Collected Thoughts

June 2014
June 2, 2014

Tom Friedman yesterday explained to us yet one more time that the world has now become complicated. It’s no longer simple like it used to be. The world of course has always been complicated but its past simplicity is one of the delusions Friedman likes to pleasure himself with. He’s a curious person, not always without insight, but so beguiled by delusions they’re always rising up in his path to smack him and make him look like a little boy smart aleck. Maybe that’s because that’s what he is. Anyway, he likes Obama’s current approach to foreign policy because it acknowledges the new-found complexity of the world. Obama is not like John McCain, who thinks all problems can be fixed with a healthy dose of bombs. That’s simple, you see. Bombs are always simple; they just blow up stuff, including human stuff.

T.H. Luhrman gave us an essay about our flinching state of mind. Even though we live in the safest time the world has ever known, it doesn’t feel that way. We’re always worried that something terrible is about to happen. I suppose it’s worth reminding ourselves that something terrible always is about to happen, no matter how comparatively safe the world has become. We supposedly now understand more about trauma than we used to do. Trauma, I guess, is the worrisome emotional effect of having experienced something bad. We used to say we should shake stuff off, but that’s no longer in fashion. People who say we should shake stuff off are seen as louts. There is, lingering somewhere in the background, the suspicion that we make up trauma in order to understand it, but that’s the sort of notion Ms. Luhrman would not entertain.

John Kerry, Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, has now joined, forever, the ranks of stupid clods. His recent remarks about Edward Snowden have sealed the deal. You’d think that Kerry would have at least one advisor who would let him know that using phrases like “man up” is obnoxious. It reminds me of when, during his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, he saluted and said he was reporting for duty. I knew, right at that second, the election was lost. It’s said that some people have a tin ear. Kerry is one of those unfortunate beings in whom all five of the senses are constructed of tin. He does, though, have a lot of money, and that in some people’s minds makes up for just about everything. Juan Cole’s explanation to Kerry about why Edward Snowden would have no chance whatsoever to make his case to the U.S. justice system was instructive. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t instruct John Kerry because it’s very unlikely that he read it. I wonder what John Kerry does read. I have the feeling he doesn’t read anything but that, surely, can’t be right.

Maureen Dowd had lunch with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. Mr. Adams, you’ll recall, has recently been charged with a murder that happened 42 years ago. He says that’s because there’s a gang in the British security services called “the twelve apostles” who are after him and determined to bring him down. He also says he had nothing to do with the murder. Ms. Dowd doesn’t offer an opinion about whether he did or not. Perhaps she’s like me and has no idea. Her point is that the past never recedes into the past as far as Irish affairs are concerned. Perhaps there’s such a thing as too acute a memory. About the only reflection her essay stirred in me was wonderment about why there is no statute of limitations as far as murder is concerned. Nearly half a century after something occurs, the person involved in it is no longer the same person. He may be better, he may be worse, but he’s surely not what he was. I think there are better things to do than chase around trying to convict someone of a 42-year-old murder. But in that opinion I realize I’m in a distinct minority. Most people have a very different sense of justice than I do. I’m even so benighted as to think there’s no such thing as getting justice for a dead person. He or she is not actually in a condition to receive it. That doesn’t mean though that I don’t think it’s worth righting false reputations. That’s something else.

Increasingly, after I’ve spent an hour and a half or so trying to digest current opinions as they appear in the leading newspapers, I ask myself, why? Do I get anything out of them that’s worth getting? They’re beginning to make me feel a little dead inside and that, surely, can’t be a good thing. But then, I hate the idea of being entirely ignorant about what’s being said. Where that sense of duty comes from I really cannot say. Nor can I say whether it makes any sense at all. We have all been influenced by democratic propaganda to believe, at least to some degree, that we have a responsibility to keep up -- whatever that means. What might result from our keeping up is hard to say. The notion that I, by keeping up, might divert behavior in a more healthy direction seems, at best, improbable. I read numerous pieces which argue that the ordinary citizen can have almost no effect on public behavior, and for all I know they may be right.

Do I read about public business because it’s enjoyable? If that’s my motive, I’m getting a smaller and smaller return on my effort. Sometimes I think I should just give it up altogether. But I’m probably not quite there yet.

June 3, 2014

After I had lunch yesterday with two friends at our local Thai restaurant, I came home to read a few pages in William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. We talked about the novel briefly during our meal because it’s going to be the topic at our upcoming Johnson Society meeting on June 10th. Though we didn’t argue, I think it’s clear that we have differing views of the book. If, as I suspect, I value it somewhat more than either of them, it will be because I put the laying of scene above plot in novels, and Faulkner is a superb creator of scene even when his plots are standard fare, as is the case with Intruder.

I don’t think of myself as much of a Southerner anymore although I know that many of my acquaintances disagree. Southerness has, lately, become a matter of inane political opinions, and that’s probably why I have stepped aside from it in my self-estimation. I have to admit though that it was once something more than that, something deeper. And that depth was what lured Faulkner. It was clearly never an entirely admirable thing but it did have elements that spoke to a kind of integrity.

When Faulkner wrote “that the white people in the South, before the North or the Govt. or anybody else owe and must pay a responsibility to the negro,” he was enunciating a concept that most Southerners would not have agreed with but that nonetheless was strongly Southern in nature. I used to tell my friends that the South was deficient in middlingness. It had a considerable population which was ignorant and brutal but it also contained a strain whose courage and determination rose above the maniacal practicality espoused by the rest of the nation. I don’t know if I would hold to that as strongly now as I once did but I admit that the thought still does, at times, play in my mind.

After I read in Intruder long enough to feel sleepiness coming on, I decided to walk downtown, both for exercise and to pick up a pack of coffee filters (it’s interesting that coffee filters come in such enormous packs that when you buy them you think they’re going to last forever but if you live long enough they eventually run out). I discovered that you can’t, in downtown Montpelier, buy coffee filters of the sort that fit my Mr. Coffee machine. So I started back home feeling a little frustrated but then decided to alleviate the feeling by checking into the Kellogg-Hubbard Library for a few minutes.

I took the latest New York Review off the shelf and began to thumb through it. It’s a publication which at one time was guaranteed to rouse my interest but which no longer does to the same degree. That’s clearly more because I’ve changed than because it has. I looked through the whole thing and was captured by the increasingly familiar sentiment of “so what?” But then I got curious; why do I say so what now?

The answer, I suspect, is that all interest in what’s generally called professionalism has deserted my mind (truth is it was never firmly lodged there). And almost everything appearing in the New York Review is colored by professionalism. Someone has done a new translation of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and in the process has changed the English title to “The Outsider.” There was a considerable disquisition about how the French word L’Etranger can be translated either as stranger or outsider, and that the protagonist Meursault is clearly more of an outsider than he is anything else. That probably is a reasonable point but it’s made mainly for a certain purpose, to assert that the translator is a more a subtle wordsmith than previous translators into English. It’s a purpose I don’t care about anymore, and so I find myself asking, so what?

Walking home from the library I got to wondering about whether Faulkner had been more or less taken up with intellectual journals than I have. I didn’t really know, of course, but I more or less convinced myself that he had been less interested and was better off for it. It’s all right to know some of the speculation going on in your own time but it’s scarcely essential. And if it gets in the way of making yourself into who you are then it’s going to be destructive. It seems Faulkner did a pretty good job of self-creation and can be learned from in that respect.

I’m not about to fall into moaning over what I’ve done up till now. I don’t see any use in it. But I think I should be more concentrated than I have been on becoming who I am rather than trying to inhabit some false persona built by people who really don’t care anything about me. It was the sense that they didn’t care which caused me to reject professionalism, and I’ve never had any regret about that.

I’ve got it in my head that the business of making a true self and feeling a scene are intimately related. If you can’t feel yourself grounded in some respect, how can you really have a self? People who think that place is no more than finding a spot to be comfortable are surrendering their authentic identity, or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, are refusing to think even about building one.

Faulkner can help you avoid that mistake, and should be seen as a notable writer for that reason alone.

June 11, 2014

The first two news items I scanned this morning told me the same story, though it’s likely that conventional journalism would find them worlds apart.

Thomas Friedman, writing from Kurdistan, argues that the real division in the Middle East is not as it has been reported. It is not between religious sects, Sunni and Shia, or anything of that sort. Rather the great split lies between the extremists and the environmentalists (you can guess which side Friedman favors). The irony is that both sides want the same thing, a unified Middle East. But obviously they want it for different reasons.

The environmentalists say the whole region will continue to degenerate unless policies that protect the whole can be instituted. Each small country struggling with the others to secure adequate natural resources, particularly water, will lead to disaster. On the other hand, intelligent, scientific management of resource use can provide a healthy environment for all.

The extremists, which is Friedman’s term for religious fanatics, want unity in order to impose traditional Islamic beliefs on everyone. That there is no agreement about what traditional beliefs are doesn’t seem to bother them. A characteristic of religious zealots is they think the correct interpretation of religious tradition is obvious. That’s often because they have not heard of any interpretations other than their own. That there might be others runs beyond their mental grasp.

Though Friedman is clearly on the side of the environmentalists, he doesn’t give us confidence that they are winning. His message, in fact, is near the opposite.

The second item was Eric Cantor’s loss to a candidate in a Virginia primary who is reported to be an even more an extreme right-winger than Cantor is. Such a phenomenon is hard to imagine, I know, but one lesson the past thirty years of American politics should have taught us is that no matter how bizarre a political group might become there are others even more bizarre lusting to take their place. The winning candidate, David Brat, told Fox News that he won because God was behind his candidacy. Whenever you get someone explaining that he won a political race because God was on his side, you know you’re moved into looney-tunes land. That Brat repeatedly lied about Cantor’s stance on immigration, which was about as vicious as anybody could wish, shows that for some people viciousness has no limits, particularly those who have an inside track to God.

I said these two events tell the same story. So now I have to spell out what that story is. Thomas Friedman would tell us that it’s the story of extremism sweeping away sensible, practical politics
all around the globe. Though that’s not entirely wrong, neither is it direct enough to help us understand what’s really occurring. Friedman is using “extremism” as a euphemism for the power of ignorance. That’s what is actually on the rise almost everywhere. And it’s important to note that it’s the power of ignorance we need to be worried about even more than about ignorance itself. The latter is regrettable at whatever level, but I doubt the percentage of people who can legitimately be called ignorant has increased over recent decades. What has grown, you might even say metastasized, recently has been the power such people have in influencing the political process.

Ignorance has always been a product of thoroughgoing provincialism which ensures no recognition of any thought or any activity outside one’s immediate surroundings. There have been times when we thought of it as quaint, and even charming, when it did no more than express local prejudice in colorful language. But the charm disappears when thinking of that kind begins to energize gigantic political movements. That’s the situation we find ourselves in now.

Ignorance has been helped to leak -- and now to gush -- outside its traditional limits by the decay of any common definition of what it means to be well informed. I saw a supposed news article lately listing the ten “worst” college majors. Among them were anthropology, archeology, philosophy, history and English. In other words, the studies that until recently were considered the most likely to lift one out of ignorance are now the “worst.” It’s easy to know what “worst” means in this context. It has to do only with money, of course. It reminds one of the signs that used to hang in cheap restaurants: “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” The people who thought that was clever are now close to defining the meaning of education.

As the definition has transmogrified, so has the status of ignorance. It used to bring regret and even shame. Now that’s much less the case. When Sarah Palin became the vice presidential nominee of a major party and was revealed to be astoundingly ignorant, the response by many was not that a serious mistake had been made, but that her empty mind was perfectly capable of making world-changing decisions. In fact, it was asserted by some that her thinking was enhanced by being uncluttered. Something called “common sense” was all one needed to work through complicated situations. And what was the best evidence for common sense? Ignorance, of course.

The attempt to guide a major region of the modern world by the dictates of thirteen-hundred- year-old prophecies and the attempt to guide the United States by distorted versions of 18th Century political philosophy are pretty much the same thing, an arrogant determination to dismiss anything that might have been learned over the past two centuries, and even to dismiss major findings of scientific investigation.

The question we don’t yet know how to answer is where that desire comes from? What causes people to be proud of their ignorance? Is it simple psychological egotism or is it mixed with something even more toxic? We had best speed up our effort to answer that question because neither David Brat nor the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seem ready to pause before imposing the worst features of the past on us.

June 13, 2014

The latest wail from the mainstream media is arising from a Pew Report which says that Americans are more politically divided than ever. This is terrible say our media mentors. Division is bad. Americans need to be unified.

The uproar is mainly indifferent to the nature of the division. There is virtually no hint that the “sides” might be different not only in their opposition to one another but in the degree of sanity they bring to public issues. Despite being denounced for more than a decade, the principal vice of modern journalism, false equivalency, is rolling along as smoothly as ever. If a Democrat argues that the minimum wage ought to be raised and a Republican announces that reports of global warming issue from a scientific conspiracy, then those are merely two positions and some middle ground with respect to each needs to be found. The truth, or falsehood, embedded in political propositions is not to be taken into account. If some group is for something, then their advocacy gives it all the legitimacy it needs to be respected in the public debate.

When Scott Esk, a Republican candidate for the Oklahoma legislature, says that stoning homosexuals would be the right thing to do, how do we find middle ground on that position?

When Texas governor Rick Perry explains that homosexuality is analogous to alcoholism and therefore can be addressed through the same tactics, how do we compromise on that view?

When Jeff Miller, a Republican member of the House from Florida, brushes off the warnings of climate scientists with the explanation that he doesn’t care what they think they have discovered, how do we find an overlap with him to try to prevent rising sea levels?

When Louie Gohmert of Texas uses a Congressional hearing to grill a clergyman about whether all non-Christians will go to hell when they die, how do we discuss with him the proper functions of the House of Representatives?

When a Fox News reporter explains that Bowe Bergdahl was lucky not to have been found by the U.S. forces looking for him because if he had he probably would have been brought back in a body bag and suggests that would have been an appropriate thing to happen, how can she be engaged in a discussion about informative journalism?

When Paul Broun, Republican representative from Georgia, tells us that astronomers and physicists studying the early universe and evolutionary biologists investigating early life forms are promoting “lies straight from the pit of Hell,” how can we work with him on government support for scientific research?

In the face of incidents of this sort, and hundreds more of the same ilk that cascade at us from the news each week, the media’s sweet picture of two sides, each honestly trying to support a reasonable way of life becomes incredible. That’s not the reality we are facing.

On Wednesday, I wrote here about the difficulties of dealing with prideful ignorance. Then this morning in Salon I found an article by Amanda Marcotte titled, “Beyond the War on Science: Why the Right Embraces Ignorance as a Virtue.” One of her conclusions noted, “When you have nothing but contempt for the facts, attempts to educate you will only make your pride in your own ignorance grow stronger. The more you try to educate the proudly ignorant, the dumber they get.”

I don’t understand, fully, why a major sector of the American electorate has decided to adopt irrational ignorance as its principal political tactic, nor do I have a clear plan for how to live equitably with such a group in a democratic republic. I’m certainly not arguing that their opponents have complete answers for the over-population, the resulting pollution, and the shrinking natural resources that continue to bedevil us. The Democratic Party has not been a great, shining light in recent decades.

The point I’m trying to make is that, given current realities, the notion we can address serious divisions in American life by getting together, talking things over, and reminding each other incessantly that we’re all Americans together, is childish. It is very hard to talk things over with people who refuse to acknowledge the same realities you do, and whose proposals lead to extreme social viciousness. The conventional media’s advice now is like telling the slaves in the 1850s to get together with the owners and calmly work out plans for meeting the needs of both groups.

In political struggle, compromises can be achieved when all the groups involved have genuine needs and are willing to debate with others over which needs are most pressing at the moment. But you cannot put forward the need to stone homosexuals to death as genuine. You cannot present as genuine the need to cut off scientific investigation. You cannot say the need of rich people to lord it over the poor is dictated by natural morality. Such arguments lead not to compromise but to inevitable conflict.

If our flaccid media could somehow begin to separate legitimate human needs from absurd, virtually insane, demands, then they might start providing the data a democratic polity requires to make sensible decisions. But so long as anything any looney person can think up is treated as having the same political standing as the needs for adequate food, decent housing, competent education, and first rate medical care, then as a political culture we’re going to keep wandering in the weeds, where conditions will get ever more sticky and threatening.

June 15, 2014

There has been considerable commentary in the wake of Eric Cantor’s primary defeat which argues that the bait and switch tactic which the Republicans have relied on for decades is falling apart. What is the bait and switch tactic? It’s a process of duping ignorant people by pushing red-button issues (based usually on bigotry) during campaigns, and then once someone has won election that way, drawing him into the network controlled by big money, whose managers care nothing about those so-called social issues. For years people have wondered why a great swath of the electorate continued to vote against their economic interests. But actually it’s not hard to understand; those people are really dumb. Yet, so it’s said now, even they are beginning to wake up. Hence the rebellion of the Tea Party against the traditional fat cats of the GOP.

The Democrats are uncertain what to think about this. It’s great to see the smug fat cats go down. But it’s scarcely cheering to see the David Brats rise up. Might it be that the Yahoos could be worse than the plutocrats? My own thought is no; I’ll take Brat over the Koch brothers. Stinky as Brat and his followers are, combating them is more manageable than resisting the floods of dollars being used to buy the world. So I’m happy enough, at the moment, to see Tea Partiers knock off Wall Street toadies.

The internecine political wars producing our fabled stagnation are fascinating, and not unimportant, but they fade in significance compared to an overarching problem which has infected all the combatants and the great majority of those who report on them. That’s the delusion that attaining office counts for more than anything else, that success is properly defined by gaining some title or other and the normally munificent salary that goes with it. This belief is a guaranteed formula for ultimate failure. It is also even more socially corrosive than the occasional victories of mean-spirited ideologues. That’s because at the moment it threatens to take over the entire political class and the whole political process.

When a young candidate considers running for office and turns to general advice-givers to ask how to do it, he is not queried about what he intends to support and what tactics he thinks might work to achieve it. No, he is asked only one thing: “Where’s your money coming from?” It doesn’t matter whether he’s a liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter whether he’s an environmentalist or a market capitalist, it doesn’t matter whether he thinks more or fewer people should be thrown in jail. The inside wisdom tells him -- and not just once but incessantly -- that’s he’s got to design a money-raising campaign, that he’s got to hire a fund-raising professional, that he’s got to build a list of wealthy people he will solicit. That’s first, before anything else, and it’s so far out in front of anything else that what he cares about, what he stands for, simply doesn’t matter. Over and again he hears that concerns of the latter sort are for the naive.

Once he signs on to that kind of thinking, he’s on the Eric Cantor trail, he’s headed for a smash-up somewhere down the road, And, for certain he’s moving toward the dustbin of history.

I’m not saying that the mechanisms of political manipulation can be completely disregarded. Any significant politician will know about them, and will employ them to some extent. But when he allows them to become the whole thing, which is what the political class desperately wants him to do, he has signed his own doom so far as anything significant or important is concerned.

You can imagine, of course, someone saying, “Look, I’ll try to be a decent person when I get elected. I’ll vote for the right things when I can. But I admit it. What I want first is the prestige of office, the perks that go with it, the thrill of being recognized and considered to be an important guy.” It might sound sensible, if considerably beneath nobility, but that brand of supposed realism is, itself, a delusion. An officeholder is even more a target for manipulation than a candidate is. If he doesn’t know his own mind before he runs, he is very unlikely to develop an independent mind once he gets into the melee of campaigning. We should all recall Henry Kissinger’s warning that nobody grows in office. In the absence of a strong self a person will be owned by others, and they won’t be hesitant to use him, even to the point of running him into a wall if it will serve their interests. Can anybody read the news regularly and not know that?

Politics has always been a process of vested interests making use of bought men. There are some who will say that’s the whole story. But that’s not true. History concentrates on the stories of those who refused to be bought -- for better or for worse, I’ll admit. But if one wishes to leave a record of having been a significant figure, he’s first got to create a person who can do things, who can stand against the cheap thrills of what generally makes up ambition.

Perhaps the most important question a person can ask himself is, “What would I not do in return for something I really want?” The Faustian query will always be a part of life. Politicians can’t escape it any more than anybody else can.

We have a political class now which is trying to tell everyone they can escape it. They are lying. Unless we summon the means to refute that lie, the relative success of the Tea Party, or the plutocrats, or the Democrats might matter a little, but not a hell of a lot.

©John R. Turner

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