be false and perversely ambitious, but the “boys” themselves are wonderful. They care about their country, they’re willing to sacrifice for it, and the brotherhood among them is the most noble thing that exists on earth. But do people actually believe that this nobility -- if that’s what it is -- is worth the cost, the misery, the killing that are required to keep it going? And do they reflect that the boys, themselves, are propagandized more fervently than anybody else?
I remember what that was like. I was once one of the boys myself. I guess I enjoyed strutting around in my uniform, with shiny bits of metal glinting on my shoulders. But during the years I was wearing it, I began to notice things that started me down the path of skepticism. One of them was that those of us who wore the uniform were required to engage in a considerable amount of lying. I recall the slap to the head I got one day from a colonel, who warned me that if I told a general, who was on a round of inspections, the truth about how the operation we were conducting was actually working “my ass would be in a sling.” So, I didn’t tell the general the truth. Of course, he may well have known that the testimony he got from lieutenants like me was just nonsense anyway. A little thing like that wouldn’t count for much unless it fit into a pattern that got stronger for me the more I read and the older I got. But I have found it does fit the pattern -- perfectly.
The round of reviews of Robert Gates’s recent memoir describes the same sort of thing going on at a vastly higher level. Here’s a paragraph from Ray McGovern’s essay on Gates’s book:
To justify the expensive military buildup of the 1980s and the proxy wars that Reagan wanted fought required judging the Soviet Union to be ascendant and marching toward world domination. In that cause, Gates was just the man to shatter the CIA’s commitment to providing presidents with objective analysis. He replaced that proud legacy with whatever “information” would serve the White House’s political needs.
In other words, he told the higher-ups what they wanted to hear because he knew that was the path to becoming a higher-up himself. That’s the culture he inhabited; that’s the culture he strengthened. You might even get him to admit, if you could ever get him to be honest, that that’s the way his world works.
Democratic government -- that is government conducted for the actual health and well-being of the people who reside in a country -- requires breaking through these screens of propaganda and taking the measure of the costs and results of government actions. Look at Iraq in 2002 and now, and then ask yourself whether the difference is worth the billions of dollars expended and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost as results of the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. Then ask yourself the same thing about Afghanistan. Shove aside for the moment the notion that the soldiers who died there were fighting for our freedom, and just look at the balance sheet and see what you think. Has our freedom been enhanced? Something has been enhanced but it’s for sure not our freedom.
How do we break through the walls of propaganda? We have to pay attention to the people who are telling us about them. That, of course, points to the most discouraging thing about the United States right now. Too few of us pay attention. That number may be on the rise as the result of the labors of writers like the ones mentioned above. If it is, that’s encouraging. Still, we know that number does not yet approach a majority.
We all need to spread the word about those who are attempting to tell us the truth. If we do that more actively, more carefully, with more specifics, then, who knows? Things might get better.
February 4, 2014
Time is the great oppressor. I’m beginning to hate it.
Consider the future: it presents us with a multitude of questions which are not only impossible to answer but are extremely difficult even to think about.
- Should we sacrifice current comforts in order to make life better for people who may live decades after we’re all dead, and if we should, where does that “should” come from?
- If we somehow found out that all humanity and all record of humanity will be obliterated four hundred years from now, how would that affect our feelings about things?
- Will people six centuries hence have any feelings that could mean anything to us, and if they do, what might they be?
- Might humanity reach a culmination point in which conditions will be as all people would wish them to be, forever, and if it did, would that be horrible or grand?
- If thinking beings from beyond our solar system came to earth, should we hope that their existence here will be satisfying even if it made human existence impossible?
- If there should be humans a thousand years from now, would they have any sympathy for who we were and how we lived, or any interest in either?
These are only a half-dozen of hundreds of queries anyone might compose over the course of a few days.
I suppose many would say it’s idiotic to think about things like that, but if it is then what should we think about -- merely what we’re going to have for supper tonight and questions of that sort?
Last night I watched the pilot episode of the apocalyptic TV series, Falling Skies, about an invasion of creatures from space who are bent on wiping out humanity. One of the characters, a child, asks the main character, played by Noah Wylie, what he thinks it will be like four hundred years from now. And the Wylie character smiles and says he hopes there will be humans. Is that a reasonable hope, a defensible hope? If it is, what makes it such?
I’m pretty sure it’s a hope most of us would have. I know I do. But few of us know with any certitude why we feel that way.
If you’re on the verge of hating time, as I sometimes tell myself I am, then it makes sense to seek occasions when time doesn’t matter, or, at least, doesn’t appear to matter. Think of yourself, sitting on the lawn of a country house on a summer afternoon, with agreeable companions, looking out over a field which stretches down to a river, with a table of beverages at hand. And think, further, that there’s no place you have to go on that day, until you get sleepy and decide to go to bed. Time would be banished, or held behind a screen. Some people might find that boring. But not me. I’ve done it on a few occasions and I was never bored an instant.
I’ve discovered over the past few years that many people please themselves with the same fantasy I do, to be able to go on retreat from time and live fully while the world’s time is paralyzed. I ask myself if I could go on retreat right now, would I do it for ten days, for a year, for five years, or what? Am I sure I would want to come back and enter, again, the flow of time?
A week from today, I’m going to host the Johnson Society, and our topic will be the possible coming of trans-human intelligence. What does that mean? It means an intelligence that will find ways to exist outside the bounds imposed by a biological constitution. Biology, after all, is a time-focused process. Biological entities come into being, they carry out certain functions, and then they begin to decay. Eventually they die. Since our fate, until now, has been to exist as biological beings, great metaphysical systems have been constructed seeking not only to justify the biological mechanism but to posit it as the grandest thing there could ever be. I’m going to ask my fellow members what they think about that. Is it the grandest thing that could ever be? Might it be that the being we sense inside our biological casing could not only be freed from it but find increased meaning outside of it? What have they read that discusses this question and that takes a position on it?
The trans-human question is ultimately a question of time. Should we wish to free ourselves from it, or, at least, from the dimensions of it that have bounded our existence up till now?
If people could live on an average for one hundred and fifty years, might they find meaning and a richness that can’t be found in eighty years? What if they could live three hundred years, or five hundred, or a thousand? What then?
I said at the start that time presents us with questions that can’t be answered. But I tend to believe that they can be contemplated in ways that aren’t completely ridiculous, and that might offer us some guidance as we move into the future. They seem to be questions that people will speculate about no matter what conclusions some might reach.
Right now, having spent these few minutes laying out these conundrums, I’m sure of only one thing. I’m still mad at time.
February 5, 2014
I took the CelebrityTypes.com test [Link to Test] to see which president I was most like, and discovered that of the twenty-five presidents they took into account, I was most like Thomas Jefferson. That doesn’t particularly surprise me. I tend to like pretty much the same things he did, and I particularly like spending my time as he spent his. This doesn’t, of course, mean that I agree with Jefferson more strongly than I do with any other president though when I run down the presidents in my mind I’m hard put to find one I do agree with more than with him. Among the presidents who have held office during my lifetime Franklin Roosevelt and, perhaps, Jimmy Carter may come close. Neither of the recent liberal icons, John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, approach pleasing me as much as Jefferson does.
Maybe the way I’m closest to Jefferson lies in the truth that a person of his mind and temperament would have no chance to rise to the top in today’s political culture.
The test rates the takers on five personality traits. I found out that on extroversion, I’m average; on openness, extremely high; on agreeableness, above average; on conscientiousness, above average, on neuroticism, average. I don’t strongly disagree with those ratings though it’s difficult for me to think I’m above average in conscientiousness. I suppose it depends on what sort of behavior is taken into account.
It’s curious about exercises like this. I think of them as essentially nonsensical but once I’ve gone through them the results usually stick in my mind. The lead-in to the test suggests that knowing what president you’re most like will help you in making important decisions. I don’t see how that can be.
The issue of caring about how other people perceive you is complex. If you cared nothing about what anyone thought of you, that would probably indicate psychopathology. On the other hand, if you spend a great deal of your time worrying about your reputation, that’s an indication you’re pathetic. I tell myself that I don’t care very much, which is probably true so long as everyone who has ever known me is taken into account. But I confess I do care very much how certain people think of me, and I would be unhappy to lose their respect or affection.
When I think of historical figures who are far more significant than presidents, the opinions of three persons rise above the rest in giving me some guidance of how I should behave.
I have said on numerous occasions that if I were about to do something I knew Jane Austen would find disgusting I would need to think very hard about it before proceeding, and in at least 95% of the cases I would give it up.
It wouldn’t bother me if I found that Samuel Johnson disagreed with many of my intellectual stances, but it would trouble me if he thought that anything I did was dishonorable. I’m not sure that either Johnson or I have an adequate definition of what honor is but, even so, I continue to sense something in him, in that respect, that I wouldn’t want to run athwart of.
It would concern me quite a bit if I found that Friederich Nietzsche considered anything I thought or wrote was stupid. I can’t deceive myself that I could escape completely such condemnation but any time it came at me I would be obliged to pause and think a long time. And after I did, I suspect I would conclude that I needed to reformulate my thought or expression. Commonly, when I write, I ask myself what Nietzsche would think of it, and on many occasions I’ve changed something because of that consideration. If I were to ask him what he thought of what I’ve written here he would probably answer, “Why are you wasting your time?” But then I could answer that often I have a more playful temperament than he did. That’s not to say that he wasn’t, at times, delightfully playful.
I doubt that the five traits CelebrityTypes chose to rate are the most significant features of one’s personality. I think courage, empathy, and curiosity are more important than any of them. I suppose they could reply that openness and conscientiousness get at those features, but I don’t think they actually do. There’s probably no psychological test that will give an indication of courage. Hindsight is the only thing that allows it to be judged. But curiosity and empathy might be scored from an expression of attitudes.
A thing I’ve noticed lately is that some people fail to wonder why certain significant factors came to be. Why, for example, are the American people so insular? Whenever that comes up in conversation, many just shrug their shoulders and admit they are, as though it were a fact of nature.
A mental practice that disturbs me even more is the way some respond to being informed of a terrible event. When we read or hear of a twelve year old girl being raped to death, I’ve noticed some passing it off with an appropriate expression -- “That’s really bad,” or “It’s awful that things like that happen.” But does the odor of the scene rise in their nostrils, do the screams torture their ears, do the expressions of the faces of loved ones who are watching the extravaganza cause them to wish they were blind? Empathy means putting yourself in the place of; it doesn’t mean being pious.
Anyway, being told that I’m more like Thomas Jefferson than any other president is a fairly neutral experience for me. It doesn’t make me particularly happy, nor does it make me sad. Maybe I need a test to tell me what that says about me.
February 7, 2014
I’m ready to acknowledge that it’s hard to discuss current politics without getting into assessments of character. Given the set of political actors we have on the scene now, one finds himself, almost without thinking, using terms like “creep” or “jerk” or whatever terms of disparagement come easily to hand. I admit that I’ve done that. I don’t think it’s a good practice, though, and I’m going to try to stop.
What we need to judge about political figures is not their psychological makeup or their motives. Rather, it’s the consequences of their actions. I don’t have adequate means of judging the character of someone I don’t know in person. I can’t say how he behaves in small ways to the people around him, or whether he’s kind to cats, or whether his motives are generous or craven. But I do have some ability to say whether his behavior has been beneficent or destructive. So I think those are the outcomes I should use in rating his political virtue. It’s foolish to approve or oppose political figures on the basis of whether we would enjoy their company -- a relationship, by the way, we’re very unlikely ever to have.
I was reminded of this recently while reading an essay recommended to me by a friend. The piece was written by Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, who is generally viewed as competent and reasonable. Its purpose was to argue that we should regard neither Julian Assange, nor Edward Snowden, nor Glenn Greenwald as a hero. The use of the term “hero” should have tipped me off even earlier than it did. I became aware some time ago that heroes are figures in legends, and myths and comic books. I enjoy them in those genres, but they play no role in actual political life. So when anyone starts talking about whether people are, or are not, heroes, one should get ready for something fishy. And in this case it was fishy indeed.
Mr. Wilentz provided us with brief biographical sketches of his three subjects, all three slanted to show us that each of them had questionable associations in the past, and that all three were driven by self-serving psychological motives.
My first question for Mr. Wilentz is what human who has ever lived on earth has not been influenced by self-serving psychological motives?
My more serious question is why Wilentz, in taking the measure of these three, concentrated almost solely on their psychological constitution and said said virtually nothing about the consequences of the actions for which they’re best known. I suspect it’s because he knows that looking at their actions would have controverted his argument.
It’s difficult to argue that the American public has not benefitted from knowledge of the governmental actions Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have brought to our attention. In fact, the only way to argue that is to stand up for a Big Brother government which knows far better than we do what’s good for us. One can be a critic of democratic decision-making -- which I certainly am -- without going that far. The government, in its state-security operations, has clearly done many unlawful things which it sought to keep away from the people it is supposedly serving. Is it harmful for the people to know that its government is breaking the law? Does knowing that impede sensible and intelligent public discussion? Can we trust the persons in charge of these operations, men like James Clapper and Keith Alexander, to keep our genuine well-being in mind? If abuses are taking place in government how are they going to be changed without being first exposed by figures like Assange, Snowden, and Greenwald.
Here is how Wilentz concluded his attack article:
Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange have largely set the terms in the debate over transparency and privacy in America. But the value of some of their revelations does not mean that they deserve the prestige and influence that has been accorded to them. The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong - even paranoid - to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand.
Look at the second sentence of that paragraph. Does it make any sense at all? It doesn’t to me. If the revelations of the three have been valuable, then they do deserve some respect -- a respect Willentz is not willing to accord them.
Willentz wants to give the state what he calls “modern surveillance powers.” But what exactly should those powers be? How much should the state know? What are the dangers associated with certain sorts of knowledge in the hands of state security bureaucracies? Those are exactly the questions Glenn Greenwald has been asking for the past half-dozen years. Wilentz says these concerns can be dismissed if surveillance powers come “wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse.” But what’s the good of such a vapid abstraction? It tells us nothing about what Willentz thinks should be done. Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, whether you agree with him or not, is very clear. You never have trouble knowing what he is saying.
Surveillance and secrecy are not inimical to democratic government? They’re not? How do we know? Are we supposed to believe it because Professor Wilentz tells us so?
Sean Wilentz has written some useful historical accounts, but this essay is far from his finest hour.
February 8, 2014
Should we support electable people who are right slightly more than half the time in order to thwart those who are wrong a majority of the time? Or should we support candidates who are much more right but who are less likely to win an election? It’s hard to know how to answer.
I think of this as the Clinton problem. I have tended to support the Clintons. I voted for Bill Clinton two times in a row. I was in favor of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama until half way through the campaign of 2008, when I decided the Clintons’ campaign tactics were so nasty I couldn’t stomach them any longer.
Am I now sure Mrs. Clinton would have been a better president than Obama has been? I tend to think so, but I can’t be sure.
The Clintons are what I call 55-45 candidates. Forty-five percent of what they will do is going to be pretty stinky. But then I recall that 65% of what John McCain would have done would have been stinky and about the same percentage applies to Mitt Romney. Surely keeping people such as McCain or Romney out of the White House is worth a compromise. It is when the contest has been narrowed to someone like them versus a 55-45 candidate. But what about when there are still many candidates in the race?
Friends have asked me whether I will get behind Hillary Clinton and back her all the way this time. The answer is, probably. Right now none of the Democratic candidates who have been mentioned as rivals strike me as being as good as she is. Joe Biden isn’t. Martin O’Malley certainly isn’t. Andrew Cuomo gives me the creeps. Mrs. Clinton’s principal virtue is strength, which is an important feature for a president. Her weakness is judgment, and in particular a propensity to accept flaccid versions of conventional wisdom. She is not very imaginative and she doesn’t look as hard at the future as I would like.
She seems unlikely to commit the worst act a president can accept which is to get us into a big war. The next worst is to get us into a little war, which she probably wouldn’t do either but which is not out of the question for her (I am not, by the way, defining limited military actions to save populations from genocide as wars). The third worst is to starve poor people in order to placate rich people. She would doubtless do that to some extent, but not as much as any other likely candidate I can think of.
Yet what, some might ask, would you do if a better than 55-45 candidate got into the race? That would depend on how strong a race I think such a candidate might make. There has been much talk about how wrong Ralph Nader was to siphon votes away from Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. I have tended to agree that Nader was mistaken to do that, but my reason has been that I think Nader is a poor political candidate, and not just because he takes positions out of the mainstream. A candidate with Nader’s approach would be inept even if he were right down the middle.
So what if a non-mainstream candidate better than 55-45, with genuine political skills, were to make a run? What about Bernie Sanders? I would support Bernie Sanders over anyone else I know in politics now. Do I think he would have a good chance to win? No. But I do think he might have about a 5% chance to win. If he could get to a position where he was treated as serious by the mainstream press, his abilities and good sense would allow him to win over more people than political pundits now suppose. He is, for example, a far superior politician to Howard Dean, and Dean seemed at one time actually in the running for the Democratic nomination. With Sanders, the chance would be worth the risk. I doubt, however, that he will enter the race.
At the moment we are probably stuck with a 55-45er as our best bet. So what does that say about what we should do? To me it says support her firmly until she wins, and, then, immediately, start trying to force her to do things she would normally be too timid to do, and howl incessantly about her alliances with rich egomaniacs. Show her that what she gets out of such hookups is less than what it’s going to cost her. We need to teach all politicians that their addiction to rich guys is a sickness that will ruin the health of both them and their country. The more we can force politicians out of the rich guy bubble, the better government we will have.
Barack Obama the other day, on a dais with Louie Gohmert, made a joke about not watching television. I trust that’s not true. But I do think it’s true that the president’s access to opinion is narrower than we tend to think. Controlling the king by surrounding him with only one set of ideas is an ancient practice and one that’s probably more potent with U.S. presidents than it was with medieval monarchs. Anything we can do to break presidents out of that sort of capsule will help the nation, and I think it would be more likely to benefit Hillary Clinton than it would most other politicians.
When I think of a Clinton presidency I can still be hopeful, but I’m not starry-eyed.
February 9, 2014
Over the past decade or so, as I’ve tried harder than I did earlier to pay attention to what people mean by the words they use, I’ve become increasingly aware of how nearly unconscious language shapes people’s self-image and what they support. This is seen most clearly in speech involving connections to groups.
For example, it’s a common habit to use the pronouns “we” and “our” in talking and writing about actions of the U.S. government. This creates the notion that the person speaking is a functional element of the government and that his goals and loyalties are the same as the government’s. It actually does more than that. It ends up teaching individuals what they care about and what they think they’re obligated to care about. They don’t realize they’re being trained by near-automatic language, but they are.
I hear people talking about “our” enemies, meaning nations other than the United States. Some people think Russia is their enemy; others think China is; and so on. But why should an ordinary American, living on an ordinary street, in an ordinary town regard Russia as his enemy? First of all, what does he mean by the noun “Russia.” Does he mean a government? Does he mean a populace? Does he mean a stretch of geography? He doesn’t know because he hasn’t thought about it. “Russia” is for him a cloudy abstraction which hovers in his mind as a threat, but what kind of threat he doesn’t know. Yet on the basis of such vagueness quite a few people can become willing, and sometimes even eager, to see bombs launched and people killed.
It’s almost inevitable, of course, to regard the governments of some nations as more decent than the governments of others. On the basis of what I’ve been able to read, I think the government of the Netherlands is more decent than the government of Nigeria. What do I mean by decent? I mean dedicated to the health and happiness of a population and generally supportive of the well-being of people everywhere. But just because Government X is less decent than Government Y doesn’t mean that X is my enemy. It doesn’t mean I want to see military force used against X (that is unless Government X is carrying out genocidal slaughter against some portion of its people).
I’m not interested in being a part of any collective “we” that has other collectives as its enemies. I’m really not in there, so I shouldn’t talk about myself as though I were.
I do have some relationship to the government of the United States in that I live in territory it controls, I’m subject to laws it occasionally tries to enforce, and I receive financial benefits from it. But that’s not enough to make me an element of a “we” that includes it. Actually, the use of the word “it” is a misnomer in this context. Language gets us in the habit of thinking of the government as a single thing, a practice which constitutes perhaps the most serious deficiency of politics in this country. What we call “the government” is not a single thing but a vast conglomeration of organizations and agencies, each with separate group of employees and a separate history. There’s a fiction that all these are marching together under the direction of a single executive but, obviously, that can’t be the case. Nobody can manage an array as vast, complicated and disparate as the sprawling thing that’s called the U.S. government.
Citizens would do well to get in the habit of seeing this array for what it is, and recognize that they can’t avoid having different relations with different parts of it. It would also be logical to adopt different emotions about the different parts. There are elements of government I generally favor, such as the National Park Service, and some I have little use for, such as the Central Intelligence Agency. One of them is engaged in killing babies in Afghanistan; one is not. That, for me, is a significant difference. In CIA actions there’s no “we” for me in what it does. Even if it prevents some assaults on civilians, it tends to do it in ways that produce as much harm as good.
Since a relationship with any government necessarily has tentative components, talking about it as though it were one’s family, or one’s close friends is goofy. Saying you’re loyal to your government no matter what is also illogical. Often you can’t be loyal to one part of it if you’re loyal to another because they are at odds with each other. There are rivalries between the State Department and the Department of Defense that are nearly murderous (and maybe not just nearly in some instances). Even within departments, officials come to hate each other and will do almost anything to sabotage the other’s plans and ambitions. How are you going to be loyal to all of them; how can they all be parts of your “we.” It’s a childish notion.
Politicians love to intone soaring rhetoric in which we’re all Americans together, or in which we all love our country. But we sure as hell don’t mean the same thing by “our country.” Louie Gohmert may well have persuaded himself that he loves his country, but it’s got little to do with any country I want to inhabit.
I watched a TV clip just the other night in which a lady declared that wishes to see the president put to death. I suppose she thinks she is expressing love of her country with that declaration -- but what sort of country is she talking about?
Simplistic language of this kind simply turns us into puppets. No country, no nation, is a singularity. If you wish to be a sane and responsible citizen you’ve got to do the work necessary to decide which parts of your country you support and which parts you want to go away. And it’s no answer to sit smugly and announce that the elements you don’t like are not really part of the country you inhabit. That’s poppycock. If they exist, if they are functioning, if they have influence, then they are a part of it.
February 13, 2014
After having watched an episode of Almost Human last night, I received a link from a friend this morning to an article in the Boston Globe about extending legal rights to robots. This is the sort of topic most people still would find ridiculous but which is not going away.
The TV series about a detective and his robotic partner, who has been programmed to develop human feelings, has not been as provocative as we could hope. It has turned, mainly, into cop/partner show of a fairly ordinary sort. The emotional aspects of bonding with a robot are featured to some extent, but because the lead character is not super bright the subtlety of such a connection is not explored in much depth.
Sometime later in the year we’ll be treated to a movie starring Johnny Depp, in which the singularity will be reached, “singularity” referring to the point when human consciousness can operate in constructed systems as well as in old-style human beings. The film is titled Transcendence, to convey the message that after the singularity things will be so changed as to create an entirely new order of being.
The Globe article, by Alex Beam, is based principally on his interview with Kate Darling, a media lab researcher at MIT, who in 2012 published a paper titled “On Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots.” She’s convinced that robots should have some sort of rights, and that’s in connection with robots we have already.
What does all this mean? As my friend Dan Noel used to say, “Beats me.” But I think we can predict certain developments with a fair degree of confidence. One is that research in robotics will continue, resulting in evermore complex devices. Exactly what these devices will be able to accomplish no one can say for sure, but it seems likely that they will get better at mimicking human behavior. As they do, it is inevitable that people will develop affections for them. It can be argued that these feelings will be grounded in fantasy and false perception but that’s no barrier to their becoming important in human affairs. After all, think of the various manifestations of what we like to call religion. Many of them are based on entities nobody can see or hear. Robots won’t suffer from that disadvantage.
Another obvious feature is that though robots may be constrained by some limits, they won’t be reined in by the same barriers that humans are. Already, computers can do things more complex than any human can do, no matter how smart he or she may be. We call these things mechanical, in order to disparage them and boost ourselves up, but they do constitute much of what has been considered intelligence down the ages. We may be approaching a linguistic divide in which greater intelligence will be granted to machines but in which consciousness will be reserved for humans. The problem there is that we don’t know, for sure, what we mean by consciousness so we may not be able to tell whether machines, or robots, or cyborgs, or whatever names are in use at the moment, have achieved it. In any case, there’s no perceptual limit we can see to the intelligence machines can attain, so long as intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive patterns and make computations. As electronic machines progress farther and farther beyond us who knows what that might do to our relations with them?
Another development which seems obvious to me but which I’m sure many would dispute is that growing numbers are approaching the conclusion that humanity as we have know it for the past 2500 years or so has reached the end of its tether, that it has grown stupid and stale, and therefore is becoming intolerable. We see this evolution perhaps most strongly in response to people who formerly would have been considered heroic but are now viewed by many as bombastic, murderous fools. It’s a sensibility that has been growing for at least a century and a half and that may have been captured best in one of Emily Dickinson’s tiny poems:
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know! How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – To tell one's name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!
Might there be something beyond standing on a pedestal before an admiring bog, something beyond what our political culture incessantly calls success? I suspect the hope for something of that kind is driving the quest for new forms of sensibility which might be enhanced by non-human or at least quasi-human intelligence. Supposing we each could have a companion similar to Samantha in the current film Her, but one who was truly an extension of ourself, a kind of alter ego with whom we could converse. It wouldn’t be a matter simply of asking factual questions but of hearing inquiries we don’t often receive from our current environment, inquiries like, “Do you really want to be the president of Consolidated Enterprises, and if you think you do, why?” Would such a presence in our lives ruin everything, or might it transform existence for the better? We don’t know, of course. Yet it seems clear that more and more people are willing to wager that it would enrich living, and are willing to take the risks that involves.
Maybe this is the path to perdition, or maybe it’s the path to a kind of salvation. In any case, I think it’s a choice we will be more and more forced to consider, and one that will be likely to define what kind of persons we are.
February 14, 2014
Every night the Reverend Al comes on the TV and expostulates about how crazy the Republicans are. He points out that Rush Limbaugh, who is the intellectual kingpin of the GOP, has denounced Mrs. Obama for wearing enormous dresses, which Rush proclaims to be perfect signs of tyranny and signals of the downfall of the republic. This the Reverend Al says is pure absurdity, which of course it is. But the thing about the Reverend Al that’s hard to grasp is that he seems able consistently to maintain an incredulity about Republican nonsense. How can they say such things? he asks over and over again.
The reason they can say them, Reverend Al, is that they’re Republicans. That’s how they define themselves, by saying things like that.
Why they define themselves as they do is a more complicated question. An accurate answer would undoubtedly include resentment, racial bigotry, and an unshakeable, but largely unconscious, sense of personal inferiority. But the dominant ingredient in the GOP stew is fear. Republicans are afraid of virtually everything because they are afraid of anything that’s not like themselves. And since Republicans make up such a tiny portion of the human race, what’s not like them is overwhelmingly greater than what is like them.
Fear is a toxic emotion. Too much of it eventually drives a person insane.
Republicans pride themselves on being true Americans -- actually the only true Americans. And ridiculous as that claim may seem, there is more than a grain of truth in it. That’s because, as Republicans are the most fearful of U.S. citizens, the United States is the most fearful of nations. Fear is the preeminent national emotion. By saying that I don’t mean to imply that people here apprehend immediate physical threat more intensely than people elsewhere. U.S. fear is not like the anxiety a mother in an Afghan village feels with a drone circling overhead. It is rather a seeping dread which perpetually drains the joy of living.
We need to figure out why we feel this way but, of course, we won’t do it as long as we resort to bombast to drive away self-examination. Yes, George Bush, many people do hate us, but not because of our superiority in freedom or in anything else essential to the good of life. If we could sort out the source of that hatred, or at least of that dislike, we could come closer to understanding our own selves and our peculiar demons. But sorting out, or analyzing, is not a practice we have cultivated. Rather, we have told ourselves that simply by driving everyone and everything before us we will obviate the need to think. Instead of knowing, we will be in charge. And being in charge is better. That way we will be able to do anything we want, and by doing that we won’t necessarily be content or happy, but we will be successful. That’s by definition.
Think of Rush, the kingpin of the Republican mind. By the prevailing standards in this country he’s certainly successful. He’s got a lot of money. Politicians bow down to him. He can buy any cigar he wants, regardless of how much it costs. But then ask yourselves these questions: do you envy him? would you like to be as he is? does he function for you as an admirable person? If the answer is no, then why? Don’t you want to be successful?
I can’t say for sure that Rush is fearful. But if I had to bet yes or no, I would bet yes and feel pretty confident in my wager.
Rush as a single human phenomenon is not particularly significant. But Rush as a symbol of American success is something worth thinking about.
In current public discussion there’s considerable concern being expressed not about Republicans taking over and shaping the nation to their will but rather about their ability to foul up any improvements that might be proposed and thus to hold the nation stagnant and stale. That’s exactly what fear accomplishes. It doesn’t rule in the ordinary sense of getting everything it wants, but it does paralyze. It undermines freshness and brightness and imagination. You could say that stopping all three of those is the Republican agenda.
So, we return to the Reverend Al. He’s mostly on the right side of things but his tactic of perpetual, incredulous indignation isn’t effective. The primary thing we need to ask of fearful persons is “Why?” Why are you so afraid? Why do you say so incessantly that actions which are clearly good for many persons will ruin everything? Why do you believe that being ready and eager to kill people you have designated as your enemies is the best way to ensure your own safety? Why do you insist on limits that have no presence anywhere except in your own minds?
They, of course, will have answers, which they will proclaim vehemently. But denouncing those answers just as vehemently is unlikely to disarm them as efficiently as probing into them with still more questions. How do you know this is the case? Where’s your evidence? Has this been shown to be true in the past? Where are your instances of it?
There’s no need to pretend that you are not at odds with them. But there is a need to show, patiently and persistently, that your tactics are not their tactics. There’s also no need to persuade yourself that you can win them over. You’re not going to win over a Rush. That’s evident. But you may well win over people who are listening to you questioning Rush. They are your audience because they are the ones who, eventually, will make a difference.
The tactic of fearful persons, of Republicans, is bombast. The tactic of those who don’t wish to be fearful ought to be skillful questioning. I wish more persons who live in this nation would work on that skill.
February 16, 2014
Charles Derber, a sociologist at Boston College, says the American Dream has become a sociopathic project. When you first hear such a proclamation it sounds radical. But if you think about it, you find it sliding towards probability.
Derber has published a new book, Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States, which is said to argue his case persuasively. You don’t, however, have to read Derber to come up with suspicions similar to his. The American Dream is, after all, a set of desires thought to be held by a majority of people who live in the United States. If everyone on earth were to move towards achieving those desires the result would be an environment unfit for human life. And to want something that will almost assuredly destroy the lives of most people on earth is about as good a definition of sociopathy as one could find.
I suspect that’s why the United States has become the most disliked nation, and why international polls show that the United States is the nation most viewed as a threat to world peace. It’s not doing very well in other rankings either. The Press Freedom Index, conducted by “Reporters Without Borders,” recently found the United States to be 46th among the nations in possessing a free press. That’s not at the very bottom, but it is a ranking that sets us between Romania and Haiti.
Opinion, of course, even very widespread opinion, doesn’t always indicate accuracy. But the views that the world has of nations are not matters where accuracy can be attained. What people think is what matters because opinions in such cases have consequences.
A great many citizens of the United States will tell you that we don’t care what “they” think (meaning by “they” all the non-U.S. citizens in the world). That world opinion doesn’t matter you can be assured of by every Republican Congressman from Texas. But if opinions do have consequences then they do matter, at least in some respects. Hard as it is to conceive, the Texas Republicans could be mistaken.
I don’t know what can be done about all this. Maybe nothing. I have seen in reviews that Charles Derber has suggested a mass mobilization of currently fragmented movements to reverse the sociopathic impulse, but since I haven’t read his book I don’t know exactly how that might work (his book, by the way, costs $24.00 in paperback and isn’t available on Kindle, which itself strikes me as somewhat sociopathic). It appears possible that this behemoth called the United States might lurch into the future, driven by blind arrogance, and cause more harm, to itself and others, than it has caused already.
I do know this though. Being a citizen of a nation that is seen as destructively crazy doesn’t fill me with bravado, or make me want to strut, or cause me to attach pins that are replicas of the Star Spangled Banner to my shirt. Rather, it gives me the creeps. As I have mentioned here before, my nationality is not the main feature of my self-identity, but to the degree that it does mark me in some way, I’d prefer that it symbolize kindness and generosity rather than economic and militaristic aggressiveness.
I have no idea what percentage of the people of the United States share such a preference. Maybe it’s only a very small portion of us. But whatever it is, I would like it to speak more firmly than it has in the past, and get over the fear that we won’t be viewed as good, or “real” Americans if we do. As I pointed out earlier, any perception of that sort will have consequences; there is no way it could not. But in this case I think the gain will be worth the consequences, even if they are unpleasant. Who knows? For every citizen who will despise you for taking that stance, there may be another who will take it up himself or herself. I can’t even say for sure that there wouldn’t be two or three who would go for generosity over dominance. If it turned out that way, it would really be something, and, clearly, over the long run have major consequences.
We won’t know unless all of us try to find out.
February 17, 2014
If government officials can change the meaning of words however they see fit, doesn’t that pretty well do away with the Constitution? If the Constitution can mean anything the president, or the secretary of state, or the secretary of defense wants it to mean, then it means nothing. We have moved into a post-Constitutional era.
That’s what Peter Van Buren, for 24 year a U.S. foreign policy officer, says we have done in his recent essay, “Drone Killing the Fifth Amendment: How to Build a Post-Constitutional America One Death at a Time.” As far as I can tell he’s making a fairly strong argument.
Legal language can, of course, be mystifying to those of us not versed in the law. But most of the passages in the Constitution seem pretty clear, and when the Fifth Amendment says that no person can be deprived of his or her life without due process of law, “due process” in that case would appear to be more than the president’s simply sitting around with some of his advisors and deciding to kill somebody. Does that constitute due process? If you have listened carefully to the attorney-general during the administration of the current president, I guess you would have to conclude that that’s what the government is arguing. But, to me, such a statement is obviously trying to change the meaning of words in order to make something convenient. It’s a process for dissolving the Constitution, not observing it.
I can imagine some highfalutin post modern linguist asserting that words mean just what we say they mean, and nothing more. But people who talk like that seem unaware of the sort of fire they’re playing with. If words don’t have any resistance to personal whim, then not only is the Constitution dissolved but also any rational legal procedures and, for that matter, all trust in conversation of any kind. We can’t live that way. Due process is not just the president talking some things over with a few of his minions. Is it a procedure which guarantees the right of someone accused or suspected of something to stand before fair-minded people and say “I didn’t do it,” and to offer evidence that he didn’t do it. If he can’t do that, then he doesn’t have due process, and he sure as hell doesn’t have it if when he’s riding in a car somewhere a bomb comes out of the sky and blows him to smithereens.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing that has happened in government during my lifetime was that the president, or someone working for the president, slaughtered a teenager named Abdulrehman Awlaki, who was never accused of anything, and no one in the government has yet been required to say why the boy was killed. There have been some hints that it was a mistake, and the White House press secretary said the killing was justified by the boy’s failure to have a responsible father (perhaps the dumbest thing ever said by a high-ranking government official), but neither of those off-the cuff remarks approaches being an adequate explanation of why the boy was assassinated. Aren’t we, the people of the United States, due an explanation? And if we are why haven’t we demanded it? Is it enough that he had what many Americans would regard as a funny-sounding name? That seems to be the only feasible explanation. A future Robert Gibbs may well warn parents not to name their kids anything that would sound unfamiliar to an Arkansas filling station operator or else parents will have no complaint when the government takes them out. The president would do well to recall that there are many Americans who think something dire should be done about him simply because his name doesn’t sound right to them.
If the people will not insist that the clear meaning of words in legal documents be observed, then the very idea of a written Constitution becomes absurd. No constitution can survive if the people who are presumed to preserve and protect it will not give any credence to what it says.
You may think that Peter Van Buren is being extreme to say this:
At the moment, we are threatened with a return to a pre-Constitutional situation that Americans would once have dismissed out of hand, a society in which the head of state can take a citizen’s life on his own say-so. If it’s the model for the building of post-Constitutional America, we’re in trouble. Indeed the stakes are high, whether we notice or not.
Yet Van Buren makes his argument in ordinary language which any literate citizens ought to be able to understand. Nobody need be confused about what he is saying. We certainly can’t credibly make the same statement about the Attorney General of the United States.
February 22, 2014
World-weariness is, I suppose, an understandable emotion, given the actual state of the world and the miseries and absurdities blasted at us by the various media. I see accounts now and then which argue that the human condition is actually more comfortable and pleasant currently than it has ever been. But though they may be backed up by solid statistics, they’re still hard to credit. We have no pure measurement for human well-being but surely how we feel about things has to be figured into it.
I need to remember that we’ve had a long, cold winter here in New England. That leads to cabin fever. When you go out of your house only two times a week, which has been my average lately, you can begin to feel listless. Yet there are pleasures in being cooped up. It induces a sense of security, as though nothing can get at you. And being able to maintain steadier routines of reading and writing bring with them at least a mild sense of accomplishment. I don’t love cabin fever but I can’t say I really hate it.
Staying at home tends to lead to more television watching (if tuning into NetFlix counts as television watching). I have started on a series called The Killing, which is a long story about solving a single murder. You follow the detectives day after day, and develop a sense of how leads can seem promising but then vanish with a turn in the investigation. The story is set in Seattle, and though it does rain quite a bit in Seattle during the winter, it doesn’t rain as much or as hard as this series depicts. Steady, hard rain is depressing, and seeing characters much of the time with water drops rolling down their faces is even more so. The worst thing about the story is that the person murdered was a seventeen year old girl. She was locked in the trunk of a car which was then driven into a lake. She struggled as hard as she could trying to get out, ripping off her fingernails clawing at the locks. The coroner’s report was that it took her ten minutes to die, and those ten minutes are always lurking in the background of everything that happens. Every night, after watching a couple of episodes, I feel miserable. But the next night I find myself returning, as though there is something irresistibly fascinating about horror. I guess, actually, there is.
For some reason I find myself lately especially irritated by what’s called religion. I’m tired of people who claim to believe absurd things, such as that the world was created just six thousand years ago, or that humans came into being just as they are now. Those who make that sort of proclamation, I’m convinced, have no idea what they mean by the word “believe.” It’s mainly just self-puffery, a means of assuring themselves that they are more pure, or more good, than other people are. One might ask, what does it matter? People have always tried to find something to elevate themselves above others. But just because people have always done it, doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Clearly, arguing on the basis of no evidence that the earth and the universe are completely different from what they are causes all sorts of stupid behavior that will lead to immense human suffering. The world is what we have, and insisting on treating it as no more than an antechamber, produces insufferable neglect.
I read a partially intelligent essay in the New York Times by Christie Wampole titled “In Praise of Disregard.” She argues that twisting yourself into emotional knots over nonsense you can’t eliminate makes no sense, for either others or for yourself. I see her point, and there’s something in it. Just thinking about Louie Gohmert is almost enough to make one suicidal. It would be foolish to diminish your own life just because people like Louie have found a way to come into existence. I try to think of them as victims and tell myself they deserve my sympathy. But that doesn’t work all the time. Shoving Louie out of mind, though, is not an adequate response. Some people, regardless of their own level of consciousness, are agents of social horror. They need to be removed from making any decisions about how our society will function. So, though thinking of them is a pain in the neck, I don’t see how we can give it up.
I have read a number of pieces lately about how the number of psychopaths is on the increase. I have no idea whether that’s true. But any psychopath is troubling. Noam Chomsky says that there’s a gigantic propaganda campaign under way to turn people into psychopaths. It’s pushed by people who are convinced they can pile up greater profits the more psychopaths there are, so they try to glorify vicious social behavior as the essence of liberty. And it works, too, on a lot of people. Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t hear someone say something like, “Why should I have to pay taxes to send kids to school who I don’t care anything about.” There’s a new book out, which I may have mentioned already on this site, titled the The Sociopathic Society by Charles Derber. I feel as though I should read it, but I know it will just make me more depressed.
Then, of course, there’s House of Cards, which I managed to get through in just three days. I think I told you I was going to try to view it simply as a comedy. And I was partially successful, but not completely. I read a quite good article by Mike Lofgren, which pointed out that though there probably are not individuals in Congress and the upper ranks of the administration quite as ruthless and vicious as Francis Underwood, their collective behavior, mainly through timidity and cowardice, creates situations that are worse than anything Underwood would conceive of pursuing. I think that’s very true.
So, there’s a great deal of droopy stuff. There’s no doubt about it. The only way I can imagine avoiding being made droopy by it is to remind myself that this is the world I have, and that there’s no way to get out of it other than through a process I don’t look favorably upon. That being the case, all I can do is make feeble efforts to tinker with it, and hope they can keep my mind active enough to escape pure futility.
Maybe someday I’ll let you know how that works out.
February 27, 2014
Yesterday in Montpelier, I made a presentation to the Central Vermont Osher Institute. My topic was the relationship between certain forms of nationalistic patriotism and careful, conscientious historical investigation. How well do they go together was the question I raised.
I started my talk by playing a recording of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” saying I wanted it to serve as the lead-in to our central question: to what degree can people who enter fully into the spirit of the song and take it as a realistic prescription of policy care about history based in intellectual integrity?
I chose Keith’s song because it’s very effective at doing what it’s trying to do, which is to raise anger towards those who are seen as enemies of the United States. He’s a talented performer in the country music mode, and the rhythms he builds into the song tend to stick in the mind. I confessed to my audience that I enjoy listening to it.
The lyrics are designed to pull on the emotions of his concert audiences, and at times to send them into frenzies of excitement. They were not written to be examined, which is what I’m about to do here. I should say at the outset that I don’t feel any anger towards Toby Keith, nor am I contemptuous of his emotions. I just want to point out that if you read his lyrics as a text, you find they don’t make much sense.
Keith presents the song as a tribute to his father, and early in his account he notes:
My daddy served in the army Where he lost his right eye But he flew a flag in our yard Until the day that he died He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me To grow up and live happy in the land of the free.
There’s nothing out of order in this tale. A man loves his father, who made a sacrifice doing what he thought was right, carrying out missions he believed would lead to freedom for his wife and children. You might want to examine those missions to see if they actually did protect the freedom of the population of the United States, but that would have little to do with the sincerity of the father’s belief.
The remainder of the lyrics, however, tell us a story of revenge, and this is where things begin to run off the rails. He starts out by informing us that:
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in From somewhere in the back
What are the implications of “somewhere in the back.” I think it’s reasonable to read it as referring to place we care nothing about, with a population we scarcely regard as human. It’s contemptuously dismissive. And it leads us to think about taking care of those people in a good old, decisive US-of-A way. Which is what we proceeded to do:
Man, we lit up your world Like the 4th of July
Then, Keith proceeds with the details of this lighting up:
Hey Uncle Sam Put your name at the top of his list And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist And the eagle will fly Man, it’s gonna be hell When you hear Mother Freedom Start ringin’ her bell And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you Brought to you Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue
To whom is this stirring threat addressed? Who is this “you” who is going to feel these things? For whom is it going to be hell when Mother Freedom starts ringing her bell? Well, the song doesn’t tell us exactly. It doesn’t even hint that it might be three year old children in dusty villages, dragging their ripped-open bodies down streets searching for their mother who may already be dead. We don’t care about stuff like that, because we don’t think about it. To a man of Toby Keith’s mentality (at least when he wrote this song) those are just people somewhere “in the back.”
Then we get to the verse that really charges us up, that causes pretty girls to go into exultation, shaking their tresses so wildly one fears brain discombobulation.
Justice will be served And the battle will rage This big dog will fight When you rattle his cage And you’ll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A. “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass It’s the American way.
It’s nice, I guess, to be informed what the American way is.
“Hey,” one might complain, “this is just a song. You can’t expect it to delve into the intricacies of politics and history.” And that’s right, you can’t. But you can note the effect of sentiments like these on political history as they accumulate over the decades.
Believe it or not, people actually do vote on the basis of having heard a particular song. That’s what James L. Jones, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, had in mind when he told Toby Keith he should change his mind about reserving “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” for playing at his concerts, and record it for one of his albums. Jones went even further than that; he told Keith it was his patriotic duty. So Keith did put the song in his next album and it became a gigantic hit, rapidly rising to the top of the country music charts.
Obviously, Toby Keith should not be restrained in writing whatever songs he wishes or in expressing whatever sentiments he feels. But when such things become influences in our public discussions, they not only deserve, they demand a more careful look than they’re likely to get during the excitement of country music concert.
That’s all I was trying to say at the Osher meeting yesterday, and it might have been that I got my point across.
©John R. Turner
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