January 1, 2015
Over the past half-year I’ve become more attentive to, and respectful of, Patrick L. Smith, whose columns are now published in Salon. I think of him as a leader among former main-stream-media journalists who have come to see that in order to maintain the journalistic standards they honor, they had to leave organizations still considered respectable, and which a majority continue to regard as authoritative. He couldn’t avoid recognizing that, with respect to journalistic integrity, those institutions have sold out in major ways. From 1985 to 1992, he was a bureau chief for the International Herald Tribune, but it’s unlikely he could get a similar position now. He has become too blunt in his truth-telling.
His column this morning was titled “The Truth About American Exceptionalism,” and it begins by asserting that the United States is well into its late imperial phase, a condition almost always marked by blindness and deafness. The national government is managed by a sequestered elite, who view themselves as being far above the general citizenry in both perspicacity and grasp of reality. And they have succeeded in persuading a majority of Americans of their expert status. Yet despite the gap between this ruling class and the general population, Smith argues that the people have no excuse for evading their responsibilities. The policies the nation pursues emerge finally from whatever the majority permit.
It’s unlikely that any mainstream journalist would fault the people for the foulups the government makes because it’s an article of required faith among conventional news outlets that the people can do no wrong. It’s a sort of greeting card verity. And it’s a perfect strategy for convincing people they have no duty to know what’s going on. But Smith will have none of such sentimentality.
He thinks that the American political system is now a complete failure, which may seem to indicate a pessimistic attitude. But pessimism is not Smith’s take on things. He believes the people have the capacity to take national policy back into their own hands, and to shape it to construct a strong country.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of his essay is Smith’s sharp distinction between a powerful country and strong country. The United States is now, obviously, a powerful nation, but power means only the ability to inflict damage on others. It doesn’t speak to the ability to fashion a healthy society. In fact, in Smith’s perspective, power and strength are almost directly opposed. Power serves the interests of a small elite; strength serves the interests of all the people.
The fear-ridden leadership we have at the moment has fashioned an unhealthy closeness between the media and power. As things are now configured, they both need each other. By contrast, the people need a media which will expose the machinations of power so that the public will, at long last, wake up to how they have been manipulated.
The strength of Smith’s analysis is dead right about what the majority of the people need. It’s weakness is a, perhaps, naive belief in how readily the people could wake up. When a public has been asleep as long at the Americans have, beguiled by false flattery, it’s not easy for them to open their eyes and recognize how they’ve been taken. Might they do it? Of course. Will they do it? That’s the major political question we confront.
It’s healthy to remember that it could happen. It’s wise to remind ourselves that it’s not a sure thing. In fact, nothing is sure in the situation the United States occupies now. Things could turn around; things could get worse. But one thing we know: without the analysis of persons like Patrick Smith, the chance of a turnaround is almost non-existent.
January 2, 2015
Who could have guessed that the National Organization for European-American Rights was a racist outfit? Certainly not Steven Scalise, the incoming House GOP whip, when he accepted an invitation to speak to a gathering of the organization. Mr. Scalise is outraged that anyone would now suppose that he shares the principles on which the NOEAR is based (has anyone noticed that the acronym indicates a less than perfect ability to hear?).
Mr. Scalise’s plight reminds me that for the past couple years I have been feeling twinges of regret for accusing Susan Sontag of extremism in 1967, when she wrote in the Partisan Review that “the white race is the cancer of human history.” It’s interesting that the latter part of the sentence which leads off with that famous judgment is seldom quoted. Just for the record, here it is: “it is the white race -- its ideologies and inventions -- which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
She was thirty-four years old when she wrote that, and it now remains among contenders for the most prescient statement of the 20th century. Whether it comes out on top depends on how the white race behaves in the 21st century, and at the moment the prospect for its seizing the first spot remains in the clearly possible category.
We scarcely need the antics of clowns like Scalise to remind us that the next two decades in American politics are likely to be dominated by the thrashings of the white supremacists’ last stand. The Congress which will get underway in the next few days is little more than the embodiment of those thrashings. I’ve said before, and I don’t mind repeating, that the Republican Party would have fewer than fifty members in the entire Congress were it not for votes cast out of racial bigotry.
Those who take solace in the belief that such sentiments are bound to fade as the century progresses don’t give enough attention to the damage the dead-enders can wreak as they shrink to a negligible minority. That’s because the nation, led by the mainstream media, is running away from the truth that a majority of white Americans remain in that self-delusional box.
It’s probably true that most people, white or not, have a tendency to see those who resemble themselves as being more virtuous than those who are different. But we have a good deal of evidence now that white people in the United States are pushing that common attitude to insane levels. It is made worse here than elsewhere by being linked to bizarre notions of religion. What’s called Christianity throughout the American South, and in many spots in the rest of the country also, is no more than the self-worship of white people. They are so convinced that they set the standard for all humans, and that their God is the ultimate promoter of those standards, they have sealed themselves into capsules where reason can’t penetrate. I can testify personally that there is virtually no possibility of discourse with “believers” of this sort.
They exist in great numbers, and they’re not going away overnight. The turmoils of a dying monster can be, for a time, more hideous than those of one who has been lying smugly satisfied for centuries.
January 3, 2015
I suspect many persons are like myself in that they have a set of writers and thinkers they intend to engage at some time but whom they have not yet got round to. Today I’m wondering about how and why they get on the list.
At the moment I’m concentrating on the current American philosopher Thomas Nagel, and in particular on his notion that mental stuff is just as real an element of the universe as physical matter is. Obviously, I can’t know that’s true but, on the other hand, I have no clear reason to reject it. I’m suspicious of it because I would like it to be true, and I know that desires often do lead the intellect astray.
Nagel says that the mental side of existence must somehow have been present in creation from the very start. He has gone even farther by announcing that “each of our lives is part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”
For at least forty years now I have been fond of the statement attributed to J. B. S. Haldane (but which may have originated with Arthur Eddington) that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine. I prefer to live in a universe of that sort, as contrasted with one we can eventually sort out. Some people don’t like uncertainty; I do. Why that happens to be, I don’t know. But my preference about it isn’t in doubt.
I do worry that concepts of the kind Nagel is famous for are simply sophisticated versions of the traditional belief in immortality provided for by a transcendent God. I wouldn’t like to be mixed up with the latter proposition. Maybe that’s because the common view of ongoing existence is connected to the prospect of sitting around forever in heaven singing hymns of praise to the Lord. I can’t think of anything worse than that. Still, Nagel’s embrace of a kind of nihilism is sufficiently inconsistent with religion to offer me a bit of relief. So I can play around with his assertion that mental stuff is a real and lasting part of the universe without feeling that I’ve abandoned all intellectual standards.
This is where Haldane’s (and Eddington’s) strange part comes in. Eddington helps a bit by saying the mind-stuff is not spread in space and time. But if it’s not in space and time, where is it? Isn’t space and time all we know? I suppose they could answer that all we know is not all there is, that, in effect, there must be other means of storage and preservation which aren’t a part of space and time. But if there’s something real that’s outside, or different from, space and time, then that’s indeed really strange.
I’ve got nothing against such strangeness but if I’m going to be honest I have nothing I can use to attest to its reality. I suppose I could say, “Maybe.” But is maybe worth anything?
Obviously, these confusions, are the reasons I need to do more than to scratch the surface of Nagel’s thought. I’ve seen enough to think he’s a bright guy. But I don’t yet grasp the basis of his brightness.
This leaves me with the problem of saying why he’s on my list. I don’t think you can legitimately stick names on your list randomly. There are too many eligible names for that to make any sense. You need, rather, to have some self-generated curiosity that a name might help you explore. Almost since I was a child, and well before I ever heard of Thomas Nagel, it bothered me that words and thoughts might just disappear. Surely, if the universe is everything, then ideas and words strung together are part of that everything. But how that could be I’m not yet able to imagine. Hence, my inclination to explore Nagel.
What I’ll get from him I won’t know till I find out. And so it goes.
January 4, 2015
There are numerous journalists working in America now whom I admire, among them Glenn Greenwald, James Risen, James Carroll, Henry Giroux and Mark Danner. All of them are struggling to keep the United States from being transformed into a gigantic garbage dump, dotted with prisons, military bases, and walled bastions of McMansions, where the entrepreneurial class cavorts, protected against the underclass criminal element who are always lurking about, presumably seething with envy.
Normally I don’t think of rank ordering these voices of sanity. But I confess there are times when I have a hard time resisting the sense that Thomas Frank is pretty close to the top of the list. His column this morning in Salon is one more reason for my feeling that way.
The essay’s title is fairly expansive: “Chain Restaurants Are Killing Us: Billionaire Bankers, Minimum-Wage Toilers and the Nasty Truth About Fast Food Nation.” The blight being spread by enterprises like McDonald’s, Cracker Barrel, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Waffle House, Bojangles’, Biscuitville, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, KFC, and Burger King is itself more than expansive and so deserves a lengthy lead-in.
Thomas begins by pointing out that these establishments secure their profits by establishing a kind of lunatic efficiency, where everything is so pre-set and programmed that skilled employees are unnecessary. The only people who will work at a McDonald’s are those who can’t get a job anywhere else, and so are forced to accept wages so low nobody can live on them. Maintaining these pathetic wages is a key strategy of the fast-food industry. The price, however, of this intensely concentrated efficiency is fantastic wastefulness. If you walk along a strip dominated by these unhealthy food emporia, you’ll find the ground littered with their insane packaging. The ugliness produced by this garbage almost comes up to the ghastly architecture of the restaurants themselves.
On Friday, I sat for a hour, nursing a cup of coffee in the McDonald’s at 6330 US Highway 98, north of Lakeland. I was waiting for my companions to do something I didn’t much want to do and so I brought my Kindle to continue reading a book dealing with the meaning of life. The irony of considering the meaning of life while sitting in a McDonald’s didn’t take long to settle in my brain. This was not a particularly bad McDonald’s. I have at times happened on stores which fell even below the standard. But this one was just the basic thing. The urinal in the men’s restroom was plugged up and dripping less than appetizing liquid all across the floor. But, otherwise, I guess you could say it was okay.
I’m loath to confess it, but sitting there I got depressed. A little voice somewhere in the back of my brain kept telling me, “This is your country. Get used to it. There’s nothing you or anybody else can do about it.”
The reason we can’t do anything about it is that the money won’t let us. In this essay Thomas Frank explains very clearly how the money works -- to keep our food bad, to keep our workers poor and beat-down, to keep our landscape ugly, to keep nasty, vulgar people rich and therefore in control of our political society. I hope explanations of this kind can, eventually, make a difference. But how are they going to do it? Maybe I’m being unfair. I would prefer to be wrong. But I have nothing now to convince me that a single other patron at the U.S. 98 McDonald’s could read an essay by Thomas Frank.
The principal function of the money, as it’s now being wielded, is to flatten brains. And once brains are flat, what can they ingest to give them depth?
You could argue, of course, that the people I observed at my McDonald’s are not representative. But if you said so, I think you would be wrong. I think they are representative. I can find no evidence to tell me they’re not.
The villains of this story, of course, are the great piles of money and the people who sit on top of them. They uglify everything. I’m grateful to the Thomas Franks of the country who tell us how they do it. These honest journalists have to keep at their work. Even so, I think we have to find something else if we’re going to give them a chance to make a difference. Remember, Frank is telling us these money pilers are killing us. He needs lots of help to stop them.
January 6, 2015
I was interested to see David Brooks holding forth on “meaning” this morning, especially because I've been wading through John Messerly’s lengthy treatise titled: The Meaning of Life: Philosophical, Transhumanist and Scientific Perspectives. Messerly’s approach is to look at the thought of a large number of 20th Century thinkers, and offer brief explanations of how they address the problem of meaning. This leads to the best thing about the book which is that it’s packed with provocative quotations.
Brooks falls into a category which Messerly perceives as waning as we move into the future, one which is composed of those who hold that if meaning is not “objective” then it’s not real. As far as I can tell from the column, Brooks is fairly innocent of the understanding that the term “objective” is itself thoroughly problematic, and may well be meaningless itself. I don’t guess that should surprise us.
Messerly tries to come across as fairly non-partisan in these debates but, of course, he can’t avoid letting his own stance slip through at times, as when he says:
One can’t have a coherent picture of what the world is like without knowing something of modern science because science is the only cognitive authority in the world today.
It’s an interesting judgment, and one I find myself sympathetic with, though I suppose we could raise questions about the definition of “cognitive authority.”
Messerly goes on to say:
The important point for our purposes is that human beings were forged through genetic mutations and environmental selection. This is beyond any reasonable doubt; anyone who tells you differently is either scientifically illiterate or is deceiving you.
I have a friend who is constantly reminding me that paying much mind to newspaper columnists is a waste of time, especially where anything complex or subtle is concerned, because people who write on schedule don’t take the time to attend to anything that goes beyond commonplace attention to words. I agree with my friend respecting most mainstream columnists, and perhaps always when it comes to David Brooks.
The key sentence in Brooks’s piece this morning tells us that the persons in history who achieved great things “had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice.” That’s nonsense, of course. There’s no evidence that objective and true standards of justice and injustice even exist, and if one holds that they do, he owes his readers some explanation of where they come from. This is the sort of debt Brooks virtually never pays. He wants the reputation of being a deep thinker without expending the labor that serious thinking demands.
Brooks, though, does present a fairly serious problem. He, along with many others similar to himself, gets a reputation he hasn’t earned and, thereby, convinces large numbers of persons -- and persons who consider themselves literate -- that the world is far less complex than it is. People who believe they exist in simple conditions fall for simplistic solutions, which are the principal tools of manipulators. Maybe Brooks doesn’t see himself as a lackey of manipulators but that’s how he functions.
By contrast, someone like Messerly -- much less famous than Brooks -- shows us clearly that thinkers with acute minds work for decades on an issue like human meaning and fail to win the assent of other acute thinkers. In other words, meaning is a subject that requires ongoing struggle and not one that can be nailed down by phrases such as “objective and eternally true standards of justice.”
So the “Brooks problem,” as I’ll term it, is how do we get people to pay attention to writers more thoughtful than David Brooks? It’s clear to me that attention to the likes of Brooks is not enough. But here we are in a society where a majority -- if they’ve heard of him at all -- accept Brooks as a really smart guy. How we might move beyond that assessment, I do not know.
If science is the only cognitive authority in our world, we denizens of this world ought, at least, to be aware that science offers no testimony to the existence of objective and eternally true standards of justice.
January 9, 2015
The philosopher John G. Messerly has either coined or adopted a new term which has become meaningful only recently because of scientific and technological developments. He speaks of “deathists” as people who defend the necessity of human mortality both as a kind of virtue and as a requirement affording meaning to human existence. This stance comes from those who perceive humans as ineluctably immersed in nature, and as creatures who would lose their reason for being were they to step outside nature’s evolutionary plan.
Yet, asks Messerly, isn’t that what humans have been doing ever since they began to walk upright? Certainly it’s hard to view a gleaming hospital room where someone is fitted with an artificial knee as anything emerging from the natural process. The human mind has long since moved into an unnatural evolutionary process, and has begun to bring forth innovations which nature -- as it’s commonly defined -- would never have discovered. Why shouldn’t we continue on the path we have just begun to explore?
Death is a prime feature of nature, it is true. All you have to do is watch a few PBS specials to be reminded that nature, as Tennyson said, is indeed red in tooth and claw. We watch a tiny deer being ripped apart by a lion, and wince. But then we console ourselves with the thought that it’s nature’s way.
Yet now we can reasonably begin to ask ourselves, does it have to be our way?
There are scientists all over the world working on methods not only to extend the length of human life, but to make its duration more or less indefinite. And they are making surprising progress. So, should we be cheering them on, or should we step back in horror?
There are powerful arguments on both sides of this question. The deathists say we are venturing into territory whose terrors we have not even begun to imagine. As we, more and more, drop off portions of our natural selves and increasingly take on the features of a constructed self, we will, inevitably arrive at a condition that can no longer be called human. And then we may have lost everything that makes life worth living.
Perhaps. But might not a man of the late Pleistocene era have said the same thing about giving up the opportunity to hunt down wooly mammoths? It’s pretty clear that most of us do not want to return to the conditions of previous ages. So why should we wish to remain stuck in the present moment?
There is also the problem of inevitability. Is it conceivable that scientific and technological development could simply be turned off? What kind of restrictions and repressions would that require? There are more ways to create a dystopia than simply forging ahead.
Though it’s true that the idea of immortality is so immense it’s frightening, much of the sense of dread comes from its radical newness. It has not been conceivable before, except through religious fantasies, and so it seems too gigantic to contemplate.
A thing people have a hard time grasping is that as changes occur people begin to think differently about them. What might well seem monstrous today could become ordinary and even delightful for our descendants. Mr. Jefferson used to say that the earth belongs to the living generation, and if he was right, then we can scarcely be justified in denying enhanced science to future generations.
No one can predict how the debate between the immortalists and the deathists will develop. But I think we can be sure it not only will occur but will get more intense. In Messerly’s view, the clinching point will be the answer persons who are reasonably healthy and able will give to the question of whether they wish to live longer. Messerly thinks the great majority will say yes, regardless of how old they are. I suspect he’s right. If it turns out that way, the decision will be made not in accord with some overarching social conclusion but by billions deciding they want another month or another year. As long as they keep on opting for more, the search for ways to extend life will continue.
Immortality may remain beyond our reach, but longer lives than we have heretofore imagined may well start happening sooner than was conceivable just a few decades ago. If they do, it won’t make me mad.
January 10, 2015
A couple of days ago at breakfast I was speculating about why Florida, although it has now become the second-most populous state, doesn’t have centers where people interested in literature, or the arts, or in scientific investigation congregate. Florida has no Bostons, or San Franciscos, or New Yorks. My mother-in-law, who is now ninety-seven years old, responded immediately that it’s because Florida attracts mostly old people, and old people don’t care anything about the future.
It was a pretty good insight.
It’s still leaves us, though, with the question of why old people in America develop intellectually as they do. A considerable segment of those over 65 seem to have petrified brains which are incapable of assimilating evidence, and more men fall into that condition than women.
Jen Senko, a documentary film-maker, has completed a film -- not yet released -- titled The Brainwashing of My Dad. In it, she traces the transformation of her father’s attitudes as, increasingly, he listened to Rush Limbaugh and tuned into Fox News. He became angry, resistant to any conversation that didn’t confirm his views, and extremely emotional whenever he encountered positions outside the Fox penumbra.
In an interview, Rory O’Connor of Salon asked Ms. Senko if the term “brainwashed” might be an exaggeration. She responded vigorously that she didn’t think so. She believes that, over the past thirty years, men like her father were consciously targeted by right-wing propagandists, most notable among them Roger Ailes. Her film includes considerable testimony about the media campaign that was launched, based on loudness, repetition and disdain for evidence, with the goal of sweeping men of that description into a political phalanx. They became the base of the Republican Party. There are now millions of men who will believe anything Rush Limbaugh tells them, however absurd it might be, and vote as he directs them to vote.
She makes a fairly convincing argument. I’ll be eager to see her film when it comes out. Yet I doubt her explanation tells the full story. There is something more than television and radio programs behind the successful stupefying of the aging American male. It’s buried deeper in the American character.
As I reflect on the years of my growing up, I see there was actually only one way to become the man one should be and that was as a cowboy hero. Cowboys, of course, didn’t have much to do with cows. They rode across the landscape, encountering clear black and white scenarios which required virtually no thought. There could be no doubt who the bad guys were, nor could there be any doubt about what a good man was supposed to do. He brought the bad guys down, restoring innocence to whatever community he happened to be wandering through. It was a perfect program for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Lash LaRue, but what is there for them to do when they get old? They never got old in the movies.
That sense of lost purpose is enough to infuriate a man, but when you add in all this new stuff that doesn’t fit into the good old ways, and all these strange-looking people with unpronounceable names, it’s enough to drive men mad. And, so, with the aid of Rush, Roger, and Bill O’Reilly, it did. And now the rest of us now have to deal with their virtually uncontrollable anger.
I don’t think it’s a simple problem. Living as I have for the past four months in a stronghold of the angry old guys, I see more and more how rock-solid their stupidity is.
People say we just have to wait for them to die, which is one solution. But that ignores their ability to replicate themselves. There are a lot of forty-year-olds now obviously on the path to ditto-head status. They, and those of their fathers who manage to remain around, convince me it’s unlikely the future of the nation will be smoothing out anytime soon.
When you have people who don’t care about the future, you have, for practical purposes, a mob of sociopaths.
January 11, 2015
I see that Mike Huckabee, perhaps as a prelude to a presidential run, has published a book titled God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. He has probably persuaded himself that there are enough people to whom such a label appeals to fuel a serious campaign. He’s wrong, of course. Though there are millions in that camp they make up only a small minority of the population of the United States. Most Americans would find the title either ridiculous or offensive.
Huckabee’s corn-pone delusion, though, does show us something interesting about the current political situation of the nation. It’s easy to hide behind walls of propaganda and conclude that the people on the inside are the normal folks and, therefore, potent enough to govern the country. Huckabee has been helped in that respect by working for Fox News for several years.
At the moment, political sway in the nation is out of whack with general opinion. Because of Gerrymandering, areas of sectional extremism, and bizarre economic inequality, people have been persuaded that the right-wing exercises a stronger stance in the nation than it actually possesses. It’s not that the right-wing doesn’t have some potent weapons. It does. But majority approval isn’t one of them.
A bit of information people ought to attend to more carefully is that even in the 2014 elections, Democratic senatorial candidates received 20 million more votes than the Republicans did. The people who vote consistently against Republican programs aren’t going away. And as they wake up and perceive how much they have fallen into a practically disadvantageous situation, they are likely to become aroused and work harder against Republican craziness.
A development persons such as Huckabee are blind to is how fed up many Americans are becoming with so-called religious convictions which, as Frank Bruni pointed out in today’s New York Times, are little more than a fig leaf for intolerance. The extent to which people pledge their loyalty and worship to a God who is little other than a bigot is becoming a measure of long-term isolation. Evangelicalism has some staying power, it is true, but it can’t hold out forever against those who prefer to employ evidence in their decision-making about ultimate things. Old-style religion has already lost the entertainment industry, the scientific and scholarly community, and the growing numbers who see no sense in religious affiliation. It doesn’t have sufficient weapons to fend off the march of modern thought.
The serious question is not whether retrograde thinking can take over the country but rather how much damage it can do as it fades away. People such as Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Jim Inhofe, and all the Republican senators from Southern states have shown they’re willing to do as much as they can. If we wanted to define “terrorists” accurately we would need to apply the label to them.
My prediction is that they’ll cause about three decades of mayhem before the public perceives them accurately as occupying the same sinkhole as the KKK, white-rights groups, warriors in defense of Christmas, and the various crazed militia units who get their fun playing war games in the woods.
January 13, 2015
A subject that comes up often in my conversations with friends is the emotional response we should direct towards huge groups of persons, which are identified by some sociological classification. Should one like, or dislike, a person because he lives in Alabama? Should one care more about the health of person who lives in Italy than he does about the health of a resident of Greece? Should one ignore the death of someone from Venezuela more easily than he does the death of a Frenchman? Should one automatically favor an American who is competing against a Canadian?
The answer to all these questions, for me, is obvious. And the answer is the same for all of them; no.
This shouldn’t be taken as a denunciation of all preferences. One can hope for the victory of one sports team over another. But that’s because winning or losing in contests of that sort involves no vital issues.
I think we also need to allow for the intensity of personal involvement. If one’s grandchild is trying for a scholarship that might go to someone else’s grandchild, it would be a denial of basic humanity to say that one shouldn’t hope for his own grandchild’s success.
Yet when an issue pertains to gigantic numbers of people, 99.9999% of whom one doesn’t know, there’s no moral, or intelligent reason to favor one category over another, whether that category is based on national identity, ethnic background, religious affiliation, skin complexion, or choice of chocolate over vanilla.
Do most people follow reason in this matter? Obviously not. Would we be better off if they did? I think so.
Intense loyalty towards the type of groups I’m addressing almost always leads to cruel and thoughtless behavior. I dislike cruel or thoughtless behavior, so I wish we would wean ourselves from the attitudes which cause it. It seems a simple enough desire and yet, in the current world, it’s highly controversial and, I suspect, scorned by a considerable majority of people.
“Not to favor the Americans over the Russians, regardless of what the Americans are after? You must be insane.” That’s pretty much the response you would get from most U. S. citizens. We need to get over that.
That, in turn, means we need to alter our attitudes about patriotism. It’s one of those emotions that’s automatically viewed as admirable, and, consequently, pretty much divorced from any critical examination. But is it always admirable? And why?
If you’re going to ask about the usefulness of an attitude, you need to figure out what it actually is. I guess anything as complex as patriotism has more than one component, but as far as I can tell, patriotism’s primary feature is a psychological impulse that permits the elite members of a society to require sacrifices from a majority for purposes which do the latter no good. In other words, it’s a form of control.
An ironic feature of the United States is that patriotism here is almost always invoked for its defense of freedom, whereas its nature is to function as a restraint on freedom of thought. A friend recently sent me a comment by Justice Robert Jackson which points out the confusion in ordinary Americanism:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
I thought of writing back to warn my friend against opening Justice Jackson to charges of anti-Americanism.
Obviously, it’s going to take a very long time to persuade Americans to approach the common aspects of patriotism in a critical frame of mind. But if the United States is going to achieve a healthy position in the world -- which I don’t think it has now -- it’s a development that’s required, and one that would offer Americans considerably greater freedom than they now possess.
January 14, 2015
The Lakeland Ledger, which I read every day while I’m here in Hardee County was owned for more than forty years by The New York Times Company. Then a little over three years ago, the Times sold the Ledger, along with other papers to the Halifax Media Group, which owns 24 daily newspapers, mostly in the Southeast, with a combined circulation of 635,000 (and 752,000 on Sunday). Now Halifax Media is about to be gobbled up -- or merged with, to be more euphemistic -- by The New Media Investment Group. The sale price will be $280 million in cash, and the transaction will be completed early in 2015. New Media is a much larger organization than Halifax ever approached being.
As far as I can tell, almost none of the local readers are aware of these changes in ownership. Nor have they noticed a transformation in the content of the paper since it was cut loose from the Times Company. That’s mainly because the general readers hereabouts don’t notice who writes the articles they read. If they mention something they have seen, and you ask them who wrote it, most will answer something pretty close to “Oh, I don’t know; it was in the newspaper.” There appears to be no consciousness that one article in the paper might be more authoritative or intelligent than another.
The editorial commentary in the Ledger has shifted dramatically lately. The Times columnists appear less frequently than before, and have been replaced with figures such as Cal Thomas and Ben Carson. As a result, people in the Lakeland region are being presented with strikingly different perceptions of reality than they used to get.
This morning, for example, Ben Carson informed us that the United States is the “Benign Pinnacle Nation in the History of the World” or BPNIHOW (which I have begun to pronounce as “Bip-nee-how). I don’t know if that’s perfectly correct but, then, what is one to do?
“Gee!” I said to myself: “I didn’t even know that,” and was on the verge of feeling an added spring in my step or a surge of pride, until the reflection came that I had nothing whatsoever to do with being an American. From the time I was four years old, and began to think of such things, I have been puzzled by the slim odds that of all the hundreds of countries in the world where I might first have seen the light I should have happened to be born in one of the states that comprise the United States. The improbability of it continues to astonish me.
Anyway, regardless of my right to take credit for the Bip-ne-how, I remain fascinated about how changes created solely out of a drive for profit can inform the people of a region, in terms that bear no questioning, what the identity of the Bip-ne-how is. If I were cynical I might even say I don’t see any connection between those two things. I would guess though, if I were able to raise the issue with Ben Carson, it would take him scarcely any time to lay out the reason, which could be challenged only by perversity, and certainly not by a reader innocent of the name of the person who provided him with the explanation.
January 15, 2015
Hannah Arendt is one of the most widely quoted figures of modern history. I suspect that’s because her perceptions about the political environment are more pertinent now than when she first expressed them. Over the past couple weeks I’ve seen one of her comments from 1967 mentioned several times. It has to do with the relationship between power and truth which is now being forced on our attention more sharply, perhaps, than ever before in the history of this country.
She said: “The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever.”
We’ve been treated to many films in which an overweening power has seized such complete control that the average person knows virtually nothing about what’s going on, and has no way of finding out. Furthermore, in these dystopian worlds, not only are people cut off from the truth; they mostly have no desire to know what it is and in many cases can’t imagine such a thing.
Until recently most of us have assumed these are mere Hollywood fantasies, made not as warnings but merely as entertainment. But now I get the sense that some people are beginning to believe that they’re closer to reality than to fiction.
Headlines today gave credence to these fears. We were told that the C.I.A. has been cleared of any wrongdoing in its attempts to break into the electronic communications of the Senate Committee on Intelligence. And who has cleared the big spy agency? The C.I.A. itself. The director, John Brennan, appointed an “accountability board” to look into whether anything illegal or immoral had been done, and, low and behold, the board discovered that the agency was innocent of any such actions. That takes care of it, doesn’t it?
It’s a sarcastic question, but not for most American citizens. For them, if they had any concerns at all, the board has laid them to rest. The agency is cleared and now we can return to business as usual, which is in all likelihood what we’ll do.
There have been background reports that the White House knew the C.I.A. had hacked into the committee’s communications, but those assertions rather than making the whole business more alarming, seem to console some. If the president knew about it, then why worry? As we have been told in the past, if the president does it, then it’s not illegal.
The part of Arendt’s assessment that’s most chilling is her warning that power can suppress the truth forever. That goes against our happy-time beliefs, which assure us that the truth will find a way to emerge, no matter what. We were bred on Lincoln’s musings about when, and how, and for how long the people can be fooled. But maybe Lincoln wasn’t perfectly prescient. Maybe nobody can be perfectly prescient. Maybe a system of such complete control can be installed that virtually no one will ever think of challenging it, and those few who do can be rapidly and efficiently squelched.
I’m not saying that’s going to happen. But I am saying maybe.
I’m also saying that, not just maybe, but probably, the time has come that we need to start paying attention to a wider range of predictions than we’ve entertained in the past. We should start listening to more voices than have hitherto been able to break into the common political discourse. Maybe Joe Biden, and other nice and confident guys -- the kinds who show up on the Sunday morning talk shows -- don’t know everything there is to be known.
It could be even that Hannah Arendt had a sharper analytic mind than Abraham Lincoln did. I’m not saying that’s the case, but every time I see John Brennan’s face on TV, or peering at me from a newspaper, I get more prone to think, maybe. I can’t see that he would be averse to maneuvering truth permanently out of the world. And I do mean permanently.
January 17, 2015
I suppose it’s time for another set of squibs from my pocket notebook. I don’t guess there’s been any dominant theme over the past month and a half, though I suspect that throughout that time the question of sanity and how to achieve it has been somewhere in my thoughts.
- If humanity manages to persist into the 22nd century, it’s bound to come to regard human history up till now mainly as exercises in insanity.
- It has been instructive for Americans to learn that some of their recent public officials have been as horrendous as any of history’s famed monsters. There is nothing morally to choose, for example, between Dick Cheney and Josef Stalin. The only difference is that one had greater opportunities than the other.
- In Bowling Green -- and in lots of other places too around America -- racial prejudice is bred in the bone. When it comes out, the people emitting it have no idea of what it is. When you confront it, it’s not easy to decide whether to point it out, or just let it go.
- Talking with people for whom evidence means nothing may be fun, in a sense, but fun is the only thing you can possibly get out of it.
- The whole point of philosophy is to address issues whose rightness or wrongness can’t be determined. People have a hard time understanding why, if you know that, you would care what philosophy has to say.
- For me, the key question about God is not whether he exists, but whether he’s interesting. Have I written this before? I’ve certainly though it.
- Can we say there is a personal responsibility for gross ignorance? If there’s not then maybe there’s no personal responsibility for anything.
- The U.S. needs more emigration. But what country would take the old, right-wing grouches we need to get rid of? Might some place accept $100,000 per man? If it would, that would be the best five hundred billion dollars we’ve ever spent.
- Governments are not set up to respect or admire the truth. They care nothing for it. It figures in their deliberations only as a hindrance to their projects. That’s why an independent press is necessary. If a nation doesn’t have one, the government becomes, automatically, oppressive.
- The idea that governments are organizations to which one should be loyal, strikes me as childish.
- At the moment, national populations need nothing as much as maturation. The population of the United States is more juvenile than that of any other Western country, and that callowness, married to an unreasonably powerful military, makes the United States exceedingly dangerous. Think of an unrestrained fourteen-year-old boy marching down the street brandishing an automatic assault rifle and there you have an accurate symbol of the United States.
- The mental decay of old people, and particularly of old men, may be America’s most serious social problem. It’s made even more bitter by recognizing that there’s no unavoidable cause for the decay. It’s a matter of will.
- Immense class divisions are shoved in one’s face in Florida far more than they are in upper New England. I suppose when a people have lived here all their lives the grading doesn’t register. They’re like persons who have grown up in a garbage dump and never detect the stench.
- I read somewhere recently that Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation can be judged by how its animals are treated.” When you first hear that it sounds a little goofy. But if you let it lie in your mind for a while, it begins to take hold.
January 19, 2015
A friend sent me a message approving the French president for saying “France is now at war with Radical Islam” and then adding that we have been in the same condition for years. I started to write back reminding him that politicians frequently say idiotic things because they’re expected to, but, then, I figured: “What the hell?”
I would like here to say that I am not at war with Radical Islam, or any other group, if my being at war means I would wish to kill people whose religious sentiments I don’t share.
I suppose one could say that “Radical Islam,” whatever that shadowy, undefinable thing is (have you noticed that politicians seldom feel any need to define what they’re talking about), poses some danger. But then he would need to add, if he were sane, that at least a hundred other things pose even greater dangers. In Florida, where I have been residing lately, almost seven hundred pedestrians are killed every year by motor vehicles and the people who drive them. I’ve seen several reports over the last few days about people killed by Ford F-150s, which reminds me that I am more fearful of Ford F-150s than I am of Radical Islam. I don’t know how long it would take Radical Islam to kill that number of people in the United States, but if current figures are any indication, it would take quite a while.
There has been a great flapdoodle recently about Mr. Obama’s failing to go, or to send Mr. Biden, or at least Mr. Kerry (the least member of the Trinity), to Paris to participate in the great rally organized to proclaim that people oppose the killing of the staff of a magazine by young fanatics who wished -- and managed -- to make martyrs of themselves.
I too am against such killing, and I too would like very much to discourage actions of that kind in the future. I don’t suppose I have anything against gargantuan rallies for expressing disapproval of obviously deranged violence, but to tell the truth, I would like for efforts to tamp down irrational violence to be more widespread and less sporadic than they are. I’m sorry that twelve journalists were killed but I think it’s just as sad for twelve people anywhere to be killed senselessly.
There has been a campaign in the United States lately to say that all lives matter, and I think we would all be better off if that take on human existence were to spread throughout the world.
I understand that the rally in Paris was putatively in support of freedom of expression, of any kind, whether or not a given instance of it were seemly, or in good taste. But if we’re for that -- which I am, --then we should be for it all the way, and not apply it selectively against those of whom we disapprove. Certainly, we shouldn’t reserve our excitement solely for when huge media attention is involved. I can’t help feeling that the aftermath of the attack in Paris has become more of a media circus than it is a genuine revulsion against those who would stifle speech.
For these reasons I wasn’t particularly upset by Obama’s decision not to go to Paris. I can imagine a number of justifications for his not going, and I’m willing for him to use his own judgment about that. I’m far more concerned about how his actions bear on freedom of speech in the United States than I am about his symbolic appearances.
To sum up, I’m happy enough if the recent feverishness is genuinely about freedom of speech, but to the degree it’s about an excuse to make war on Muslims, I want nothing to do with it.
January 22, 2015
I’ve had some conversation with friends about American Sniper, and I should admit from the start that anything I’ll write here is based on those conversations, and a few articles I’ve read about the film and about Chris Kyle’s memoir. I have not read the book nor have I seen the film.
The general assessment I’ve picked up is that Chris Kyle was a psychopathic killer with some likable characteristics, including bravery and generosity towards his fellow soldiers. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that those features could come together in a single human package. Kyle was given the opportunity to kill by joining the U.S. Army, trained as a sniper, and sent to Iraq. I think it’s a fair question as to how much personal responsibility can be assigned to a person who had those experiences. It would be less than humane to call such a man evil. But, then, I’m willing to say the same thing about the two gunmen who broke into the Paris offices of a satirical magazine and killed a dozen persons. That number, by the way, is less than 5% of the number Kyle killed.
I’m aware that some of my friends would say that a majority of the people Kyle killed deserved it, whereas none of the journalists did. But, is that the case? How do we know? The only honest answer is that we don’t know. The only factor favoring Kyle over the Charlie Hebdo assassins is tribalism. In other words, our fanatics are, to some extent, heroes; their fanatics are evil monsters.
To fight about that is silly.
What we should be discussing, and trying to come to some reasoned assessment of responsibility about, are the surrounding conditions which led to these two spates of killing.
Kyle did his killing because his government marshaled a gigantic army, transported it to a foreign country, and ordered it to kill and wreak havoc. And that’s what it did. Kyle was only a tiny element of the general process. It’s hard to see him as anything other than a dupe. That he thought he knew the people he was killing were evil has nothing to do with the truth.
The two men who carried out the assassinations in Paris were religious fanatics. There are lots of people now who want to argue that they were Islamic religious fanatics. But the Islamic part is fairly inconsequential. Religious fanatics, since the dawn of history, have been killers. And that’s what they remain.
So the two questions most pertinent questions here are:
- Who’s responsible for hideous deeds carried out by governments?
- Who’s responsible for hideous deeds carried by persons under the influence of religion?
These are complex questions, certainly not easily answered, and, perhaps, not answerable at all. But they are the questions, and I’m willing to argue that if you ever expect to find sane answers, you have to start with the right questions.
The journalistic response to both of these messes has scarcely been enthralling. There has been, as always, a frantic rush to decide who’s good and who’s evil, and to assign those tags to them, finally, for all of history. What could be more callow than that?
The quality of mind displayed in our media sources is pathetic, and that’s true even of many who write for the most respected journals, such as the New York Times. Is it possible for us to learn that?
That’s a question I’m even more concerned with than questions about how to assign moral responsibility for idiotic behavior.
January 25, 2015
I’ve come to see that the media is driving us, collectively, into a state of delusion about the condition of the world, or at least certain features of the world. Every time now that there’s a massacre, or a murder, there’s a headline to go with it. We see all these shocking announcements and think, “My God, the world is descending into lethal chaos!”
If, however, we were to attend to the statistics we would discover that the numbers now are less horrifying than they used to be. Fewer people are being slaughtered, instead of more. If we look at evidence rather than headlines we find that the world is more peaceful than it has been for the past two or three centuries.
The media’s motives are obvious. Mayhem sells. So it’s to their advantage to find as many instances of it as possible, and shove every one of them in our faces. This could be seen as a kind of corruption, scaring people so that newspapers and television can get greater attention and therefore more ad revenue. But I don’t think that’s completely right. All the horror should be shoved in our faces. Its volume may be decreasing, but clearly it remains at a ghastly level.
The needed change is not to become more placid about what’s going on. Rather, it’s to draw different conclusions than we have heretofore. If the world is, indeed, more peaceful than before and yet it remains violent to a hideous degree, shouldn’t that, finally, teach us something about this species we call the human race? Shouldn’t it suggest that humans throughout their history have been insane creatures, and that, maybe, the time has come to start modifying the standing operating procedures?
Ask yourself, for example, about the sanity of this procedure: a small group who may have once plotted an attack in a fairly small country, and then carried it out in a large country, causes the large country to launch a gigantic invasion force into the country where some of the plotting took place and kill thousands upon thousands of people, less than one hundredth of one percent of whom had anything to do with the plotting. And this is done, presumably, to make the larger country more secure.
How is that supposed to work? The large country which once had hundreds of enemies now has tens of thousands. Furthermore, millions all around the world have become convinced that the leaders of the larger country are out of their minds, and probably deserve whatever they get because of their rash actions. The global sympathy which was generated by the initial attack is almost instantaneously dissipated.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on the larger country, however, because all it did, after all, was merely standing operating procedure for the human race. It did what humans have been doing for a very long time. And why was that? Because that’s seen as what humans do and therefore presumed to be what humans ought to do.
What if, though, the thought trickled into human consciousness that it wasn’t what ought to have been done but was, actually, insane? Not just an error, not just a mistaken calculation, but pure insanity? What then?
It seems to me that the topic of national, and societal, sanity ought to become a topic of general inquiry. We couldn’t be sure it would lead to saner behavior. But here’s what we can be sure of: standing operating procedure won’t. We have tested it for a very long time, and it has been shown to be irremediably defective. Given that record, it could scarcely be seen as insane to try something else.
January 26, 2015
A friend, knowing that I’ve been trying to think about the nature of sanity, recommended that I read Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society. Quite a long time ago I read several of Fromm’s books and found them persuasive. But after such a long gap I thought that the person I’ve become now might not be quite as impressed. Still, I took my friend’s advice and sent off for a copy of The Sane Society and began to read it.
It has had a curious effect. First, it’s even more captivating that I expected. But second, it’s a bit disconcerting because many of the thoughts I have been fumbling towards over the past several years are laid out there in startling clarity. I felt very much like Freud must have felt about reading some of Nietzsche’s works, i.e., he’s been there before me. Still, I’ve managed to console myself with the assurance that there really are no new ideas in the world, and that all good thought is to some extent a recycling of earlier thought. So I concluded to try to enjoy Fromm and not worry about being eclipsed.
The first feature which reassured me was Fromm’s forthright assertion that the normal in the United States and Western Europe is essentially pathological. He explains that there’s an assumption strongly held by some theorists that mental pathology is simply deviance from the norm. There are forms of mental disturbance which fits that definition, of course. This sort, Fromm tells us, should be designated as neurotic a mental illness, that is disorders which trouble individual persons through mistaken perceptions. These, however, don’t constitute the only form of mental pathology. There is another -- which is actually more serious -- that should be termed defective pathologies which foul up the mental functioning of entire societies and consequently cause the whole society to behave insanely. These latter disorders have the perverse effect of persuading people in the societies where they prevail that they are secure in their right thinking. In other words, they can be comforting, regardless of how crazy they are. Racial and ethnic bigotries clearly fall into this category.
The quest for sanity involves ridding ourselves of both these afflictions. In short, we need to discipline ourselves personally so that we don’t fall into delusions about reality, but we also need to perceive the various irrationalities of our society and work to reform them. Without an ongoing struggle on both these fronts, insane behavior is bound to grow in power.
Given the stage of history in which we find ourselves we can scarcely expect to find any society where defective pathologies are not at work. But the entities which display the most ominous illnesses are the great national societies because that’s where gigantic power resides. Put craziness together with massive strength and you have an explosive concoction.
In the national society I inhabit we appear to be possessed by mushrooming defects of mind. For example, the national government at the moment is grounded in the notion that powerful nations can kill their way to peace, prosperity, and happiness. It’s hard to imagine any idea more crazy than that, but if you examine our national budget you’ll see how deeply embedded the notion is. We also seem to be convinced that adding additional members to the ranks of millionaires is more important than protecting and safeguarding our natural resources. A major thrust for dealing with the difficulties flowing from poverty is to incarcerate people at a far higher rate than any other nation on earth. These three defective pathologies alone are enough to undermine the health of any nation on earth. Yet we proceed on them with maniacal determination. And presently we have no effective therapies for treating them.
Perhaps our worse mental illness is confusing the right to hold an opinion with the idea that every opinion has the right to exist and to bear on the behavior of society. Some opinions are crazy and have no right of existence at all. True, it’s more healthy to accommodate crazy opinions than to try to squelch them with oppressive physical action. You can’t get to right opinions by throwing people with wrong opinions in jail. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point out the insanity of some opinions and try our best to see that the label of insanity sticks.
In any case, we would help ourselves considerably by recognizing not only the existence of the kind of defective pathologies Fromm has detected, but also the sanity of trying to wash them out of our collective enterprise. We seem to have mainly succeeded with some of them, human chattel slavery, for example. But why should we wish to stop there?
January 28, 2015
I see that Tom Friedman has issued another tirade against Vladimir Putin and the Russian policy toward Ukraine. The Russian leader’s activities constitute, according to Friedman, one of the most serious current threats to international stability. Given Friedman’s accuracy over the years in predicting world developments, I would think we have a right to be skeptical about his warnings.
For one thing, I can’t see that events in Ukraine have the potency to upset world peace. One can, of course, take them as a preliminary to radical Russian invasions of nations all around its borders, but the likelihood of such an outbreak seems remote. Putin may not be an accommodating character, but there’s little in his record to indicate that he’s totally insane, which he would have to be to launch the sort of aggressions Friedman suggests.
Friedman appears almost as avid to praise the Western Ukraine’s politicians as he is to proclaim Putin’s villainy. But why they should be promoted in this way is puzzling. Numerous reporters have pointed out the strong neo-fascist element of the new Ukrainian government, and while it may not be completely in control, it seems to match up fairly well with the brand of bellicose capitalism the current leaders are pushing. Aggressive, unrestrained, ill-regulated capitalism is scarcely the pure balm the world needs, though you would have a hard time learning that from Friedman’s reports.
I and some of my friends have discussed Friedman’s wisdom, at times, over the past several months and have had difficulty coming to an agreement. He usually employs a tone which flavor his prescriptions with a more reasonable taste than I think they deserve. One of his readers this morning offered a comment which, for me, isn’t completely off the mark. Kenan Porobic noted that “Tom Friedan is an extremely valuable columnist. He always picks the wrong side in a conflict. We can reliably use his input to make the correct decision.” Acerbic? Perhaps. But totally unfair and incorrect? I think not.
This may seem far too wonkish for general readers, but here’s why I think it’s not. The American people have been trained to believe in monsters. Whenever a foreign leader disagrees with U.S. policy, he tends to be painted, by both government officials and leading figures in the media, not just as a person with differing perceptions and policies, but rather as someone who is actively evil. Remember the treatment a few years ago of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president. He was put forward as some kind of devil, and the policies he inaugurated remain targets of U.S. foreign policy till this day. Secretary of State John Kerry has made numerous hostile comments about Venezuela over the past year, positioning himself clearly on the wealthy side of the class struggle that continues to rage there, and against the democratic decisions of the voters.
Now Putin is being raised to monster status by super capitalist champions like Friedman. I’m not a great fan of Putin’s. I think he is a fairly ruthless politician. But to push the American people to support using force against him is very bad business. For one thing, he’s not likely to be thwarted by force, nor will aggressive hostility permit the kind of cooperative deal-making that seemed to be in the offing just a few years ago.
We need no more monsters in the American pantheon of gods and devils. We’ve been led astray far too often by these projections, and millions are dead who could now be engaged in active life were it not for exaggerated publicity and a gullible public.
Friedman’s column this morning was exaggerated and I suggest you think twice before swallowing it whole.
January 30, 2015
As I work my way through Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society, I become more fascinated by his analysis of mental illness, and his theory that it manifests itself in two principal forms, the neurotic and the defective.
Neurotic mental illness is the variety we normally recognize. It afflicts people by causing them to have a distorted perception of what’s going on around them. They might fear people who pose no threat; they might believe there are dangers lurking nearby for which there is no evidence; they may become convinced they have physical diseases which exhibit no symptoms. In extreme cases, they may think that a person is someone he is not. In any case, they diverge from the views of most people who are in the same environment they are. These are serious disorders, which cause a great deal of fear and misery. But they, nevertheless, constitute the lesser form of mental disorder.
The more serious form is called defective mental illness. Instead of separating people from the majority, it buries them in it. It is a conformity so powerful that it disengages the ability to see the irrationality that has taken over an entire society. Most people, most of the time, are ill in this way.
It’s easy enough to think of instances of this from the past: foot-binding of women in China from the 13th into the 20th century, the belief in agents of Satan at work in society -- a notion which has not entirely died out -- human slavery as a justifiable moral system, the notion that certain ethnic, religious, or racial groups are so inferior to the norm that it is right to treat them as though they were less than fully human. These are all crazy ideas but nonetheless they ruled entire societies for long periods of time.
It has not been usual, of course, to call them crazy. They tend to be written off as outdated customs from the past which we have become smart enough to reject. But why is it we reject them? Is it not that we have decided they make no sense, that they are irrational, that they reflected distorted attitudes? And if that’s the case, there’s really no way to separate them from craziness. So why not call then what they were -- societal mental illness?
The value of thinking of defective ideas in this way is that it offers us a sense of sanity which we can continue to work towards in its full sense. It reminds us that we haven’t achieved it, and not only that, it also reminds us that many of our normal ways of doing things remain insane.
Fromm announces right at the beginning of the work that his book will deal with the “pathology of normalcy.” This means he is going to tell us how many features of normality in Western Europe and in the United States in the 20th Century are pathological. And that’s indeed what he devotes most of his pages to. I’ll leave the details to future writings. Here I want simply to argue for the value of thinking of human evolution in this way.
Surely virtually everyone recognizes the health of moving away from insanity and towards greater sanity. If we viewed our collective task in this manner, I think it would add an element of intelligence to our public debates.
It wouldn’t take away the difficulty of deciding which of our current practices are insane. We will have to wrangle for a long time to do that. But if we knew and agreed that the goodness of our future required the rooting out and dispensing with the insanity in our midst, it should add urgency to our efforts and help clarify our thoughts about what sane life and a sane society really are.
That, I think, was the purpose Erich Fromm had in mind, and reading him has convinced me of my duty to add my approval to his project, and to do whatever minor things I can do to push it along.
January 31, 2015
A few days ago I happened on a statement by the great economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter which reinforced my dismal sense of the American political condition. It’s from his book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, published in 1942 (a book, by the way, which remains very much worth reading):
Thus the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.
This comment, if true, undermines completely the conventional notion of how American democracy works -- and it is true beyond any doubt.
The good citizen, in theory, informs himself about how his national and state governments are performing with respect to current conditions, and gives his vote to candidates who support policies which make sense and provide for the general welfare. This, obviously, doesn’t happen, and what’s more it can’t happen. And, why not? Because the typical citizen is incapable of giving enough attention to political developments even to begin to know what makes sense. He doesn’t do it now and he’s never going to do it. The reason is that his own personal affairs are so compelling to him they leave no time for learning about public affairs.
It is almost impossible to overstate the ignorance of the general public. If we had to deal only with the best informed 15% of the electorate the conventional sense of democracy might have a chance of working, but even in that case, it would be iffy.
Anybody who thinks about government has known this for a long time. Schumpeter expressed it about as clearly as it can be stated more than seventy years ago. Nothing has changed since then in this respect. And yet, in our ordinary news and discussion, we continue to ignore the truth. Why?
It’s as though the great majority of adult Americans believes in Santa Claus. Somebody will show up to give us the gifts we deserve. And why do we deserve them? Because we’re Americans, that’s why.
Right now I have no idea about who might show up to perform these mythical deeds, nor do I know from whence the Santa Claus political system might emerge. I do know this: it’s not coming from the places that in our naiveté we think should provide it. It’s not coming from the Congress; it’s not coming from the executive offices; it’s not coming from the courts; it’s certainly not coming from the fourth estate.
Are there elements of each of these bodies that are attempting to create a public well-being. Yes, fortunately, there are. But they are in such a distinct minority they have little chance. I’m astounded that, given the nature of the American people, the governmental systems work as well as they do. Yet it seems clear they are not improving but, rather, are becoming evermore inept, and evermore subject to the forces of corruption.
It’s entirely possible that the United States will simply sink, and sink, and sink. And that will be its story in the 21st Century. In fact, I am close to thinking that’s more likely than not.
I don’t know how to create a body of intelligent, reasonable, public decision-makers who will concentrate on the public welfare. I don’t know how to get them chosen. I don’t know how to place them in positions of responsibility. I do know that the system we have now won’t bring forth enough persons of that character.
The system has to be changed. Many thoughtful people argue that money has to be stripped out of the selection process. But how is that going to happen when money owns the current system?
The only improvement I can think of at the moment is for the representatives from the relatively isolated islands of political sanity in the nation to get more aggressive and more blunt. I would like to see these minority figures ally themselves with one another more than they have and form a kind of League of Sanity. I can hope that if they did, and if they spoke more colorfully and more graphically, they might began to be heard by small numbers in those regions where the the majority is both ignorant and manipulated by the oligarchs who wish to rule the country for their benefit alone. A unit of sufficient force and sufficient volubility has to be brought into existence.
Not a very practical program, you say? Okay, then what is? I’m ready to hear any plan that will overcome the inattentiveness of the typical citizen, so that we would have something to work towards to bring reason into our public affairs.
©John R. Turner
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