Collected Thoughts

December 2014
December 2, 2014

A few months ago I had an extended conversation with some friends about the use of the word “sanity” and whether it might be broadened to mean more than just the absence of obvious derangement. I had in mind viewing sanity as a quality of mind which can never be perfect and, therefore, can always be enhanced, a condition everyone should always be working towards.

My friends thought I would be well-advised to find some other term, such as wisdom, rationality, or stability to get at the quality I was imagining. Though I didn’t completely agree with them, I decided to back off, for a while, from the empowerment of “sanity.”

But now that time has passed. Recent events have convinced me, even more than before, that a quest for expanded sanity is required for the ongoing existence of humanity.

Yesterday I read an interview with Guy McPherson, an earth scientist who is convinced that the climate crisis is far more dire than is generally conceived, even among scientists. Almost all climate scientists foresee serious troubles by the end of this century, but that’s a prediction which allows time for corrective response. Mr. McPherson believes that’s ignoring the logarithmic development of climate change. He sees terrible developments coming within a couple decades. They will cascade upon humanity so rapidly that no one, and no group, will be able to confront or resist them. He goes so far as to say that humanity is unlikely to last beyond the 2030s. He speaks of humanity as having entered the hospice period.

That’s absurd, most people would say. But most people don’t approach McPherson’s knowledge of the evidence. If things go as McPherson predicts, the response of most people -- those most people who are convinced they know how to spot absurdity -- will quickly become purely insane. Their actions will rival any apocalypse imagination has yet devised

I have no means for assessing the accuracy of McPherson’s prognostications. I hope they’re exaggerated. But however extreme they are, they are far more sane than the views of a majority of the American people, or a majority of the members of Congress. Neither thinks climate change is anything to be worried about, and anyone who thinks that is seriously deficient in sanity. It doesn’t matter if they descend into outright insanity. They are so lacking in sanity as to be thoroughly incompetent in facing the challenges of the future.

Climatology is not the only area in which this inadequate sanity is displayed.  The militaristic, security-state strategy of killing great numbers of uninvolved people in an attempt to make the world safe through assassination really does deserve to be called insane. Causing more people, on a daily basis, to be determined to strike back at you is a nutty way to protect yourself. Yet we have prominent members of Congress pushing all the time for intensification of this behavior. I have no hesitancy in saying that John McClain and Lindsey Graham are demented. Yet that leaves me with the problem of how to rate an electorate which regularly returns them to the national legislature.

A criminal justice system which consistently abuses sectors of the population obviously undermines the safety of society. Anyone who begins to examine human behavior knows that when people feel they’re under attack they conclude they have every right to hit back. Apologists for the system argue that those who are oppressed need to learn subservience in order to avoid the wrath of regular people. That, they say, is the path to social stability for everyone. But how sane is it to hold that when one is being beaten down the best course is to bow lower? Wouldn’t it be more sane to call on the general population to examine how its legal system is working, and to insist that it deliver equal justice to all citizens? Yet what percentage of Americans ever look at statistics revealing the number of arrests, the number of prisoners, the length of sentence, the opportunity for parole, as they are applied to ethnic groups in this country? Can we say it’s fully sane to refuse to assimilate information everyone ought to acquire?

The most rampant form of irrational behavior on display in America now is an economic system that makes no sense at all. It pollutes the environment. It creates a vast class of employees who can’t live off the salaries they make. It buys the legislature so as to maintain a tax system that’s destroying the national infrastructure. It piles up vast stores of capital in the hands of people who care nothing about social well-being. It insists on clawing money out of social welfare programs, such as medical care, and dumping it into private hands. It is in all its aspects severely corrupt. But the American people can’t rouse themselves to stop its depredations. Why is that sane? We have an economic system cheating more than ninety percent of the people and, though, they grumble, they don’t back up their grumbles with votes.

The common thread in all these sub-sane systems is a refusal to know what’s going on. We have reached a stage of development where it actually constitutes insanity to refuse to gather information, and to act on it.

The media continue to discuss all these problems as though they are the inevitable features of politics. They have to be the way they are, say our main newspapers and television stations. That’s irrational in itself. They do not have to be the way they are.

We should get off the good guy/bad guy kick and begin to see that we need to start positing our problems as issues between sane and less than sane positions. We don’t have a morality problem that’s nearly as acute as our sanity problem. If we started discussing it in that fashion we would have a better chance to make reforms. Nobody minds being called bad or greedy anymore. Those charges have no purchase. But if we began pointing out about characters such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Lloyd Blankfein, John Brennan, and James Inhofe that they’re existing somewhere between insanity and sub-sanity, I suspect more people would wake up and begin to examine the sanity of their own levels of thought and behavior.

December 4, 2014

It’s time for another transcription of brief comments from my pocket notebook. I’m not sure if there’s a theme to them or not. I simply jotted them down as they came to me over the past couple weeks.

  • Most social and political pathologies are reflected in language. Some of these arise from using words falsely, but more come from using them meaninglessly.

  • I begin to feel as if the early part of my life were no more than a tale in an ancient history book, and the people I knew then were minor characters in a novel by Dickens. I haven’t known any major characters. Maybe that’s because major characters don’t walk the earth.

  • In the view of some of my friends, when an element of the U.S. government is behaving viciously it should be set aside as though it were not a genuine part of the whole.

  • People who can’t be bothered to take action against declining mind will probably experience it. Here in Hardee County that’s seen as just the way things are.

  • We create words like “asshole” to express frustration over minds that care nothing for imagination or beautification.

  • It seems often that the anguish of being human appears too heavy to bear.

  • That which is seen -- and therefore that which functions -- as a mental illness is determined by the historical moment. This has been clear to me for quite a while. But many people have a hard time seeing it because they are caught in notions of eternal verities.

  • The main reason for losing interest in MSM publications is that little other than tired and hackneyed metaphors appear in them. Their language is almost never inviting.

  • If the policy being pursued by a military campaign is foolish and cruel, I can’t view the bravery devoted to it as entirely noble. Nobility, if it is to have a coherent meaning, must include elements of intelligence.

  • Those who determine their own political stance by its position on the current political spectrum, because they are worried about being seen as outside the norm, can never be depended upon for anything.

  • Political parties die because they become irrelevant. The position of the Democratic Party now is similar to the situation of the Whigs in the 1950s.

  • Do rural areas generally produce interesting people? They are reputed to turn out good people but what sort of virtue is involved in that judgment? What brand of good comports with pure conventionality and absence of imagination?

  • No woman would want to have sex with the guys in Cialis commercials.

  • Many Americans like to mask their murderousness as patriotism. Perhaps that’s all patriotism has ever been.

  • The quality of public discourse in America is alarmingly crude. What’s the most likely reason? Is it that the American people themselves are also alarmingly crude? If it is, can anything be done about it? Perhaps not.

  • Why are some functionaries expected to operate outside human judgment and behave simply as robots? Police, for example?

  • Most people will adopt any distortion they think will support their own advantage. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous it is. Almost never will clear evidence that they are mistaken about where their advantage lies make any difference to them.

  • Religion is the tool the human race devised for disengaging the critical mind.

  • There is little evidence that humanity can avoid cataclysms by employing facts and reason.

  • The human brain is an ingenious organism but it’s also deeply flawed so far as achieving well-being is concerned.

  • Many people, and perhaps most, are constantly trying to rewrite history to suit their current interests.

  • What’s the most common term for people who will kill other people for money? Republicans?

  • Insanity has become a severe difficulty not because minds are any less steady than they once were but because we have created a social environment which stokes mental instability It’s hard not to fall victim to it.

  • The main problem in attempting to write accurate history is that the actual past always involves the actions of thousands of people whose effects can never be traced. There are no records of what they did.

  • The American temperament has a hard time grasping that there are men and movements almost equally possessed by healthy and by diseased inclinations. Populism, for example, is such a movement. Many politicians fall into this condition. You might say that one would be hard put to attain majority political status outside this dualism.

  • There is far too much cheering in America and too little observing.

  • Given seemingly ineradicable human tendencies, what is the possibility of achieving a just and sensible politics?

  • If there can be non-erasable conspiracy theories -- which clearly there are -- might there not also be equally non-deletable thought systems or beliefs which are thoroughly immune to disproof, regardless of the evidence brought against them? Do most religions fall into this category?

  • Should one get discouraged by the looniness of the human race or celebrate it for its amusement effect?

  • We once thought that Sarah Palin was more pathetic than John McCain. But now we have to question that judgment.

  • When people say they might support Ben Carson for president do they really mean it or are they just trying to incite a political circus for the fun of it? (if you don’t know who Ben Carson is, just watch Fox News for a while). I don’t suppose, by the way, that Ben Carson is any worse than Donald Trump was four years ago.

  • If large numbers of people came to believe that accelerating climate change was pretty soon going to make the earth uninhabitable for humans, I wonder what they would do. Would they still be clamoring to wipe out gay marriage?

December 6, 2014

It seems to be the case that God takes a hand in the outcome of almost every Florida high school football game.

It’s hard to find a newspaper report of a game in which a victorious player doesn’t proclaim that his team won because God got behind their efforts. No one ever inquires why God was down on the opposing team.

In the Class 2A championship game last night (Florida appears to have a nearly limitless number of football team classifications) Victory Christian defeated Indian Rocks Christian, 54-16, this despite Indian Rocks Christian’s number one ranking (in Class 2A, of course) before the contest. Cecil Cherry, a linebacker on the winning team noted, “We didn’t just do this. God did this for us.” A.J. Harper, who caught eight passes, for 124 yards, added that “This is a blessing from God.”

It seems peculiarly anomalous that God would play favorites in a game between two Christian schools. But I may think that just because I don’t understand these things. Perhaps the names had something to do with the outcome. Victory Christian is “The Storm” whereas Indian Rocks Christian is the more prosaic “Golden Eagles.”

I get it that these are simply excited high school boys blurting out their happiness over winning a big game. I’m sure they worked hard to get to the championship contest and they have every right to be thrilled that they won. Nobody should wish to take that away from them.

Even so, there is a feature in their mode of expressing exhilaration which reveals something disturbing about the mindset of the community which shaped them. And keep in mind, this is not true just of players from Christian academies; it pervades all ranks of sports, from Little League to the professionals.

The notion I have in mind is the belief that one worships God in order to gain power to defeat one’s opponents or one’s enemies. You want God on your side so you can win. And working hard, and believing rightly, so you can win is the most glorious feature of life. In other words, life is primarily a struggle against others and you try to marshal everything you can, including God’s favor, on your side so you can be victorious.

I’ll admit that I don’t accept myths and fables as historical truth, and I think that viewing them that way leads to quite a few regrettable consequences. But leaving that issue aside for the moment, the notion of God as the big, transcendental Battle King strikes me as being unhealthy for us all, believers and skeptics.

If one of God’s principal purposes is to decide who wins, that also means he decides who loses. And if God marks you as a loser, then there’s no reason why mere mortals should show you any mercy whatsoever. It’s a formula for carnage, butchery and pogroms.

I’m not, for a minute, suggesting that the boys who played for Victory Christian last night, or their coaches, want consciously to kill anyone. But I do think the concept that life is a war, or a battle, in which God, himself, takes sides, if it gets thoroughly ingrained in the mind, has extremely unfortunate consequences.

One can’t avoid wondering about the political beliefs fifteen years hence of the boys who won the Class 2A championship last night. Will they be merciful or will they be vengeful? Will these champions wish to understand people who hold religious beliefs different from their own, or will they want either to convert or to crush them? Will they want their government to aid the poor and infirm, or will they conclude that those people are suffering God’s righteous punishment? Will they try to get behind efforts to ameliorate a worsening climate, or will they conclude that the weather is simply God’s business? Will they think America best carries out the divine plan by employing military force against those who have been designated agents of Satan, or not?

It’s probable that some will be on one side of these questions and some on the other, but I’m afraid that a considerable majority will favor the argument that smashing enemies is the way to glory.

Maybe it would be an intelligent thing for their coaches to remind them that the boys on the other side of the scrimmage line are playing for exactly the same reasons they, themselves, are playing, and that the Golden Eagles are pretty much the same sort of kids they are. Perhaps it would even be advisable for the coaches to say to them, “God is not on your side any more than he is on the side of the Golden Eagles. If you win this game, you’ll win it yourselves because you played harder, and smarter than they did. And that’s all there is to it.”

I doubt, fairly strongly, that they would ever do the latter.

At some time, probably not right before the game in the locker room, but at some time, the coaches ought also to remind their players that though upcoming contests are important, and need to be taken seriously, they are still football games. They offer their own rewards, but they don’t tell anybody about how a player stands in the cosmic scale of things. Somebody wins and somebody loses. The winners are happy -- for a time; the losers are sad -- for a time. Play hard so you can be happy. That’s it.

Though there are getting to be serious questions about how football is played, I confess I still like it. There may be ways to play the game just as thrillingly with a slackening in serious injuries. I hope those ways are pursued. But in any case, however it’s played, football will be a far better sport if God is forgotten about as a partisan participant.

December 25, 2014

You may have noticed there’s been a gap in my posting here. What you may not know is that such gaps for me usually signal a gestation period. I sit and think for days on end about how I should use this website, and after a while a thought comes to me, one that’s commonly so simple I curse myself for not having thought of it before.

To start with, I want to keep this site going, perhaps for as long as I live. You may ask why and if you did you did my impulsive response would be that it’s none of your business. But then reflection would tell me that’s a bad answer. After all, I’m putting it up for you to look at, if you choose. So, I owe you some explanation.

I doubt I can do better than Thoreau managed in the first pages of Walden, where he pointed out that if one offers some explanation of who and what he is, he’s, in effect, affording others an opportunity to explore in a foreign territory. For one person’s mind must remain pretty much a mysterious expanse to anyone else.

Over the past couple years I’ve posted column-length essays, usually about a thousand words long. I’ve cranked out somewhat more than a hundred a year, and all of them taken together add up to something. I can’t say what, for sure, but I can say I’m not ashamed of them, taken all together. I could keep on that manner, but I’ve grown a bit weary of it. It takes up more of my time and thought than you might imagine, and holds me back from other projects I tell myself I have to address.

For the next year I’m going to do something I’ve thought often of doing but have not got round to on a consistent basis. I’m going to keep an intellectual journal and let you look at it. By intellectual journal I mean simply commentary on some of the ideas that come to my mind each day. I can’t write about everything I think of; I’ll have to be selective. I’ll try to include just the topics I would like to be remembered as having thought about. It’s clearly not an original project. Any freshness it might have will have to come from the content rather than from the form. But that’s okay. I confess to occasionally having had the thought that there has been too much time and effort spent in experimenting with form, though I’ve got nothing against it, if one has something in mind other than wanting to appear new.

I promise, I won’t bore you with tales of stomach aches or trips to the dentist. And I won’t write much about the process of getting old, except as it might relate to other social topics. If I can average 500 words a day, that will compile a text of 182,500 words on the existence of a mind from one Christmas to the next. Who knows? It could be diverting. So, that’s my goal.

I would be very glad if some of you would engage me in this effort. Write to tell me you think I’ve been stupid, or that you hate me, or whatever. That would please me a great deal.

Now I’ve exceeded my 500 words for today. So check back tomorrow.

December 26, 2014

Last week I stumbled on an essay in Salon by John G. Messerly titled “Religion’s Smart-People Problem: The Shaky Intellectual Foundations of Absolute Faith.” In some ways it was an ordinary statement that thoughtful and well-educated people are less likely to profess faith in a divine being who rules the universe and our lives than are people who take that sort of belief for granted.

I, of course, see the truth of that observation in my annual peregrinations from Vermont to Hardee County, Florida. I don’t know of any of my friends and acquaintances in Vermont who hold conventional views about a reigning deity, whereas here in Florida everyone I meet speaks of the existence of God as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. I suspect that most of the latter have never entertained the thought that God might be a creation of mankind rather than being the creator.

If that division were all Messerly was getting at, his piece would be a fairly ho-hum production. But he pushes farther by arguing that believing in things that aren’t supported by evidence is clearly harmful. He quotes approvingly the 19th century mathematician, W. K. Clifford, who in a widely discussed address titled “The Ethics of Belief” in 1877, announced that “It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

You have read all the way to the end of Messerly’s fairly extensive essay to grasp why he takes that stance. But his final paragraph lays it out about as nicely, and succinctly, as I’ve seen it done.  Here’s what he says:

Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end;
they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love, its
war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.

The idea that we should step out of childhood, that we are at a crisis point of maturation, is one I see suggested ever more frequently. Whatever humanity has been up to this point, it has certainly not been grownup. It has been exciting, it has been glorious, it has been capable of grand effusions of art -- all things that children can bring forth. But it has not been mature.

That it’s time for humanity, as an intellectual collective, to stop being childish is, I guess you could say, merely a matter of opinion. But it’s an opinion, I suspect, that millions, and perhaps, billions, are on the point of adopting. It’s based on the sense that we’ve done all we can do as children. If we keep on trying to do the same things, over and over again, we will move from being fresh and charming to being petulant and boring and cruel.

It’s as though we were a fifteen year old who still believes in Santa Claus. Such a young person would quickly become an annoying brat. Somebody would have to tell him, “It’s time for you to wake up, and face the truth that you’re not a little kid anymore.” When adults continue to think that God will give them jam on their bread if they’ll just pray hard enough, they’re in pretty much the same condition.

How to get them to stop is a question Messerly doesn’t much address here. But it may be a problem the rest of us should turn our minds to.

December 27, 2014

Headlines tell me that 77% of Americans believe in angels whereas only 40% believe in global warming. Does such a statement have any meaning at all? Actually, it probably does but not the meaning that’s commonly perceived.

In the first place, the part about the 77% and angels is a lie. There is no way anyone could ever find out how many people believe in angels. What lies behind the headline is simply some poll in which a certain number of people were asked if they believed in angels, and 77% said they did. But we have no idea why they said they did, or what they meant by it, if they meant anything at all, which is dubious. There are all kinds of reasons why someone might say he believes in angels. He might, for example, think it’s the appropriate thing to say, and he doesn’t want the pollster to think he’s inappropriate. Why anyone would be that stupid is another question, a question far more complex than how many people will say they believe in angels. We can’t get into that right now, but I do want to reserve it for future discussions.

Most people, of course, have not given five minutes thought to the meaning of belief. If they were asked to define it they couldn’t offer a coherent answer. They would likely say something such as, “Everybody knows what belief means.” That’s clearly a falsehood. Scarcely anyone knows what belief means. It’s very hard to know whether such a term could even have a clear meaning. At the moment, I suspect that it can’t.

It gets even more squirrelly when it comes to belief in global warming. The people who hold firmly that global warming is occurring, do it not out of belief but because of evidence. Data has been collected by great numbers of scientists over many years which indicates, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the climate of the earth, overall, is getting hotter. The issue is not belief. Rather it has to do with whether a person is in some way in touch with the evidence. Or it may have to do with whether evidence has anything to do with the way a person thinks. Persons for whom evidence influences their opinions probably are a minority among humans generally. But that’s just a guess. The only evidence behind it is the number of persons I’ve met who don’t attend to evidence. But the number I’ve personally met is so small it has no statistical relevance.

So am I saying that the headlines that set all this off are senseless? Not completely. There is some meaning you could take from them with a fair degree of confidence. For example, you could be pretty sure that a person who would tell a pollster that he believes in angels would be a very bad conversationalist and, more likely than not, boring as hell. So, asking about belief in angels might be a good way to start sorting out the people you could stand to have as companions on a long automobile trip. As for people who would answer that they did not believe in global warming, you could discern nothing about the subject, but you could learn a considerable amount about the general culture, all of it terrifying, which might cause you to wish to run like hell, until you reflected there’s no place to run to.

My only point here is that we would do well to ask ourselves what we can actually derive from headlines rather than taking them literally. If a person thinks he can find out what’s happening in the world from scanning the headlines, he has dropped himself into a doleful situation.

December 28, 2014

I was glad to see that Greg Grandin, a historian at New York University, has written a remembrance of the 25th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama. His thesis is that the event was a turning point in American history, and I can testify that he is right.

On December 20, 1989, near the end of George H.W. Bush’s first year in office, a U.S. military task force attacked the tiny country of Panama. Within twelve hours of launching the assault, they had dropped 442 bombs or artillery shells into Panama City, had destroyed more than four thousand residences, and had killed a great many people (the precise number remains in dispute, but the most balanced citations indicate at least two thousand). Shortly thereafter, U.S construction crews dug large trenches into which bulldozers shoveled piles of bodies, with no attempt to discern who the dead people were.

There was no warning to the civilian population that the attack was coming.

The interesting thing about this exercise was that there was no defensible reason for it. A few days afterwards the government began to say it was done to restore “democracy,” but that was not the reason offered at the time of the attack. Then it was spoken of as a mission to arrest President Manuel Noriega, because he was a drug trafficker. It had been known, however, for years, that Noriega made money off illegal drugs, during virtually all the time he had worked, and been paid U.S. taxpayer money, as an asset of the C.I.A.

Probably the most accurate statement about the invasion came from Brent Scowcraft, the president’s National Security Advisor. Mr. Scowcraft later said he wasn’t sure how the momentum for the assault built up but then added that “maybe we were looking for an opportunity to show that we were not as messed up as the Congress kept saying we were.”

Certainly, the project was a major turning point for me. Before then, I was seriously naive. It had not occurred to me that leading figures of the U.S. government would slaughter hundreds of innocent persons simply to boost an administration’s standing with Congress or increase a president’s approval ratings. Since then, I have known, without a doubt, that a considerable portion of major American political “leaders” are ready to kill with little hesitation in order to gain political advantage. I have also learned there is nothing to choose, morally, between many top-ranking American officials and other reputed monsters of history. Think of placing Dick Cheney alongside Josef Stalin: the difference between them was simply opportunity, not willingness to kill.

Even more revealing to me, however, was what the event informed me about the character of the American people. Not only will they turn their affairs over to men who will kill without compunction, they will cheer them for doing it. The Panama affair was a great triumph for Bush. His reputation and ratings had been sagging, but once he demonstrated he had what it took to launch a military attack, regardless of the reason (or lack of reason), the people rallied behind him.

Mr. Grandin thinks the Panama adventure made the much larger excursion into Iraq fourteen years later more than possible. It’s not an absurd hypothesis.

What happened to the people of Panama a quarter century ago is barely remembered now by most Americans. But those of us who do remember it, think of it as transformative. It clearly turned me into a different sort of citizen, one who would now make major efforts to reject the label of “patriot” in the ordinary sense.

December 29, 2014

Is the United States a civilized country?

I’ve been encountering an increasing number of articles which argue that it’s not. The sharpest I’ve seen over the past several days comes from David Masciotra in Salon. His essay is titled “No Civilization Would Tolerate What America Has Done,” and his main thesis is that we tend to blame special interest groups for instances of cruelty, viciousness, and oppression. But, he asks, what if we’re over-complicating the situation? Wouldn’t it be simpler, more in keeping with Occam’s razor, to conclude that these behaviors arise directly from the majority of the people? It is, he maintains, the very concept of civilization “that the silent majority so fiercely seems to hate and reject.”

Such a position depends on a particular definition of “civilization,” one which is scarcely honored universally. So boosters of America can seize the option of dismissing Masciotra as a crotchety crank. Even so, it seems to me he will be persuasive to a significant portion of readers

Though I find Masciotra’s positions reasonably convincing, I suspect he could get his point across better by substituting “honesty” for “civilization.” After all, most Americans haven’t thought about civilization enough even to have a definition in mind. So they don’t actually know whether they’re for it or against it.

I can’t be sure that Americans are more afflicted by dishonesty than other peoples are. They may not be in the ordinary transactions of life. But when it comes to self-assertion, the history of the country offers considerable evidence that the nationalistic culture has been reared on a foundation of exaggeration, tall tales, and braggadocio. That’s clearly where the absurdity of American “exceptionalism” came from.

We can see these habits at work every day in the newspapers. If, for example, police kill a helpless, somewhat simple-minded person, they almost automatically make up some fantastical tale about how they thought their lives were in danger. And the astounding thing about it is a majority of the people will accept the police story no matter how bizarre it is. In fact, the crazier it is, the more acceptable it seems to become.

American security officials can actually kill a man by taking away all his clothes, stringing him  up in chains on a wall, overnight, in a near-freezing room, and then say, with a straight face, that they didn’t torture him because, you know, Americans don’t torture people.

American drones can descend on a gathering at an ordinary wedding, kill dozens, and then insist the people slaughtered were only pretending to be at a wedding and were actually terrorists. And the American people hearing this will laud the drone operators.

In some elements of U.S. culture lying has become the default position. It’s the first thing that springs to mind when an official is trying to explain something to the public. That was certainly the case in the U.S. army as long ago as when I was a soldier.

We’ve been at this for a very long time, so we shouldn’t expect to get rid of it any time soon. I’m not sure if you can say that habitual disregard for honesty is exactly the same thing as scorn for civilization. But the results of one appear to overlap quite a bit with the consequences of the other.

I suspect that if we wish to live in reasonable accord with the other peoples of the world in the 21st century, we’ll need to examine our approach to honesty fairly critically. But I can’t say that I see, at the moment, a strong inclination in that direction.

December 30, 2014

For some reason I’ve grown weary of Christianity lately. Increasingly it strikes me as, at best, tedious. My shift may come from a stay in a region where the dominant strain of Christianity is particularly grim and judgmental. Evangelicals are convinced they’re the only true Christians but they come across to me as little more than fervent worshipers of their own culture and, hence, of themselves.

The basics of the Christian message have always, of course, been fantastical. God, the creator of the heavens and earth, decided he wanted to give humans a chance to be saved, by which he meant to attain endless existence in some region near to himself. And the best way he could think to do it was to send not just his son, but an eternal element of himself, to be incarnated as a human, and then to grow up to be tortured and suffer the most agonizing death imaginable. By these horrors the son, supposedly, took on all the sins of mankind and, as countless hymns attest, washed believers clean as snow with his blood. They had to be cleansed or else they couldn’t be admitted to the divine regions.

This sacrifice occurred at a particular point in history, eons after humans had begun wandering the earth. What happened to the souls of people who died before the incarnation continues to be a sticky point among Christian theologians. As far as I can tell, there is no general agreement.

The prime notion of God among Evangelicals is that you can’t ask why God does stuff. He’s God and that’s that. Your job is simply to accept whatever he does, no matter how goofy it might seem. The question of how Evangelicals know what they claim to know about God never surfaces. Their knowledge is one of the items that falls into the category of “everybody knows that” and consequently is never to be examined.

I read a few days ago about William Lane Craig of the Talbot School of Theology, who is seen as one of the leading Evangelical thinkers. He is known for denouncing evolution, atheism, metaphysical naturalism, logical positivism, postmodernism, moral relativism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, homosexuality and any non-fundamentalist Christian theology. He says life is absurd without God, the reason being that without God both humans and the whole universe will end without a proper resolution. Presumably, we can’t have that. Craig is a good example of why I find aspects of Christianity tiresome. He sits and announces, smugly, and views such behavior as that’s all that’s necessary to explain everything. I admit that not all Christian thinkers are as presumptuous as Craig. Some have interesting points to make. But they all appear to be trying to hold onto a system of explanation whose foundations are crumbling in the current world.

The reason I think they are crumbling is that the thought rising from them is suffused with a blatant contradiction, which holds that there is something outside everything which controls everything. That makes no sense of course. There cannot be something outside everything. It’s a childish fantasy.

Childish charm lasts during childhood, but when anyone tries to make it the basis of maturity, he will eventually turn it into something fairly monstrous. It seems to me that we’re at a stage of human intellectual evolution when we are trying to remain childishly charming beyond the time it can serve meaningfully. And Christianity is a significant element of that futile desire. It’s not alone, of course. But it is potent, and, I’m afraid, it’s a potency which undermines future prospects.

I’ve got nothing against remembering Christianity fondly. I’m fond of it myself, in many ways. I think it’s fine to cherish hymns and church architecture. But to set Christianity as the solution for our current problems can no longer suffice. It’s a part of our cultural heritage, and as such we need to know about it and take it into account. But it is not a searchlight that will guide us as we move into the mystery of what’s to come.

December 31, 2014

Did the North Korean government hack into the Sony Corporation’s electronic files and disrupt the management of its data? If you’re an average American you believe that it did. But you have no credible evidence for this belief. So why do you believe it?

The answer, of course, is that the president and a number of anonymous security officials said so. They offered you no evidence; they just announced it. Any sentient citizen knows that such officials lie frequently to advance their own policy initiatives or to justify assaults on other nations. Still most Americans believe their charges. And therein lies a big problem.

The Lakeland Ledger has begun to run columns by Erick Erickson. I don’t know what percentage of the Ledger’s readers know that Erickson is a right-wing loon who has seldom shown respect for any sort of evidence. My guess, based on some minimal investigation, is that it’s a fairly small portion.

Here’s what Erickson said in a recent column about the Sony flap:

The North Koreans released confidential financial data about the company,
released damaging internal e-mails, and when those efforts did not deter the
company, the North Koreans threatened 9/11 style attacks on American soil
to kill moviegoers. The Obama administration took forever to respond, and its
initial response was anemic.

Erickson, of course, has no way of knowing if the North Koreans did what he said they did. But he doesn’t care. He just wants to use unsubstantiated allegations to make one more attack on Barack Obama.

The big problem I alluded to above is that relatively few Americans approach news commentary of this sort critically, whether it comes from government officials with unacknowledged motives or from intellectual freaks like Erickson. Most simply swallow what they hear with scant suspicion that it might be false.

So long as they continue in that mode, they have no way of knowing whether what they think they believe -- or even what they get fervently excited about -- has anything to do with the public interest. Some people proclaim, of course, that they just don’t care about “any of that.” But when they do, they’re usually deluding themselves. Those who claim to be uninterested to that extent are often in the lead in cheering on U.S. military assaults on other nations, or in expressing fulsome gratitude to military personnel for protecting their freedom. They don’t have any particular freedoms in mind when they offer their thankfulness, nor do they know how the military is protecting them. But nothing of that sort enters their minds. They like the thought that they’re being protected and that’s enough to produce satisfaction.

A definite majority of Americans, at the moment, are a clear verification of Francis Bacon’s aphorism: “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”

Is this an ineradicable feature of human nature, or something that might be changed? If it can’t be changed then democracy has to be viewed as a myth rather than as a feature of functioning government.

I don’t know if it can be changed any more than I know who carried out the hack on Sony. I certainly don’t want to fall into belief about either of the questions until I have a good deal more evidence to support it. But if I were required to guess whether popular change is more or less likely than North Korean Sony-hacking, I’d say, knowing what I know now, that the chances in the two cases are about equal.

©John R. Turner

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