July 3, 2014
Yesterday I spent about three hours listening to interviews conducted by Russ Roberts on EconTalk, a web site supported by the Library of Economics and Liberty. Mr. Roberts is a former professor at George Mason University and, now, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
I sometimes fault myself for being too quickly suspicious when I see a title like “The Library of Economics and Freedom,” but then I have to recall that my suspicions have so far been borne out. When “freedom” is in the title of anything having to do with economics, you have to be ready to discover that you’ll be dealing with a fairly peculiar definition of the term.
I took up the interviews because I’ve been reading Jeffrey Sach’s well-known book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Three-quarters of the way through the book I was fairly well persuaded that Sacks’s program for ending extreme poverty among the 1.1 billion people still afflicted by it was well thought-out and backed by solid evidence. But, then, I happened to see notice of a highly-praised book by Nina Munk titled, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Reading reviews and some sections provided to me for free by Amazon, I picked up that though Ms. Munk is not totally down on Sachs, and admits that he has done some good for the poor people of Africa, she is basically critical of his efforts, thinks that they are over-rated, and, furthermore, that Sachs is himself arrogant (I guess we have to grant that he is somewhat arrogant, that is if we’re willing to equate that judgment with “self-confident.”).
Munk’s stance kindled my curiosity. Had I been taken for a ride by Sachs? So when I discovered that she was being interviewed about her book by Russ Roberts, I decided to listen. They talked for quite a while, well over an hour. In the beginning, Munk was mildly resistant to Roberts’s aggressive efforts to portray Sachs as a starry-eyed, naive reformer, but as the talk proceeded she got more into the spirit of things. By the end she was agreeing with Roberts that Sachs was falsely raising people’s expectations, and that smashing people’s hopes is the most awfully cruel thing anybody can do. Her evidence for the weakness of Sachs’s efforts was that she had visited several of the villages where Sachs’s projects had been instituted and discovered that quite a few of them had not been maintained and had fallen into disarray.
Throughout the conversation, Roberts reminded Munk that he is a disciple of Friedrich Hayek, who has taught him that people are always going down dead-end paths because they think they know more than they do. Roberts was doubtless drawing on statements by Hayek that propounded something to this effect: “Many of the greatest things man has achieved are not the result of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of a deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand.” Exactly where such a process comes from, Roberts didn’t say, but the implication was that by following a set of abstract principles, people do better than trying to solve problems by taking the best that they know and moving ahead with it. Sachs, for example, knows that by supplying African families with mosquito netting for their beds, malaria is reduced and fewer children die from it. That’s good enough for him but, evidently, not for Roberts. He didn’t quite say so explicitly, but he left the impression than he would rather have the children die than to see them saved by what he regards as imposed top-down efforts, because, you see, such efforts run counter to abstract notions of freedom, and what’s perhaps worse, they don’t arise from the workings of the market, which is really the only force that can make things better.
The conversation between Roberts and Munk left me thinking they had been somewhat unfair to Sachs but that they may have raised some points about his methods which partially undermine the glowing support of them Sachs promotes. I then discovered that two months after this interview, Roberts had done an interview with Sachs himself which was more or less billed as a followup to the talk with Munk. So, naturally, I was eager to listen to it also.
If you are looking for an example of what happens when an intelligent person grounded in evidence talks with an ideologue swimming in abstractions you could scarcely do better than go to this conversation, which took place on March 6th of this year (Link).
For each of the objections Roberts raised, Sachs had a full-scale response. In a number of instances he simply pointed out that what Roberts was charging is not true. In the interview with Munk, Roberts worked himself into paroxysms of indignation because he said the Millennium Villages Project was forcing farmers to plant crops they hadn’t grown before and that they didn’t like to eat. Sachs responded that they had done no such thing, and that a wide variety of crops had been grown. Munk’s criticism had been that the yield had been increased so much, the farmers couldn’t find adequate ways to dispose of the surplus. I suppose that’s regrettable -- if true -- but surely having a higher yield is better than having so little the farmers’ families couldn’t live on it.
Sachs readily admitted that they didn’t have a perfect system, and that modifications would be needed. But measures were in place to collect data about the failures and, thus, make changes. Furthermore, he said, that’s the only way to improve the conditions of life. Try something based on current knowledge, see where it works and where it doesn’t, and then modify the process.
There was not a single point in Roberts’s assault that Sachs didn’t refute. All Roberts’s arguments were purely abstract and ideological. But here’s the sad thing. I’m pretty sure Roberts came away from the interview convinced that he had been brilliant.
There is something about the minds of ideologues that protects them from evidence. No amount of it will breach their defenses. No matter how often they are shown to be wrong, they remain convinced they are right. It’s that something in the minds of ideologues we need to dig into more deeply than we have until now.
Anyway, I’m glad I spent the time on the interviews. They certainly didn’t convince me that Jeffrey Sachs is omniscient. But I did come away thinking he has sounder arguments than any of his critics I’ve heard so far.
July 7, 2014
Brendan Nyhan’s essay in yesterday’s New York Times about how most people will favor what they want to believe over evidence has drawn quite a bit of attention. We have descended into an economic/political culture in which genuine discussion is becoming increasingly difficult and that’s frightening to people who hope for a rational governing system. If evidence has lost its potency and exercises an ever-decreasing effect in guiding decisions then there’s probably no way to avoid disasters.
The idea of a healthy democracy depends on an evidence-based society. If evidence is out the window so is democratic governance. We are left to ask, “What are we to do?”
At the moment we don’t know. No program to restore evidence to the core of social decision-making is being widely promoted. People do, of course, attempt to persuade others on the basis of evidence. But if evidence is simply brushed aside by wishful thinking, the reality of our situation is always avoided.
I have seen a number of arguments which assert that humanity has to stumble into a gigantic disaster before it will even begin to wake up. Some people are so resigned to that necessity they almost begin to wish for it.
In the United States we have a national legislature in which few members care about truth. Some of them are demented -- men such as James Inhofe, Paul Broun, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King, for example. But a greater number are simple resigned. They see that truth wins them few votes whereas lies are much more effective. And they want to stay in office. So what can they do other than deal in falsehood? It’s easy enough to say the people, generally, are responsible for this, yet we need to recall there’s a reinforcing loop in operation in which the electorate votes for liars because they have been propagandized into believing lies. It’s hard to know how to break into that circle.
Suppose you are talking about climate change with someone who refuses to believe the earth is warming to the degree that the results will be extremely damaging within a few decades (and perhaps even more quickly that that). If you mention Guy McPherson’s warning that the human race, since its inception, has never before experienced carbon dioxide levels as high as four hundred parts per million and yet we are now at that level, and then explain that McPherson, of the University of Arizona, is one of the most highly respected climate scientists in the world, your companion will probably just shrug his shoulders, and ask, “So what?” And if you then continue and point out that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at that level will cause global warming of at least three degrees Celsius, he might just say, “Oh well, that’s not so hot.” And if you push on to point out that warming of that extent will melt the Arctic ice cap and cause major coastal flooding, he’ll probably dismiss you with, “Nobody really knows about that.” My point is that you can go on with evidence interminably and it will have no effect on him. He doesn’t want to believe the earth is warming, and so he won’t, that is until something disastrous happens to him, and even then he will probably find something else to blame it on.
This brand of stupidity is deeply ingrained in the human mind. I’m not claiming it’s anything new. It certainly isn’t. But it is now creating a greater threat than it ever has before. That’s because there are much higher levels of human activity than ever before, such high levels there is a genuine possibility of pollution rising to levels incommensurate with human life. And, then, not just millions, but rather billions, of humans will perish. And guess what? They won’t go down without geopolitical eruptions which will dwarf anything the world has seen before.
I suppose it’s conceivable that some near-miraculous technological innovation could stop this downward spiral. But it’s highly unlikely. So I’m ready to admit I’m pessimistic. I think bad things are coming and we humans, with our mental predilections, lack the will to head them off. One might say to me, “Well, if that’s what you think, why not just hush up and let people live in innocent idiocy until they are swept away?”
It’s a reasonable question. The only answer I have is that I’ve never viewed pessimism as an excuse for inaction. It seems to me better to keep struggling against probable disasters right up till when they knock me in the head. That being my conclusion, I advise us all, to the limits of our ability, to stop lying down before stupidity. I know that societal peace is a good thing. I know that courtesy is an even better thing. But good as they are, they don’t justify acquiescence in bone-headed attitudes leading towards great misery. None of us who are alert enough to know something of what’s occurring should remain silent when we encounter arguments supportive of murderous behavior, not even when they come at us across a family dining table. At the very least we can raise questions about consequences, and demonstrate that there are no reasonable apologies for pure thoughtlessness.
There’s quite a bit of talk lately about tipping points. I doubt that we’re close to one in the United States right now. Still, I’d hate to discover that we were close to one that brought a significant betterment and that I hadn’t helped to push past it sooner.
July 15, 2014
There are rising expectations of apocalypse all round the world, not necessarily of a biblical nature but in the mode of gigantic political and environmental disasters. No one can predict the specific consequences of these feelings. It seems likely that there will be larger numbers of maniacal, suicidal outbreaks from individuals and small cults, which will be ruthlessly exploited by the media and accompanied by wild symbolic interpretation. But beyond this no one has a blueprint for the larger manifestations of societal disintegration. There’s just the sense that it’s going to be really bad this time.
What does this mean for the period while we’re waiting?
There will be more finger-pointing, of course. If you think the Tea Party is as insane as people can get, just wait. Conspiracy theories will swirl everywhere. There will be little trusting of anyone, and justifiably so. Traditional loyalties will wither. The notion that any national government is on your side, including your own, will become more and more absurd.
I have said to my friends lately that I would like to run away. Their response has been some variation of: “Is that so? Where are you going to run away to?” Those are sensible questions. Obviously I have no answers.
I read about possible technological breakthroughs which will fix everything up -- a cheap, plentiful source of energy, for example. They give me little hope. In the first place I can’t see that they’re likely, but even if one did come along I don’t think it would resolve our difficulties. Too many people are caught up in hatred and neurosis which won’t be cured by having a cheap place to plug in your car.
The world continues to have a huge number of mental disorders which haven’t yet even been defined as such. Looming large among them are myriads of religious beliefs which people still get googly-eyed about. In the United States, for example, we have millions who think that Jesus will take care of global warming. Most of my friends write these people off as simply ignorant and in need of adequate education. They may well be helped by better education, but that’s not their main need. They are afflicted with a serious mental illness, no less ominous because it is social, which scarcely anyone is trying to treat, because, you know, that might be seen as interference with religious liberty. Why assisting people to escape from absurd religious beliefs -- unless you do it from the perspective of another religious belief -- is seen as a denial of religious liberty I can’t understand.
Another factor hurrying the apocalypse along is the belief that experience is merely what an individual decides he wants to make of it. This faith is also seen as a manifestation of freedom. Do you want to say that the experience of eating nothing other than fast-food hamburgers and sugary sodas is as healthy for you as a diet of fresh vegetables and non-antibiotic-laced proteins? Well, then, that’s your right, isn’t it? Your freedom depends on the right to do it. Anybody who tells you you’re mistaken is restricting your freedom. That kind of warning should no longer be respectable in the land of the free. In America, the freedom to be dumb as hell needs to be inserted into the Bill of Rights. Or so we might think from our political discourse.
Flouting intelligence has a long history among humanity. You might even say it’s the principal feature of history. But what if it begins to threaten our existence? The fear of apocalypse, I suspect, is coming from the anticipation that people are too stupid to manage any longer the problems of earthly living. And humanity doesn’t know what to do about stupidity. They know it may be lethal, but they don’t think they have the right to cure it because they don’t think they have the right to see it as a disease. That would be a big irony, wouldn’t it, if the right of humanity to survive should be sacrificed to the right of humanity to be stupid. Which is more important, the right to survive or the right to stupidity?
Today, eating a bagel in a Center Moriches delicatessen, I saw a young man walk in wearing a tight T-shirt with a sign printed the front reading, “Go ahead. Hate me!” The expression on his face conveyed the same sentiment, as though he had practiced it in front of a mirror before going out. It wasn’t a message you would have seen thirty years ago; it seemed to fit well with the run-up to the apocalypse. If everything is going to smash, what does it matter if anyone likes you? All of you can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.
It’s as though we expect it to be more scary to go out on the streets. And not only do we expect it; we’re resigned to it. I didn’t get the same feeling in Italy a month ago. But, then, America for the past century has been the world leader to the future. If, however, you take American politics as the harbinger, it’s not resignation we’re leading towards but stupidity. Think of the face of John Boehner every evening as he appears before the TV cameras to try to trump the stupidity of the previous day. In his face you can discern the true nature of threat.
Stupidity, obviously, has always threatened human life. There’s no counting the numbers who have perished because of it. But now we have a new situation: stupidity threatening not just human life but human existence. That’s a considerable ramping up. I think that’s the reason a sense of apocalypse is upon us. And consequently the answer to my earlier question -- what do we do while we wait for apocalypse to arrive? -- becomes clearer.
We begin to take stupidity seriously. We no longer think of it merely as a joke, or as an annoyance. We view it instead as the most likely destroyer of existence. It is a mental disorder we can no longer abide among the majority of humans.
Is it easy to know how to diminish it? Obviously not. But that’s all the more reason for us to start digging into its reality. It is not a handicap; it is not just laziness. It is a thing in itself which we don’t understand, a something akin to disease, because it is both contagious and lethal, but which has its own distinctive features. And it’s doubtless quite complex.
Perhaps we should stop saying that people are stupid and shift to saying they have stupidity. That could lead us to deal with them more sensibly. And, of course, we have to be ready to hear someone say back that we have it too, and ask ourselves if he’s right.
I have no confidence that a fresh approach to stupidity will head off apocalypse. We may be too far along for that. But I am pretty sure that nothing other than addressing it differently will give us a chance.
July 16, 2014
In my essays lately I’ve been on a campaign to face up to stupidity, to see it for what it is, to recognize its effects, and to search for methods to thwart it. In that effort I have assumed the reality of the thing I’m discussing, that it’s an entity that can be correctly defined, analyzed, and traced to its causes.
I realize that some might find my approach distasteful, both because they doubt the actuality of the condition and because they see any mention of it as insulting.
There’s a great deal that passes unacknowledged in the world because people fear being seen as insulting. That may be the worst reputation a proper liberal person can acquire. I’m ready to argue that we need to stop being quite so fastidious. I don’t want to insult anyone for the sake of the insult. But if I knew that someone were a drug addict and that his addiction was ruining his life, I wouldn’t feel it was insulting to speak to him frankly about his condition in an attempt to turn him away from it.
When I take a stance on stupidity I’m assuming that it’s a genuine condition, and that activates the other -- and perhaps more serious -- objection, that what I’m trying to write about doesn’t exist, that there is no such thing as a mental disorder we can honestly designate as stupidity. It’s true that the traditional definition involves mainly a state of mental slowness, in other words, that if stupidity is anything at all it’s a handicap rather than an affliction.
I reject the conventional definition. Some people can’t help having to struggle with mental tasks more than others, but that’s not a sure mark of stupidity. Stupidity is a characteristic pasted on, not one that’s ingrained. No one is fated to persist in stupidity. It’s more a disorder of the will than of the intellect (although ongoing stupidity will eventually undermine the intellect as well as every other healthy aspect of human existence).
There’s a case to be made that it’s a fairly horrifying, addictive habit which people adopt for a variety of psychological and social reasons. It’s unlikely that stupidity is present when neurosis is not. And because it is so intertwined with other emotional defects, we need to stop thinking of it as something simple. It is actually extremely complex. We haven’t yet begun to divine its constitution. We know it now primarily through its effects.
I -along with lots of other people -- indulge too often in anger and frustrations when I run into repeated acts of stupidity. That’s a mistake, one I should stop making. If stupidity is what I think it is, anger is a useless counteraction. A better response would be sadness and a form of sympathy. I admit it’s hard to summon sympathy for people who regularly exhibit stupidity but we could at least keep in mind that it’s hurting them as surely as it does anyone else. When we consider Dick Cheney, who may have committed more stupid acts than any other person in public life, it may be tempting to assume he resides in self-satisfaction. But does he? I doubt that’s actually the case. Even if he has deluded himself into thinking he’s pleased with his own status we should remember there is probably no one who would sincerely wish to be Dick Cheney. That possibility is nearly unimaginable. He is not a person to be envied.
The principal folly of humanity - which I hinted at yesterday -- is the misreading of experience. Stupid people have slight means for distinguishing rich, meaningful experiences from cheap, vulgar ones. And if they do, sometimes, manage to perceive a separation, it’s by setting the vulgar above the meaningful. It’s through stupidity, for example, that piling up money and spending it lavishly acquire their reputation as the ultimate goals of life. Stupid people measure the worth of an experience by how much it costs.
Think of the misery this attitude about money has engendered down the ages. Think of the beatings, and imprisonments, and tortures that have gone along with it. I know what you are likely thinking. You’re saying I shouldn’t equate a lust for money with stupidity. It’s something else, maybe greed, maybe a fleeing from insecurity, maybe a means to get the prettiest girls. It’s all sorts of things, but it’s not stupidity.
But why isn’t it, if we think about the connections? Isn’t it stupid to inflict cruelty on people in order to amass more money than anyone reasonably needs? Why is that not stupidity? What better, more telling, example of stupidity could you find?
I realize this is an effort to expand a definition into areas that have not traditionally been associated with it. But isn’t that what we ought to do if we wish to fully understand the conditions afflicting us. The reason people get away with monstrous behavior for centuries is that we fail to call the behavior what it actually is. We forget too easily that there can be no reform of behavior without a reform of language.
Consider how we discuss our political leaders. We say they’re crooks, selfish egomaniacs, insane ideologues, publicity hogs. They may be, to some degree, all those things, but what if our underlying problem is that most of them are stupid? Might it be that very few of them are able to confront complex or subtle thought? Because they are celebrities, we try to invest them with abilities they don’t have. We tell ourselves they’re well informed about world conditions, but as one of eminent worthies showed us a few years ago, it’s entirely possible --- maybe even likely -- to be the president of the United States without knowing the price of a loaf of bread. Well, one might say, the president is thinking about bigger things. But is he? That’s what he wants you to think of course. That’s the message cranked out by his publicity machine. Yet when we consider how presidents spend their days -- which, by the way, have the same number of minutes ours do -- why do we expect them to have time for reflection; why do we assume they’re deep in complexity?
When they speak to us what we get is a flow of bromides. We are told that’s because they have carefully selected their words to fit the intellectual capacities of their audience. But have they? How do we know their simplistic speech isn’t an accurate reflection of their thought? It’s a big mistake to underestimate the stupidity of anyone who holds the power of life and death.
If stupidity is the cause of many of our social -- and personal -- problems, we’re not going to solve them until we fathom its nature and learn how recognize its effects when they appear. Confusion about what actually causes what is the main characteristic of stupidity. It will be the grand irony of humanity if stupidity turns out to be the cause of our failure to perceive stupidity’s effects.
July 21, 2014
Whenever I get home from a trip I decide I have to straighten up, and whenever I straighten up I find musings I jotted into notebooks years ago and have forgotten. I’ll share one of them from February 2008, about our hero president John F. Kennedy ( those of you who have visited this site know that, for me, “hero” is a word that should be used only for figures who come to us from before the time Homer wrote; in other words, “heroes” are characters from myth and not from history). So, here are my six and a half year old thoughts about Mr. Kennedy, which you can compare to your own.
The launching of the Camelot phalanx against Hillary Clinton is forcing the nation to rethink who and what John F. Kennedy was. I suspect the project won’t be good for the former president’s luster.
When we ask what Mr. Kennedy did for the country it’s hard to find evidence he did much at all. His most notable accomplishment was to have avoided drifting into nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. But did he act differently than any other sane president would have? That he was sane compared to some of the people in the Pentagon at the time was an achievement of sorts. We doubtless have to give him credit for that. Whether that alone was a mark of greatness is hard to say.
It has been said, repeatedly, in recent days, that Mr. Kennedy roused the people. Okay. What did he rouse them to? He did rouse them to a sense of glamor. It may be the case that glamor for glamor’s sake is a good thing. Perhaps it elevated the nation’s aesthetic sense. But that depends on whether you think that Kennedy-esque glamor was in good taste. That, I think, is a real question.
I admit that my musing on this topic is influenced by personal interactions with several second and third level figures from the Kennedy circle. They didn’t rouse in me a desire to be invited to the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. And they certainly left me with no impression of overweening wisdom. But I admit, they were starry-eyed -- mostly about themselves.
The question before us now is not so much correct historical interpretation as it is the influence of an association. If we decide that Barack Obama strongly resembles John F. Kennedy, should that cause us to want to put the Illinois senator into the White House?
Caroline Kennedy says it should. She wants a president who will inspire her as her father inspired people in 1961 and 1962. She can of course want whatever she wishes. But is that a reason to follow in her stead?
The Kennedy-Obama nexus actually presents us with two separate questions. Does Obama actually resemble Kennedy? If he does, how should that cause is to react to him?
What do I think now of my previous thoughts? First, I should have given Kennedy higher credit for his handling of the Cuban missile issue. The stakes were immense, and when someone avoids a hideous disaster, then he deserves our gratitude, which I think Mr. Kennedy more than earned.
On the glamor issue, I’m about where I was. The idea that the president’s duty is to rouse the people so they think more idealistically about themselves strikes me as overblown. What we need from presidents is intelligent governance which, over time, can provide the populace with a model. Or to put it another way, my perspective is that a president does better to govern well than to be a skillful propagandist.
As for whether Obama resembles Kennedy, I suppose he does in some respects but I think questions like that are useless.
How should Obama’s Kennedy-like features have caused us to react to his candidacy? I think many of us, myself included, were less cautious than we should have been about a good line. Obama made wonderful speeches in 2008, but then he didn’t carry through with much of what he said he was going to do. It’s true, he was slammed by a vicious and prejudicial response from the Republican Party, but he should have been ready for that. There were measures he could have taken even in the face of Republican nastiness (you can read about those in Thomas Frank’s essay yesterday in Salon -- [Link]). If he didn’t know who the Republicans were, then he was naive. And we don’t need a naive president in the White House.
I think both Kennedy and Obama deserve to be seen as somewhat better than average presidents. If they -- or their followers -- want higher praise than that, then they have to get it from someone other than me.
July 24, 2014
I can’t be sure of a judgment like this, of course, but I sense ever more strongly that American stupidity is crashing down on us in a way that will lead to national disaster. The intellect of the persons who are, supposedly, the nation’s leaders is so astoundingly weak it not only can’t deal with the challenges we must face in a world as troubled as ours has become, it is making them worse than they need be. A considerable portion of the national legislature and a significant element of the executive branch are simplistic to a degree there is no possibility of their responding adequately either to domestic or international problems. Their attitudes and policy proposals lead one to ask, “Where and how did they grow up?” And I’m not talking only about people as obviously handicapped as, say, John Boehner.
In a speech three days ago to the Middle East Policy Council, long-serving diplomat Chas Freeman offered this assessment:
It is not news to anyone that American politics is uncivil and dysfunctional. We have a foreign policy elite that has its head up its media bubble, prefers narratives to evidence-based analysis, confuses sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy, and imagines that the best way to deal with hateful foreigners is to use airborne robots to kill them, their friends, and their families. We have leaders who can’t lead and a legislative branch that can’t legislate. In short, we have a government that can’t make relevant decisions, fund their implementation, enlist allies to support them, or see them through. Until we get our act together at home, those looking for American leadership abroad will be disappointed.
That’s a damning stance, particularly one coming from a skilled diplomat.
This may not be a completely new condition but it is a strikingly new appearance, one I suspect many of us don’t know how to confront. Anyone who has paid attention to history knows that nations can go on the skids, and sometimes quite rapidly. But I don’t think many Americans anticipated a development of that kind in the United States. We knew we had bumbling public officials but we tended to think they would find a way to bumble through.
Now that it seems likely that they won’t be able to, what is one to do, how is one to feel?
We can, obviously, try to stay on the right side of politics as usual. In elections we can try to choose the lesser of evils. We can write letters. We can express ourselves to our friends and acquaintances. We can attempt to escape propaganda bubbles and keep ourselves informed. Yet there is a growing feeling that even if we do all of that intelligently, it won’t be enough. The structures of our public affairs may have become so decayed they can’t be repaired through normal maintenance.
There come to me thoughts of hiding out, of finding a niche where no one will notice me, and I can try to lead a decent life. That’s what Vermont is, to some extent. At the moment, it doesn’t seem that here we’re in danger of getting crazy political officials like Rick Perry, or John McCain, or Lindsey Graham. Still, Vermont is a part of the nation and will be affected by the national trends. There are no means of avoiding that. Besides, hiding out is a craven approach. One doesn’t like to think of himself as person who lurks in a corner as his nation goes down the tubes, who is quiescent as it descends ever more sharply towards a militarist garrison state marked by egregious economic inequality. If we don’t act to do something about it, who will? It’s certainly not the case that Americans constitute an elect who can rely on a special destiny to turn away from break-down. Conditions in the United States can get a lot worse than they are now, and at the moment it seems probable that they will.
We are in a depressing situation. We might as well face that.
The one positive sign I see is that greater numbers are awakening to how the government’s propaganda machine has been misleading us. There are millions of citizens in the United States now who know that the behavior of the ruling powers is not what they have said it has been, and who know even more thoroughly that the motives of the powerful are almost the opposite to what they say they are. For one thing, the notion that the governing structure of the United States stands for democracy and wants to promote it has become so absurd that one has to be either oblivious to what’s going on, or obsessed by vested interest, to give even a slight credibility to the idea.
Surely, many say to themselves, the millions who grasp reality can’t be hushed up so completely that the people in charge can get away with murder -- literally -- for decades. I want to say that too; it’s just that I can’t be confident I’d be right in saying it.
The American people know that things are bad. All the polls tell us so. But most don’t know why they are bad. Legions, driven by bigotry and hatred of anything different from themselves, adopt farcical theories which make things worse. The current mania among many on the right to impeach President Obama shows how looney certain sectors of our population are. Mr. Obama has been a disappointment in many respects, but the behavior the yahoos want to impeach him for are actually examples of his better moments. We ought to be able to turn frustration and anger into thrusts toward reform. But the angriest people in the nation now are galloping away from health. Dysfunctional thought in wide sections of the country may be our most serious national disease.
So here we are, in a bad fix. The best advice I can think to give anyone -- try hard to find out what’s actually happening -- may be the hardest thing a nation constituted as the United States is now could attempt to do.
July 25, 2014
I happened on a clip of Sean Hannity supposedly interviewing a Palestinian guest. But of course it was not actually an interview because Hannity is not bright enough to know what an interview is. He has only two modes of addressing the people who come on his show. He either fawns or he browbeats.
Since the guest in this case was a Palestinian then, inevitably, Hannity was browbeating. His tactic was the hackneyed practice of asking a meaningless question and then insisting, with accelerating rudeness, that the guest answer it either yes or no. Most people are not prepared for behavior of this sort and so they fumble in trying to make a response, which simply eggs the bully on.
The question in this assault was: “Is Hamas a terrorist organization?” Hannity is doubtless too dimwitted to recognize that any answer to such a question can be only a matter of opinion; there is no factual definition of “terrorist.” In a genuine interview, a followup question would be required: “According to whom?” It’s exactly the same sort of query as, “Is so-and-so an asshole?” The only issue is whether the person being asked is prepared to insult the person or organization the question is presumably about.
The guest in this instance kept his wits sufficiently to answer that the U.S. government has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, but that just sent Hannity into greater paroxysms of bullying. He demanded that the guest proclaim what Hamas “is.” I don’t suppose it would be reasonable to expect Hannity to grasp even the elementary problems of ontology. He is, after all, a Fox News host. That means he’s not trying to arrive at any sort of truth during his interviews, or to bring forth any information. His only goal is to gratify his Yahoo audience. He’s so blatant in that regard you would think that even they would see what he’s up to and grow tired of it. But, then, by definition, they can’t do that.
Hannity’s antics are so standard one might say it’s senseless to pay them any mind. And that would be a telling point against my efforts today if my topic were Hannity. But he interests me only occasionally, when his behavior happens to overlap -- at least slightly -- with the attitudes of persons who are considerably brighter than anyone who could be awarded a host’s spot on Fox. Right-wing hacks are not the only persons who fall into what I think of as the God trap, that is, making the assumption that there is some overweening, not to be questioned, authority which can transform questions of opinion into question of fact. Whether Hamas “is” a terrorist organization is the kind of issue this transformation is supposed to resolve.
Inattention to words may be humanity’s most fundamental flaw. Most people fall into the habit of thinking that if a noun is used commonly then it must have a factual definition. That’s true of words like “baseball bat” and “gasoline engine.” However, it’s not true of “terrorist” or other nouns concocted for the purpose of denunciation. One of the prime functions of government nowadays is to design propaganda efforts that will cause people to view nouns which are instruments of opinion as being factual entities. If you believe that there is an unquestionable definition of “terrorist” which you can stick on somebody’s head, then you take a long step towards gaining the right to kill him. The desire to kill somebody is just about all there is at work in such instances. And the reasons for wanting to kill him are likely to be all over the place. Transmogrifying opinions into propositions -- which by definition can be tested for their truthfulness -- is the chief purpose of most large organizations and of every government I know anything about. It is the purpose of Hamas, yes, but it is also the purpose of the Israeli and American governments. This is just another way of saying that if you trust implicitly what any such organization tells you, then you’re being taken for a ride.
If you want to know the meaning of the statements issued by political organizations, then, first, you’ve got to inquire into who they are, and where they are. American and Israeli propaganda wants to paint Hamas as a set of people who are fundamentally and inexplicably evil (“evil” being another noun which is regularly passed off as being fact-based). To make their case, the Americans and the Israelis point to wild statements made by certain Hamas spokesmen. The accusers conveniently forget that there are voices in their own ranks who make statements just as wild. They also forget, just as conveniently, that the kind of statements coming from Hamas will inevitably rise from the more passionate representatives of people who feel they have nothing to lose. Over the past few days, the mainstream media have incessantly denounced Hamas for refusing to accept cease fire proposals without bothering to note that these proposals all involve a return to the status quo which was in place before the outbreak began, a status quo which the majority of Palestinians find intolerable. The slightest tincture of imagination is all that’s needed to comprehend something of the mindset of people who, feeling they have nothing to lose, are willing to continue with an outbreak producing hideous results among their own ranks. Whether they’re intelligent or reasonable to do this is another issue. I don’t think they are, but, then, I have to remember that I’m saying this while sitting in a comfortable room, with good medical care quickly available if I need it, and plenty of food in my ice box downstairs. I’m not in their shoes; that’s for sure.
But back to the possibility of a slight strain of imagination: you’re not going to get it from a government. So if you are willing to see the world as any government paints it, then you’re also willing to have a distorted picture. It may not be as twisted as the one you’ll get from Sean Hannity. But it’s certainly in that direction.
July 27, 2014
A truth many people have a hard time grasping is that they have to get their perspective of reality from somewhere. The sources people adopt for supplying their sense of reality form probably the primary feature of their public identity.
It seems to be the case that the main sources most people select are the propaganda machines of large and powerful organizations. The commonest examples are national governments, the institutions of organized religion, political parties, and ethnic support groups.
We need always to remember that though propaganda can incorporate some truth, the purpose of propaganda is not truth-telling. Rather propaganda operations exist to promote the purposes of power structures. If the truth helps, fine; if the truth hurts, then dismiss and try refute it. For the most part, power structures cannot be open and honest about their motives. If they were, great numbers of people would recognize that their own well-being was not being promoted and therefore would become resistant. The most obvious illustration of this in the United States now is the Republican Party. A majority of its voters are damaged by the party’s policies. Consequently, the leaders of the party have to lie about almost everything they’re trying to achieve.
What needs to be remembered is that although the Republican Party is egregious in this respect, it is not fundamentally different from other power structures. They all have to engage in falsehood at times and when the need arises they do it without reservation. Remember how long the big tobacco companies insisted that smoking had no deleterious effects. They knew they were lying when they announced that and, yet, they did it for decades.
All power structures are trying to take over your thoughts, but the ones in the world now with the greatest potency of mind control are national governments. That’s because they can appeal to a greater number of emotions than other structures can. They can employ the first person plural pronoun shamelessly and, for the most part, not only avoid being called out but rather stir up sentimental affects. Remember the great nationalistic cry from seven or eight years ago: we should all support our troops. Why are they my troops? For the most part they are doing things I detest. I have nothing, personally, to do with them, other than being forced to pay taxes for them that would be much better spent elsewhere. But, one might argue: they are standing on the line, ready to sacrifice themselves to protect your liberty. When I hear talk like that, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nothing U.S. military force has done in the past fifty years has protected my liberty one iota. To the degree my liberty is threatened, the menace comes from the national security state, with its conviction that it has the right to use me any way it sees fit and spy on every feature of my life.
Furthermore, I know the United States government lies incessantly. Remember the final months of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. The lies came at us like they were being shot out of a fire hose, and they resulted in behavior that has demonstrably cankered our future. Am I supposed to forget that? Reminders of similar government behavior come to me constantly. Right now we’re told to be in a great moralistic fervor about the plane shot down over eastern Ukraine. Scarcely anyone recalls that on July 3, 1988, the United States did exactly the same thing, shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 and killing all 290 persons on board. And the similarities to the Ukraine incident don’t stop there. The reasons for the attacks seem to have been the same -- a commercial flight was mistaken for a military plane. Also the response of the attackers has been almost identical. They both denied that they did it long after they knew very well what they had done. But, then, of course, you have to take into account that the slaughter in 1988 was done by good people whereas the more recent killing was done by bad people, and, not only that. If I can believe various U.S. spokesmen I’ve heard, the killers in the current incident were all drunk. How the accusers know that has not been revealed. Perhaps it’s classified.
I have to enter here a plea not to be mistaken. I am not saying that national governments do no good or that they’re unnecessary. We have to rely on the government of the United States to do a great many things, and in many instances it does them fairly well. All I’m saying is that what the government doesn’t do well is tell the truth. So if you’re relying on your government - or any government, for that matter -- to supply you with your perspective of reality, then your perspective is fouled up.
There is no way, of course, to get a perfect perspective because that would require an infinite number of viewpoints. But your perspective becomes stronger and more in the direction of the truth, the greater number of voices you take into account. In particular, when two forces are engaged in killing each other, then it becomes a duty to listen as carefully as you can to what each side is saying. Don’t expect either to give you the truth, and, especially, don’t accept the analysis of one by the other. The picture of an enemy drawn by its opponent is never accurate. It is always almost pure propaganda.
Not to be taken in by propaganda is, I think, an essential human duty. And it’s one we here in the United States are not carrying out very well right now.
July 28, 2014
I keep finding notes I had forgotten, from times before I launched this web page. The one that caught my attention this morning is from about fourteen years ago when I was reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value. The passage I was commenting on in my notes came from early in the book:
No reason can be given for why you should act (or should have acted) like this, except that by doing so you bring about such and such a situation, which again has to be an aim you accept.
Here’s my note which followed that reading:
This says that the only morality we can talk about is one we can, personally, take responsibility for. I suspect that the fear of taking responsibility for outcomes is what drives people into twisted quarrels about right and wrong. People are afraid to say, “I want it to be such and such, and that’s why I did it.” Rather, they want to say, “I was driven to do it,” or “I did it because that’s what God wanted.” But to say such things is not freedom.”
Now here I am a decade and a half later asking myself whether I continue to stand by that same sentiment. When I ask, I find that I do. The only difference is that now I have a longer experience in applying the proposal than I did then and, consequently, have more situations I can cite where it helped me know what to do.
When we look at the conflicts in the world, and particularly the conflicts which cause people to obliterate human life, we see that almost all the time the destroyers think they are acting in the service of something greater than themselves, something that derives its authority from a higher source than mere humanity. It is this reading of an overweening, supra-human force which they claim makes it acceptable to take everything from another human that he possesses, including his very self. If you said to these people, “You did it because you wanted to,” most of them would feel insulted. They want to think they did it in the interests of justice, or righteousness, or duty, or patriotism, or some deity. All of these, you see, get the killers off the hook.
If we were to take these eminent authorizers off the table -- so to speak -- I think we would have considerably less killing. Of course, a sort of thuggish, sociopathic killing would remain. And it would continue to pose a problem for social life. But when you think of all the destruction of life that has been carried out down the ages, a majority of it has been done by people who expected to be celebrated and commemorated for it. There are statues honoring such folk all over the world. Clearly, we have the ability to manage criminal killing -- that is murder -- much better than we can glorified killing -- that is heroics.
I would have some confidence in this line of thinking -- we might call it the Wittgenstein advisory, even though I’m pretty sure I thought of it independent of reading his works -- were it not for a mysterious lacuna in the minds of most bright and kind-hearted people. Though they seem increasingly inclined to surrender the notion of a transcendental authority, they continue to hold onto such an authority’s prime creation, that is, right and wrong, or good and bad. They appear to think that somehow, infused into the stuff of the universe, are moral rules existing outside human creation. If you ask them where these rules come from, they stumble though a poorly explained universality which supposedly decrees that all humans believe pretty much the same things, regardless of their cultural environment. If such a condition is valid, then it can come from only one source, evolution. Yet it seems very hard, considering evolution’s wastefulness, to invest it with any version of a satisfying morality.
I realize there are extremely complicated philosophical issues in any questioning of this variety. I don’t want to dismiss them as utterly insignificant. But I will argue that, at the moment, we could build a more healthy human environment by setting transcendental morality aside, in order to encounter one another face to face, group to group, and say, “Look. I want this and you seem to want something different. How can we figure out, given that we live in the world together, how each of us can have as much of what we want as possible?” In other words it would be a diplomatic approach to interactive living rather than the demand that “right” -- which can never be agreed upon or even defined -- rule over everyone.
I realize that it’s hard to give up the notion of good and bad. I find myself falling into it incessantly. But when it comes to killing someone because I think I’m good and he’s bad, it seems to me I’d do well to forget about my goodness for a bit in order that we both might explore ways to continue surviving.
If I approach a potential enemy and say, “Look, I’m just a guy trying to find a way to get some of what I want, including a reasonably comfortable life for my wife and children,” I suspect I’d have a better chance of having a genuine conversation with him that if I started our meeting by proclaiming, “I am an agent of God and you are an agent of the Devil.”
When I listen to the political leaders of the world expostulating, almost all of them seem to be taking the latter course rather than the former. They don’t know how to talk to anybody with whom they disagree. They live in bubbles so they speak as bubbleheads.
I know I can’t get everybody to read Wittgenstein. But maybe I can have at least a tiny influence by hiding the grandeur of my goodness under the cloak of one more confused creature just trying to find my way in the world. So that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’ll doubtless fail at times. But so what? Working through failure is the price of success.
©John R. Turner
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