Collected Thoughts

February 2015
February 1, 2015

We left Bowling Green this morning, after five months in Hardee County, and drove north over 400 miles north to Walterboro, South Carolina where we checked into the Best Western Motel. It was 75 degrees when we left and 62 when we got into our motel room. I’m pretty sure it will cool off more than that tomorrow as we drive to Annapolis. It’s a trip we have made many times, and doubtless will make many more.

We’ve got in the habit of pulling off I-95 north of Daytona and driving over to the ocean to eat at the Golden Lion in Flagler Beach, where we had a small cabin when I was a boy, and where I spent many happy summers, fishing off the pier and walking down to the canal -- now called the Intercoastal Waterway -- to pull out dozens of blue crabs, by tossing  hunks of meat attached to long strings out in the canal and carefully drawing them in with crabs hanging on till they were close enough to be scooped out with a net.

I still like Flagler Beach. It has grown, of course, but not in the wild, developmental, high rise fashion of many Florida beach towns. Flagler retains the funky feel it had in the 1950s. And the Golden Lion, which wasn’t there then, is one of my favorite restaurants, mainly because of its French Onion soup, which is not exactly a staple for beach bars.

Today, the soup was as good as usual, and afterwards we walked along the breezy, sun-drenched beach, under the pier, and back through the town to the car. I can’t say how much that stroll pleased me, so I won’t try. But it will stick in my mind for as long as there’s any memory there.

We got back to I-95 a few minutes before three and headed on north through Jacksonville. We never stop in Jacksonville.  I have negative feelings about it, for no good reason, perhaps, but still I think they’re justified.

We never stop in Georgia anymore either, on the drive up the east coast, even though we used to stop there on every trip. You see, for more than half my life Georgia was my favorite state. I thought there was something magic about it. But the magic was mostly in my mind, and now my mind has changed. It’s not that all spots of the Peach State have lost their charm for me. But as a whole it has. It’s populated by too many Yahoos; it’s pumped too tight with an angry spirit. But we have to admit it’s not seriously different from many other states in those respects. The United States is widely infected with cruelty, fear and hatred.

It’s 360 miles from Bowling Green to the South Carolina line. We got there a bit before six, and then had another fifty minutes, or so, to make it to Walterboro. At this time of the year, it gets pure dark by 6:15 in southern South Carolina, which reminded me that South Carolina has often figured in my mind as the darkest place in the nation. When you think everything it has done to the country , and all the so-called statesmen it has provided us, from John C. Calhoun, to Pitchfork Ben Tillman, to Lindsey Graham, it almost gives you the creeps to cross the state line. And yet, I have to say, the people at this Best Western have been gracious and helpful each time we’ve stopped here, and I think this is our fourth visit.

We watched the Super Bowl from the second quarter on. I’ve seen every Super Bowl since the game began, and I think this was the most exciting and zany one of them all. It seemed that the Patriots, after making a fairly astonishing rally to get four points ahead, were going to lose after all in the final 30 seconds. And then, the Seahawks , with 2nd down on the one yard line, did something even more astonishing than the Patriots’ comeback. They threw a pass. Why they threw a pass will be talked about endlessly. But they did, and a rookie defensive back for the Patriots intercepted it. The game was over.

Even though I was pulling for the Patriots, it gave me a less than satisfied feeling for them to win because of their opponents’ amazing folly. Still, I had to reflect, that’s football, packed with amazing skill and the dumbest of behavior.

As I settled down to sleep, my last thought was that professional football isn’t a bad symbol for the United States, alternately glorious and god-awful. And each of these packaged up in about equal degree. Why I happened to be born and raised here is something no one can ever say. But here I am, glad sometimes and queasy the rest.

February 16, 2015

This morning I finally finished reading the book I mentioned here some time ago -- Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society.

I can’t recommend it as thrilling bedtime reading. It descends too often into tedium. But the whole effect is quite solid; it’s not a book one is likely to forget after having read it.

It’s curious, and somewhat disheartening, that a book published in 1955 was pointing vigorously at the same problems which continue to plague us, as though the intervening sixty years really haven’t mattered in any substantial sense. Yet I guess that’s because they haven’t. The past sixty years have taught us little as a society. You might even say there has been regression.

Fromm punctuated his main thesis with a quotation from R. H. Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society (1920): “The burden of our civilization ... is that industry itself has come to hold a position of exclusive predominance among human interests.” The way Fromm put it thirty-five years later is that people care more about acquiring money than in living a full and meaningful lives. The tale they tell themselves is that they want money so they can have worthwhile lives. But that’s not true, says Fromm (and I think he’s right). The purpose of life in current society is to serve money rather than using money to serve life. Virtually all work has become a process of selling life in order to get money. The time spent at work, for most people, is boring and alienating, and the only reason people do it is to get enough money to live. They would much rather be doing something else.

This, of course, is the opposite of how it should be. Work ought to be an activity pursued because it is personally meaningful and therefore ultimately enjoyable. It ought also to be fitted among the other activities essential to mentally healthy life. These are organizing society politically, discovering satisfying spiritual and philosophical orientations, building strong character, and participating in sustaining cultural activities. One of Fromm’s most avid arguments is that you can’t just do one of these things well and ignore the others. They have to be integrated because each must take account of the others in order to attain personal sanity. And only people in possession of sane lives can create sane societies.

Fromm’s most philosophically questionable proposition is that sanity is inherent in the nature of humans, so that when insanity begins to afflict them either personally or socially it means that perversions have taken over. How to distinguish sanity from perversity, though, is not an easy question. Many of those whom Fromm would call perverse, and therefore less than sane, are thoroughly addicted to their perversions and therefore unwilling to acknowledge them for what they are (or what Fromm would see them as being). Fromm proclaims, as though it were self evident, that:
We are not in need of new knowledge of how to live sanely -- but in bitter need of
taking seriously what we believe, what we preach and teach. The revolution of our
hearts does not require new wisdom, but new seriousness and dedication.

Though I respect Fromm heartily, and agree with a majority of his practical propositions, this still strikes me as a bit naive. If the perversions don’t have something to do with our nature, as it has evolved to this point, then where did they come from? Why did they arise in the first place?

For a long time, people have wished to be rich. And this is the wish which allows capitalism to dominate other social arrangements. Fromm sees it as a perversion, as a subordination of sanity to the money mania. But those who are concentrated on manipulating the capitalist system to pour as much money as possible into their own coffers certainly don’t see their efforts as perversion. Rather, they view them as the essence of intelligence. Perhaps this is just an instance, as Fromm would have it, of failing to distinguish intelligence from reason. But whatever it is, it appears deeply enough ingrained to rank as something basic to humanity as it has existed over the past two millennia. It’s true, I don’t like it, but neither do I think that calling it a perversion will do much to reduce its power.

Consequently, I think we do need new ideas. The old ideas -- or the old wisdom -- is not enough. What are these new ideas to be? If I could say for sure I could write notable books which would, at least, be scoffed at by all capitalists, everywhere. And I would consider that quite an achievement. But being who I am, I have to bumble along. The only thing I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, is that if new ideas which can advance civilization are to be employed, they have to be created rather than found. That’s the lesson that has come to us from what is loosely called “post-modernism.”

Fromm is right to say we should get more serious about the old wisdom. But how are we going to do it without new, created, ideas. I don’t think we can. So if I could introduce one thought into the future systems of education, it would be to encourage all students, of all ages, to be striving always to say what is more sane than what we have now, and having arrived at some reasonably developed schemes, to push them out into the public discourse.

One thing Fromm was right about: “The mentally healthy person ... is in the process of being born as long as he is alive.” What can that signify other than the need always to be building new ideas?

February 17, 2015

David Brooks this morning informed us that “war -- no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble -- is always a crime.” It’s an interesting observation: that something can be both justified and noble and yet be a crime. You might almost think there’s something contradictory there.

If Brooks is right, it follows that nations are the greatest criminals of all. They consistently claim the right to be justified and noble -- and even heroic -- while they’re committing crimes. They go even beyond that; they cheer themselves for committing these crimes, and make up band music to celebrate them.

Nations, of course, always tell us they commit crimes only when they have to. They would prefer not to commit them; they struggle not to commit them; they carry them out only as a last resort. Recent history, however, casts some doubt on these professions. Consider what happened in 2011, when the United States led the way in bombing Libya in order to overthrow the government there. The government was in the hands of Colonel Gaddafi, who was almost universally proclaimed to be a bad man. Undoubtedly, he was bad in many ways, or, at the least, quite ruthless. But was he bad enough, and ruthless enough, to justify committing the crime of war?

Joe Biden said he was; John Kerry said he was; Hillary Clinton said he was; Barack Obama said he was. But you’ll notice they haven’t said much lately in the light of what’s going on in Libya now. The U.N.’s envoy to the country, Bernandino Leon, says that “Libya is falling apart. Politically, financially, the economic situation is disastrous.” If he’s anywhere close to being right - and we have to remember he’s not the only one to say something similar -- then we have to assume there is a great deal of human misery in Libya now, even leaving aside that ISIS has taken up an abode in the country, and is proceeding to saw off the heads of quite a few people there.

When the crime was committed, back in 2011, we heard virtually no speculation that it might make conditions worse rather than better. That possibility seems not even to have been taken into account. The mood then was characterized by Hillary Clinton’s bon mot, after Gaddafi was seized by a mob and murdered; “We came, we saw, he died,” a crack which may go down in history as among the crassest ever uttered by a high-ranking U.S. official.

The leaders of the nation wanted to commit the crime, and they did. And, as you know, we don’t look back, we look forward, a remark which may well join Hillary’s humoresque assessment in the museum of American vulgarity. But, then, we don’t make policy on the basis of what’s in museums, do we?

Of one thing, we can be pretty sure: there will be no legal indictments for the commission of this crime. There is no public attorney with the courage to introduce such a thing into an American court.

We have to turn to the question of whether the bombing of Libya was an act of last resort. Exactly what gave it that character? Supposing we had not bombed Libya. Would that failure have created a disaster for the people of the United States? It would be interesting to see some of the cheerleaders of 2011 try to make the case that it would have. But you can’t expect that from them. They’re too busy looking forward.

The point is that our thoughts about war are jejune, at best -- childish, ill-considered, disrespectful of evidence, and more often than not, foolhardy. War is a crime. It always kills many people who have done nothing wrong at all, including three-year-old people and five-year-old people. Have you ever seen, or heard, an American public official explain carefully, and judiciously, the calculus that was employed to determine that it was right, justified, and even noble to kill those innocent people? Have you ever seen one argue thoughtfully about what would have happened if we had not killed them?

If an individual kills a child, the newspapers are filled with headlines, often for weeks, about the details of the crime. If the nation kills many times more, there are few headlines at all.

I think killing by nations needs to receive much more careful analysis than it does now. Until that happens, the killing will continue unabated, with all the dark consequences which flow from it.

To be fair, I have to give credit to Glenn Greenwald for his column yesterday in The Intercept, titled, “Hailed as a Model for Successful Intervention, Libya Proves to Be the Exact Opposite.” Read it; it’ll do you good.

February 18, 2015

Today Thomas Friedman notes that democracy is in decline. He doesn’t like the development, but he doesn’t know what to do about it other than to quote Stanford University’s Larry Diamond’s urging that we not lose faith.

In America, as we know, faith is the main thing. As long as we maintain faith in something it will miraculously resuscitate itself. This is a pleasant thought, but it requires a definition of the kind of faith being recommended if it is to have any effect. And as readers of Mr. Friedman are aware, careful definition is not one of his strong points.

What do you suppose it means to have faith in democracy? What follows from that? Is there any particular behavior that having faith in democracy entails?

Thomas Jefferson was once well known for having said that a country can’t have a democracy without having, also, a well-informed electorate. In the United States now we have an electorate who doesn’t know that Thomas Jefferson said that, and who, probably doesn’t know anything else Thomas Jefferson said. A goodly portion of it probably doesn’t even know who Thomas Jefferson was. From a Jeffersonian point of view, that doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy here.

We don’t have to assume, of course, that Mr. Jefferson was right. Maybe there’s no need of a well-informed electorate. But if not, there’s surely a need of something to support democracy. So what is it? If you went out on the street of an average town and asked people randomly what is necessary for democracy to thrive in the United States, what do you suppose they would say?

My best guess is that they would demand that all crooks be got out of politics. It might be a brilliant tactic if some strategy could be marshaled behind it. I’m afraid, though, if you followed up with a query about how the crooks could be removed, you wouldn’t get many coherent suggestions. That’s because most Americans don’t think much about government. They don’t have time. They are, after all, very busy.

The sad truth is that the American people have become so distracted by matters other than their common affairs they can’t conduct a functional democracy. It’s unlikely they will regain the ability anytime soon. There’s no guarantee they will ever regain it.

It could be the case that modern society has evolved beyond democracy because of the diversions technology continues to pump into the social network. People are giddy over the newest thing. They can’t concentrate on a topic as old as just government. Their minds have become unfitted for such thoughts. Democracy is being disassembled by mental breakdown, or perhaps it should be said, by mental transformation.

This is not to say there can’t be occasional mass movements in response to egregious government behavior. People don’t need to be informed to get caught up in protests. But these are not the same thing as steady democratic attention. And the weakness of them is that they can usually be shuffled aside by the people in charge -- that is the people who control the most potent and well-armed physical force.

What will happen is that public policy will be increasingly laid down by an elite minority. You might say that has always been the case, but the degree of it is the issue. Will this minority retain some interest in the well-being of the general populace, or will it not?

In the United States we might be able to insist that they do if we can hold onto some freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The governmental elite will always be working to squelch such activities. We see that happening now with the multiple agencies of the national security state. But there is another minority -- outside government -- which at the moment is striving to retain the ability to report on what the state is doing. Actually it does a pretty good job, though it draws the attention of, at most, ten percent of the electorate.

That journalistic remnant and that ten percent are now what we have left of democracy in America. It’s not a great deal, but it is something. When those two forces bear down, they can have some effect. They can’t control the general direction but they can mitigate some abominations. Decency in society depends on them.

If you’re among the ten percent you had best concentrate on supporting and protecting the journalists who are radical enough to try to tell the truth. With a little luck you might be able to keep them going. Tom Friedman you can leave to his own devices.

February 19, 2015

I see that the Oklahoma House of Representatives is on the attack against the College Board’s Advanced Placement Examinations for U.S. History. A bill has been introduced by Rep. Dan Fisher, who is a Baptist minister and a member of the Black Robe Regiment, which would withdraw all funds for offering the test to Oklahoma high school students. Students use the AP exams mainly to get college credit for introductory courses.

Fisher says “we don’t want our tax dollars going to a test that undermines our history.” What he seems to regard as undermining history is reporting on less than flattering events. He charges that the AP U.S. History framework emphasizes “what is bad about America,” and, furthermore doesn’t teach about American exceptionalism. His bill would also require the teaching of the Ten Commandments.

You might regard all this as simply one more attack by dull-minded people who dislike like the idea of history as an account of what happened rather as mythical glorification. If you did, you’d be right to see that as the main feature of Fisher’s campaign. But there are some interesting subtleties about it that repay further analysis. Fisher’s bill designates 58 documents that “shall form the base level of academic content for all United States History courses offered in the schools in the state.” In other words, the primary material of historical investigation should be official documents, and speeches by leading politicians.

There’s nothing wrong with examining most of the documents Fisher includes. They are legitimate historical artifacts which need to be taken into account. But they are not the whole of history, and the reason someone wishes to make them the basis of study is to prettify the past.  After all, official documents tell us far more about presumed intentions than they do about actual behavior, and presidential speeches are primarily word paintings; they are clearly not photographs.  The most self-destructive thing a politician can do is to speak frankly and honestly about the condition of the country.

Conservatism, particularly as it’s now defined, is to a great extent hatred of the truth. Few conservatives I have known want to face, straightforwardly, what grandfather actually did, or how he thought and lived. Proper people keep that sort of thing out of the light. Did he punch grandmother in the face, now and then? Well, you know ....

Why look up all that stuff? That’s looking backward, not forward. We don’t do that in America, because it’s un-American. We don’t think much about December 29, 1890; that’s when between 200 and 300 people were killed at Wounded Knee. We don’t even remember that 20 Medals of Honor were awarded for the killings. We don’t commemorate August 17, 1915, when a number of the staunch citizens of Marietta, Georgia, broke Leo Frank out of jail and hanged him. We don’t much recall August 28, 1955, when fourteen year old Emmett Till was dragged into a barn, had one of his eyes gouged out, before being shot through the head, and then had a 72 pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, preparatory to his body being tossed in the Tallahatchie River. We’ve even mostly forgotten about March 18, 1968, the day when something over four hundred unarmed civilians were slaughtered in the village of My Lai by soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11 Brigade, of the 23rd Infantry Division. You wouldn’t say these were quintessential American acts would you? American school children don’t need to know about them, do they? They didn’t flow from features of the American character, did they? Not if you’re an Oklahoma Republican legislator they didn’t. Let them be washed away in the stream of lost events.

There are many different perceptions, of course, about what history is for. For some, it provides occasions of celebration, and little else, plus the chance to hear about the evil King, George III, who wasn’t really evil, but, then, who cares after all these years?

If, on the other hand, you’re of the notion that historians ought to make the story of the past as full as they can, or that we can strengthen the health of society by attending to accounts produced in that spirit, then you’re likely to be seen as weird -- that is, if you’re being examined by Dan Fisher and the members of the Black Robe Regiment.

P.S. Fisher now says his bill, which was approved by Oklahoma House Common Education Committee -- by a vote of 11-4 -- was “very poorly worded and was incredibly ambiguous.” If that’s the case, might we wonder why it was written that way?

P.S. # 2  To be fair to Fisher, he did say, after much criticism arose about his bill, that “No one's questioning that America doesn't have blemishes, and I don't even have a problem with those being taught ... but I do have a problem with those being taught almost to the exclusion of what America has done right.”  I hope that was said sincerely, but I also confess that I have my doubts.

February 20, 2015

For years friends and acquaintances have stared at me incredulously when I said that the military was more given to falsehood than any other environment I’ve encountered. I could see them thinking, “What! Isn’t the military the place where honor is more supported than anywhere else? This guy must be crazy.”

Consequently, I’m pleased to see that the U.S. Army War College has issued a report backing up my contention. Conducted by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, the study concludes that U.S. Army officers lie routinely in the conduct of their duties. The report describes a “culture where deceptive information is both accepted and commonplace.”

That was certainly what I found when I was a soldier, so the condition is not the result of recent degeneration. It is a longstanding default position, and one that’s unlikely ever to be rooted out.

If you’ll think about it, you’ll see that giving false information in the military is pretty nearly inevitable. Here’s a small personal story to show you what I mean.

I once manned a station in the control room at the Yakima Firing Center where an extensive war game was being conducted. Most days I was out in the field, flying my helicopter, but on this day I got assigned to the flight board, which was supposed to show where on the reservation all the aircraft were currently located. The trouble was, the aircraft radios were seriously defective, so that I couldn’t get reports from the pilots about where they were operating. I had no idea where they were.

At one point in the morning, the door at the end of the long room popped open and a full colonel came down the corridor to prepare us for the imminent visit of the commanding general. When the colonel got to me, I explained that my board wasn’t accurate because I couldn’t get transmissions from the pilots, and I asked him if I should tell the general that. He looked at me as though I were a total idiot and exploded, “Are you out of your fucking mind? You put your magnets up on the board and you tell him that each one shows where a plane of helicopter is.” Then he stormed on down the line.

So I took all the magnets in my hand, stepped back a couple feet and tossed them at the board, where they all stuck. I thought they made an interesting pattern.

About three minutes later the general came through, stopping to chat a minute or so at each station. When he got to me, he shook my hand and asked, “So, lieutenant, what are you up to?”
And I answered, “You see, sir, each of these magnets tells us where a plane is.” I plucked one off the board. “This one, for example, sir, shows us that helicopter 328188 is down in the valley by the Columbia River.” He beamed at me, slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Good job, lieutenant, keep it up!” And then he proceeded to the next station.

I never knew, of course, whether he knew I was lying. I figured he probably did. But I had played my role, and everybody was happy. And at the moment, that’s all I cared about. It was a paradigmatic moment. I don’t know what I would have done if I had thought that knowing where the planes were was a life or death matter. I’m glad I never had to make that decision.

It’s hard to imagine how a rank-obsessed environment could be a place where truth is even close to primary. In the military, everybody knows where you stand in the pecking order. You wear little pins on your shirt, telling everybody who encounters you. And this is not a thing you do voluntarily; you have to do it. I can still get a shudder thinking about going out having forgotten to pin my bars on my collar and my hat.

Where rank counts for almost everything, everyone is thinking about moving up. And everybody knows that frankness is not a formula for upward movement in society. I think often of the English critic who said, “If you describe things as being worst than they are, you’ll be called a pessimist; if you say they’re better than they are, you’ll be called an optimist; but if you try to explain how they actually are, you’ll be called insane.”

I’m not saying there aren’t moments where truth will force itself into the conversation because if it doesn’t something obviously disastrous will happen. But in the military those moments are rare.

So whenever you see a general, with medals cascading down his chest, standing at a briefing board, working through his talking points, think about how he got many of those medals, and exercise a little skepticism. And be grateful that there are some people in the War College who will summon the courage, occasionally, to try tell the truth.

February 22, 2015

Love seems to be the new test for political respectability. You have to love certain things or else you’re a disgrace. And the main thing you’ve got to love, of course, is America. It appears to be taken for granted that everybody knows what it means to love America. That’s why nobody has to say what it is.

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who’s not sure exactly what love of a nation is, though I doubt it. Truth is, I’m pretty sure there are millions of people who have no idea what loving a nation is because they’ve never given it two minutes thought. Loving a country is just something you do without knowing what it is. We have a lot of that sort of mental behavior in America, which is one of the things I don’t love about it. I guess I should come out bluntly and admit there are many things about the United States, past and present, I don’t love. Does that mean I don’t love the country? How could I find out? Should I consult Rudy Giuliani?

I will say that I’m capable of loving thoughtless people. But I don’t love that they’re thoughtless. Does that mean that my love is flawed, impure, compromised? If you love, have you got to do it a hundred percent, all the way, with no reservations about what you don’t love?

Here’s another problem. Love is like pain. We can’t be sure what it is to another person. If Rudy Giuliani wants to say he loves America, that’s okay with me. But I have no idea what he’s talking about. If somebody offered me a million dollars to define what Rudy Giuliani’s love of America is I’d just have to throw up my hands and pass by my opportunity for wealth. I wouldn’t say, of course, that he doesn’t love America because that would make no more sense than my saying that he does love it.

This problem is exacerbated by none of us knowing what America is to another person any more than we know what love is to another person. You’ll notice that when people talk about America, they never say what it is. That’s always been a curiosity to me. What are they talking about? Is it a population? If it is, and they say they love it unreservedly, then they’re just plain out lying. If you take Rudy Giuliani, for example, it’s obvious that he detests thousands, probably millions, of other Americans. I certainly hope he would hate me, that is, if he knew about me. And I’m pretty sure he would.

Is America a stretch of geography? If it is, then it would be hard for anyone to say he loves it all. When I’m in Florida and Georgia, among people who profess devout love for America, they talk quite a bit about hating New York. How does that comport? I realize that some people have a notion about what’s real America, and what’s not real. Sarah Palin has shown that propensity. The problem, though, is that such people never lay out a clear explanation for what’s real, and what’s unreal. Besides, what could unreal mean about a portion of a country you can drive your car into, and buy coffee in, and go shopping in a Walmart?

Is America a history? If that’s what it is, then nobody can love the entire history of the United States. What about lynching? Do we love that?

Is America a government? If that’s the case, then most proclaimed lovers of America are caught up in insane contradictions. They’re exactly the people in this country who are most likely to say they hate the government.

Is America some sort of tradition? If that’s it, then anybody who said so would have to sort out the various strains of tradition in this country, and once he did, it would be impossible to say he loved them all.

If you think about it for fifteen minutes, you have to realize that love of country is not a characteristic that has anything to do with making sensible political choices. You don’t know what love means in that context; you don’t know what another person means when he talks about America. It’s empty blather, employed almost always by empty minds.

I would think that in politics, you would try to figure out as best you can what candidates are likely to do, and then support or oppose them on that basis. Let love be like religion, a personal thing which each person has the full right to decide for himself. I don’t know what a devout Catholic might have in mind about a church doctrine. If it translates into behavior I can observe, then I can legitimately take a stand on the behavior. But it would be the behavior I would be arguing about, not the doctrine. If someone told me he was doing something I didn’t like because of doctrine, I’d just have to say I didn’t care. As a political being his or her actions are what count for me.

I know all this talk about the president’s not loving the country enough is just dopey propaganda contrived for influencing people who have no sensible political thought. It will stir through the media until people get tired of it, and then it will go away, or retreat to shabby filling stations where disgruntled guys sit and drink beer. But now that it’s in the process of showing itself off, I hope a few people will come to see it for what it is, and turn away from those who try to exploit it as a political weapon.

February 23, 2015

Michael Holroyd in Works on Paper, a collection of essays about biographical writing, starts off with a series of disparaging remarks from various people about the tactics of biographers -- that they’re snoopers, that they don’t respect the wishes of their subjects, that they concentrate too much on idiosyncrasies, and so forth. This, of course, is leading to his own defense of the biographical writer, which he concludes with this remark: “What he has actually done, I would suggest, is to give our friends the dead an opportunity of contributing to the living world, of keeping them in employment during a very useful immortality.”

“Our friends the dead” is, for me, an arresting idea. Can we really be friends with dead people, and if we can, what are the duties of such friendship? One might say the first duty is not to allow them to be forgotten. There’s a sense that as long as someone is remembered and talked about, he or she continues with a life, of sorts. But striding beside that notion is a pretty strong belief that if one isn’t aware of a life, it means nothing.

For me, this is one of the ongoing, inevitable human tensions -- between a real existence in memory and complete blankness. Dr. Johnson was given to saying that he feared oblivion even more than he feared hellfire. By continuing to talk about him, and laugh with him, are we saving him from the thing he feared most? Those of us who retain a form of love for him hope so.

I do think it’s good for us, the living, to love the dead, even if they know nothing about it. It’s good for us as long as we stay alive, the skeptic might retort.

Keeping the dead employed during a useful immortality seems, obviously, a good thing to do. The world would be impoverished if there were no memory of anyone except through personal association. But that stance requires answering the question of who needs most to be kept employed and it’s not easy to answer.

I and a pair of my friends have been having a conversation about the terms “great” and “greatness.” Do they mean anything sensible, and if so, what? I’ve taken the position that they don’t mean much, little more, really, than extensive publicity. Was Alexander the Great actually great? And if he was, why? We don’t, usually, say that Adolph Hitler was great. That’s because the term carries with it a tincture of high morality, and the general impression is that Hitler was not a moral man. Because more words are devoted to politicians at the center of affairs than to anyone else, such persons are likely to be spoken of as having greatness. Men such as Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, and Ronald Reagan fall into that category. But when you begin to dig into their lives, you find things there which are less than enthralling. Of these three, I’d say that Washington was the best, but my evidence might not be compelling. Yet “best” and “great” are different, so I’m not willing to say that Washington was great (mainly, I guess, because I don’t know what the term means in that context and I’m trying to discipline myself to use only words that do mean something, hard as that may be).

In any case, who we should work hardest to keep alive in cultural memory, and therefore employed, remains a pressing question. When I go into bookstores and skim titles, I come away convinced we don’t answer it well. There are more biographies of movie stars than there are of notable writers, and in my prejudice I think that’s a mistake.

The feature of Works on Paper I like best is that Holroyd  uses it to rescue from oblivion lives he thinks deserve more recognition and attention than they have received. He writes about Richard Pennington, John Stewart Collis, Gwen John, J.L. Carr, and William Gerhardie in ways that are more affecting and memorable than what’s normally said about those who garnered a bigger fame. I said to my friends, by the way, that most fame comes from playing roles society has assigned and therefore generally involves little originality or personal inventiveness (I don’t think they agreed with me).

J.L. Carr more interesting and worthy of being remembered than Teddy Roosevelt? Ridiculous! Still, they haven’t yet turned me aside (you might infer from this that I’m not especially enamored of our first Roosevelt president, though I do admit he did some useful things).

I turn again to Samuel Johnson -- who has been remembered fairly actively, though in my opinion not actively enough: “I have often thought that there rarely passes a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.” In this discussion about who it is best to remember, and keep employed, he might be more on my side than common opinion would be. I hope so. I care more for Dr. Johnson’s opinion than I do for the common variety.

As for fame: I hope I can care less and less about it as I go on.

February 24, 2015

Tonight at the Johnson Society, we’re going to discuss history, not the past, per se, but how the past is recorded and viewed by the present.

The fundamental problem for writers of history is that they have such vast stores of data to draw upon they can’t begin to sort through it all. So any account of the past anyone turns out is bound to be radically partial.  Somebody else, using a different batch of data, could tell -- legitimately -- a completely different story. Who is to say which story is the best, or whether there can even be such a concept of best among the gigantic number of tales produced?

When I was a graduate student in history at the University of Virginia I hadn’t yet assimilated even this simple truth. I was still caught in the juvenile notion that there could be a right history of America, and that my duty was to help it come to be. I’m not sure how long it took me to get over that notion, probably less than a decade, but the time I spent hooked to it was pretty much wasted, intellectually, though I had some fun and set other activities in motion which have served me well. In other words, I was young.

I hope you understand that I’m not claiming that truth has nothing to do with history. It has a great deal to do with it. There are honest historical writings and skewed and twisted ones. I think it’s important to support the ones that are honest and take those that are dishonest apart. All I’m saying is that the most honest telling imaginable is not whole. There are other honest tellings that deserve the same degree of support as the first one you might happen upon.

Most people, though, stick with the first one they encounter, pressed on them usually by some tribal piety, or another. This is how we get histories of the United States with subtitles like “Empire of Liberty.” In Oklahoma now, members of the House of Representatives are demanding that the historical stories taught to schoolchildren should emphasize what’s good about America, not what’s bad. Why this should be the emphasis is not explained. It just should be. This is how extremely simple-minded people think: we are good and they are bad. They don’t bother to explain the difference between good and bad, they just assume that whatever is associated with them is the former, whereas the latter comes from the sort of people who live in Massachusetts, or somewhere else outside the real America.

The basic problem for history with most people is that they don’t understand what it is. They don’t see that it’s literature. It’s a literature of a certain sort, of course. The material for its plots is supposed to come from records rather than from made-up incidents in the mind. But it still has to have a plot, and somebody still has to shape it. History has to include all the basic elements of story, or else it becomes just a mishmash of charts, and so forth, which nobody can honestly claim says anything. History has to say something if it’s to be legitimate.

So how do we decide what it should say? That’s decided in the same way any other story is decided; it is determined by motive. Anybody who writes a story has a motive, whether he or she knows it or not. I think it’s better -- more honest, clearer, more entertaining -- when the motive is known. You don’t have to embrace the motive to see what it is, to take it into your mind and roll it around, to try to understand where it comes from.

One of the more useful -- and I think noble -- motives for historical telling is to let people know, as best as possible, what it was like for particular people to experience events in the past. If you see a scene and then have a pretty good idea of how all the people in the scene were feeling and thinking, you can learn a lot more from it than if it’s no more than a propaganda ploy designed to force you onto some side or other. The best history is not about sides; it’s about people and their feelings as they were engulfed by time. Knowing what it was like for individual persons in the past, regardless of which side they were on, can help you learn who you are and who you genuinely want to be. That, I think, is the primary purpose of storytelling -- or, at least, it ought to be.

The weakness of history up till now is that it has concentrated on conflicts between semi-organized mobs and explained to us which mob won and how many members of the other mob it killed. I admit there’s some interest in that approach but I don’t think it offers as much learning as stories about personal experience. You can, if you wish, say that the mob and the messages it flung out are more important than what actually happened to someone. What you cannot do, honestly, is explain what the mob actually experienced. A mob has, somewhat, a mind, but it is not a mind very much akin to a human mind. And since history is for human readers, and not for mob consumption, to say what happened to humans is a superior motive for history to follow. The mob approach should be mainly about background, which is always significant  but not the primary feature.

I don’t know if we’ll get better history as time moves along. I hope we will. But as always history will be about what people think is important. So if people don’t improve their thinking about importance, history won’t get any better either.

February 25, 2015

So it turns out that the difference between being sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, or being thrown in prison for life, depends on whether the person who shot two people thought they were pig-men. If he really thought they were hybrids, involved in nothing good, he was confused, but not criminal. The question of whether they actually were pig-men seems not to have arisen.

If two or three centuries from now anyone could summon the patience to dig deeply into the details of the American criminal justice system of the early 21st century, he could crank out something so fantastic scarcely anyone would believe it (or at least I hope that would be the case).

The trial seems to have established beyond doubt that Eddie Routh, the shooter, was mentally disturbed. Evidence presented in the court showed that the men he shot thought he was nuts. Why, thinking as they did, they took him to a shooting range to help him out, I can’t conceive. I doubt, though, that the question came up. And maybe the members of the jury in Stevenville would have thought it was a perfectly logical decision. Where else would you take a crazy person? Certainly not to a coffee shop.

Eddie Routh is going to prison, for the rest of his life, where, presumably he will not get psychological treatment, because various psychologists testified that he knew the difference between right and wrong, and that he knew it was wrong to kill the men he did. So Eddie knew something I don’t know. The difference between right and wrong strikes me as a very tricky issue, and one that thoughtful people may not be able to sort out. In the higher levels of the American university system, the definition of right and wrong presents a very difficult problem. But in a courtroom in Stevenville, Texas, it becomes clear as a bell.

Why the thought of killing someone rises in a person’s mind when it would not in another’s is a complex question, but it seems fairly certain that it has quite a bit to do with social conditioning. But social conditioning, as far as I know, is inadmissible in American courts. So, the cause that might be the principal reason for an act to occur is simply of no consequence in legal thinking. Since this case raised issues of mental competence, might it also provide us with a good reason to ask how sane the people who indulge in that kind of thinking are? To employ crazy thoughts for determining the sanity of a fellow human being seems, at least, a bit zany, doesn’t it?

The main difference between myself and Eddie Routh, for example, is not that one of us knows right and wrong better than another. It is that I have no inclination, no desire, to kill anybody, for any reason, whereas Eddie Routh obviously did. He may not have understood the inclination, but it was present. And it was shaped by a social conditioning which transforms the act of killing, under certain conditions, into the finest thing a person can do. I have managed, somehow, to get away from that conditioning and to regard it as a form of insanity, whereas poor Eddie did not. One of the persons Eddie killed was, of course, a far more effective killer than Eddie was, but his killing was done in a socially approved, and to some extent, a socially celebrated, manner. He was a hero, not a criminal. Yet I suspect the nature of his thoughts and Eddie’s thoughts about killing were fairly close. They were both taught to think that way and neither of them had the chance to escape the lesson. Eddie still has the opportunity to get free of it, and I hope he does. The persons he killed don’t. In a sense, that’s Eddie’s genuine crime; he destroyed the possibility for future learning. But, then, that’s what all killing does.

My thoughts about this sad case (sad in so many ways it’s impossible to list them all) are influenced by Erich Fromm’s distinction between neurotic mental illness and defective mental illness. The one affects individuals in their ability to manage their relations with persons immediately around them, the second affects entire societies in their thinking about right and wrong. Eddie Routh was a victim of both these forms of insanity. The second kind was likely more virulent than the first. If he had not been taught to think positively about killing, it’s unlikely he would have resorted to it in his distress.

The courts, obviously, can’t take the second into account because they arise from it. It is their bread and butter. We can hope they’ll get a better diet in the future, but if they do it will take gigantic intellectual struggle, which most systems in the United States don’t seem much interested in at the moment.

February 26, 2015

About seven years ago I made a list of the five most commonly cited U. S. social and political problems and stuck it up on the wall behind my computer, right between a picture of myself when I was about six years old and my collection of Dickens spoons.

Here’s the list:

  • Endless War and the War Industry
  • Massive Economic Inequality
  • Control of Politics by Financial Elites
  • Oppressive Law Enforcement Agencies
  • Environmental Destruction

It’s interesting not only that these remain the five most pressing problems but that all of them have intensified since I made the list. It seems we’re not going in the right direction. That’s curious, since there has been a gigantic flood of articles and books denouncing the forces that keep each of them on the list. One might be led to suspect that few people pay attention to such material. What does attract the attention of most people in 21st century America is hard to know.

There continue to be a large number of statements that the United States is the greatest nation the world has ever known. Leaving aside, for the moment, that most people who issue such announcements have no idea what they mean by “great,” it remains difficult to discover greatness of any sort in a mass of people who tolerate a social structure which ignores, and often celebrates, attitudes leading to tyranny and social degradation. What’s going on?

The best answer I can find for that question is hatred, anger and fear. I tend to think that these three emotions are different facets of the same thing, which I don’t have a perfect name for but which, if I were forced to offer a quick title, I would call nastiness. There’s too much nastiness in America and because of it, we can’t solve our problems.

The really scary thing about nastiness is that it goes a long way. A single act of nastiness can canker more life than five acts of compassion can restore. If we were to take that five to one ratio as generally accurate (and I suspect it’s not far off), we could say we need to keep the percentage of basically nasty people below 16 or 17 percent. In other words, we could tolerate ten percent of nasty people but twenty-five percent would be ruinous. And the latter, I’m afraid is about where we are.

You see, I’m a fairly optimistic person. I don’t think it would take a cataclysmic revolution to make America a fairly decent country. It would take only a shift of about 15% of the people from nastiness to intelligence and sanity to bring our problems into the manageable range. But where do we find that 15%?

Some say that time will take care of the transition, that the generation now between 15 and 35 years of age is considerably less nasty than the one that will shuffle away over the next fifteen years. In other words, mortality will create social health. I hope that’s true but I doubt we can count on it. A thing we need to remember is that age often breeds nastiness. Age can bring forth intelligence too, but it doesn’t seem to do it in the same proportions as it cranks out fearful, angry people.

The most common prescription for nastiness is education. I agree that it’s an effective antidote but its weakness in the United States is that a majority of the population doesn’t recognize what it is. Cheap training programs are steadily put forward as substitutes, and they don’t work. Education requires contact with subtle minds, commonly made through the reading of serious books. Far less than a majority of Americans understand that any longer. Education and schooling are not the same thing, and until more people perceive that distinction, education will continue to be a less than dynamic force for dissipating nastiness.

It’s a sad situation but, at the moment, there is no single treatment in America for combatting the malign trio, there is no sole movement which can by itself undermine them. That doesn’t mean the country is hopeless, but it does mean that intelligent vitality, if it develops, will come only incrementally. We have a long wait, and during that time we have to hope that something disastrous doesn’t occur that could plunge a bigger portion of the country into primitive fear and anger. If 35% turned nasty we would really be in a mess.

Even so, the turning of 15% of the electorate is not impossible. It wouldn’t require anyone to experience an epiphany. The change could be quite simple. Imagine what would happen if someone merely gave up watching Fox News regularly and took up, instead, the reading of one intelligent news article a week.  It would be transformative. I’m not saying that would be easy, but I am saying it could occur. I suspect there are enough persons capable of different perceptions, living uneasily on the margins of nastiness, with the potential to change the political character of the nation.

If you know anybody like that, work on him, or her, as carefully as you can. We need to get that 15%.

February 27, 2015

Rummaging in our attic yesterday, my wife found a large box of 3X5 cards, which I had completely forgotten. It must have been sitting untouched for at least twenty years.

Most of the contents were unused, which I am glad to know I have, but several hundred of them did have comments and notes I had scribbled in the mid-1980s. One packet, made up of seven cards, was titled “College Education: A View or Vision.” It was a subject that occupied me more intensely then than it has over the past decade, but it remains one of my interests. As I read through the packet, it doesn’t seem too bad to me, and since it can form a kind of footnote to a point I made in my comments yesterday, I think I’ll add it here.

The first difficulty in college education is definition. We have little notion of what a college education is, and that’s because we tend to start with the idea that a college education is something produced by residence in a college over four years. The truth -- or at least a more sensible definition -- lies in another direction. A college education ought to be seen not as as state of mind produced by existing colleges but rather as an ideal state colleges ought to be seeking to promote.

In other words, a college education is not something dependent on collegiate institutions. It is a quality of mental health sought naturally by anyone who relates to the universe and to society as he should.

By thus shifting the definition, we do away with one of the bedeviling questions for educators in this democratic century: who should have a college education? The answer, by definition, is that everyone should.

This definition also removes the confusion in distinguishing a college from a university. A university, properly, contains units where people pursue specialized knowledge in order to become experts. A college, though it may be embedded within a university, is a more subtle institution. In it, one pursues the knowledge and understanding that everyone ought to have. I don’t mean by this that in college everyone should carry out the same course of study, or that there should be no concentration or particular bodies of information. Everyone, in order to deepen his or her understanding, needs to follow a subject beyond the introductory level. Human limitation requires that this be done in only a small number of fields. So a college will necessarily be composed of persons pursuing knowledge in a variety of concentrations. That’s as it should be.

However, in college  one should concentrate only to the extent necessary to understand what it means to practice within a certain field. One should not expect college to produce practitioners, only to send people forth with enough knowledge so that they can begin to work seriously at becoming practitioners, and to do so with reasonable confidence that the practice is compatible with their own character and interests.

Specialization to that degree is something everyone needs to accomplish, and so it falls within the boundaries of what a college ought to provide. As long as it is kept within that level it doesn’t subvert the other, more important features of college education and is, in fact, supportive of them.

Just what these other, “more important” features are has been a topic of intense debate within the college community over the past several years. A great many people, perhaps a majority of the college world, believe that a baccalaureate degree ought to signify some attainment of general learning. Graduation from college is supposed, in the popular mind, to mean that the graduate is “an educated person” and therefore knows the things an educated person is supposed to know. But what are these things? That’s a question to raise hackles. The furor it occasions comes not only from an inability to agree but from the controversy whether there is any such body of knowledge that everyone needs to possess.

Who says that everyone ought to be aware that at some time in the past there existed a writer named Shakespeare who produced literature which has been thought by many to be among the finest fruits of Western literary art? Or, who says that everyone ought to realize that protons and neutrons, once thought to be the elemental particles of matter, are now known to be themselves composed of even smaller entities called quarks? What good does it do the ordinary citizen to know that kind of stuff, and who cares, anyway?

The strange truth is that a lot of people care, and a lot of people believe, with a kind of intuitive faith, that it is immensely important for knowledge of this kind to be widely shared. But though many care, and many believe, very few are able to articulate why, in a fashion that has much effect on a non-believer.

A maddening aspect of liberal learning is that few can imagine the good of it until the good has been experienced. That’s why preaching up the liberal arts usually means preaching to the converted. If anyone could devise a sure-fire method for explaining the good of culture to the uncultured, he would make himself immortal. I don’t anticipate anything that glorious for myself, but I do think there are several ordinary arguments which might become generally persuasive were they better understood.

One involves the discomfort many people feel nowadays at not being part of a recognizable community. There’s a sense of lostness abroad in the country which deprives us of many of the pleasures of the past -- the pleasure of feeling oneself a part of something larger and more profound than one’s own immediate surroundings, the pleasure of believing that one is allied with a source of ultimate meaning, the secure pleasure that comes from knowing you appreciate and take delight in the same things your neighbors find fulfilling.

Obviously some such pleasure is derived by many simply from being a citizen of the nation. We all participate in what the scholar Robert Bellah calls the civil religion, and that participation gives significance to national rituals like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and the World Series.

One might argue that these events are all we need to maintain a healthy culture, and that academic endeavors should be left free for expertise or for esoterica. Yet I don’t think that argument can stand the test of sentiments being expressed by many citizens now. There is too much discontent, too much perception that our national culture, satisfying as it sometimes is, doesn’t provide the depth needed by a mature people. A society cannot live on parades and TV extravaganzas alone.

We are a part of a community, yes, but increasingly it is a community that has no mind.

That’s where my cards ended. I had intended to carry this beginning forward, but as is so often the case with ambitious projects, other events intervened.

If I were trying to write the same sort of thing now, I would make some changes, of course. But I’m not super embarrassed to put this forward as the state of my thinking thirty years ago.

I did, quite a few years after this, write a little book which tried to push some of these ideas forward. It was titled Letters to Dalton: Higher Education and the Degree Salesmen. I regret to confess that the demand for it was so slight that I still have quite a few copies boxed up in my basement. Should you be so peculiar as to want one, send me your name and address and I’ll get one off to you pretty quickly.

My intention in mentioning all this, in 2015, is to point out that the confusion about the definition of education and the fragmentation of society are both more virulent now than they were thirty years ago. If we’re going to bottom out in the coming decades we need to start thinking about changes right away.

February 28, 2015

The best book on politics I’ve read in quite a while is Mike Lofgren’s The Party Is Over. The reason it’s good is that it lays out, in strong, clear language, obvious recent developments in the national government that ninety percent of journalists and political commentators are too cowardly to touch.

Lofgren was a Congressional staff member for twenty-eight years, specializing in military budgets. He was a Republican (and may still be a Republican, though I suspect most Republicans no longer want him in their ranks). He retired in 2011, saying, in effect, that the irrationality of the Congressional process drove him out. You can see the conclusions he reached from the subtitle of this book: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

His main thesis is that most of official Washington is now involved in a craven obedience to entrenched wealth. “Money has overtaken politics so completely that factional interests are now simply competing to buy votes.” Anyone who has paid attention to national politics over the past decade knows that’s true. But you won’t find many members of the political class saying it outright.

The Constitutional system of government, which we once followed to some degree has been ditched in favor of “an embittered, Manichaean mind-set,” which will stop at nothing to get its way. The excuse for most of this insane behavior is “security” which is devoted far more to raking up profits than it is to keeping anyone safe. It would be difficult to be more blunt about that than Lofgren is: “The GOP’s version of national security -- perpetual war, a bloated military budget, and diminished constitutional protections -- is a far cry from anything the Founding Fathers would have recognized.”

Critical as Lofgren is of the political players, he’s just as scathing about the general public, saying “if a free citizenry is too apathetic, too intimidated, too distracted, or just too plain ignorant to exercise its statutory liberties, those liberties will not last long.” It’s clear that he views most Americans as being apathetic, intimidated, distracted, and ignorant, so much so that anything that might be called a free country has pretty much disappeared.

He’s harder on the Republicans than he is on the Democrats, insanity being somewhat worse than ineptitude. But he’s clear that the consequences of one are similar to those of the other. He thinks the country is strangling in a sclerotic two-party system, the whole of which is so dependent on big-money contributions there’s little hope either party could ever hope to reform itself.

Given how the process is actually conducted, incessant lying becomes an inevitable element of the political process. His experience dealing with high-ranking military officers has convinced him that rising in the ranks depends on deceiving virtually everyone. Here’s his summary of  what happens, always, when anything critical about the military creeps into the news: “These and other cases tend to follow a set script: the incident is followed by the inevitable cover-up and denial; as the cover-up unravels some small fry might be thrown to the wolves; then comes absolution by means of an internally generated phony reform.” We have all seen this happen over and over again. Why is it not understood, and anticipated by all of us, and most of all by the figures of the mainstream media?

The waste of money by the government on supposed security measures is almost too gigantic to imagine. The creation of the completely unneeded Department of Homeland Security, for example, was a “monstrosity.” He offers his opinion of what actually happened by this quip: “There is poetic justice in the fact that the new headquarters complex for the Department of Homeland Security is being constructed on the site of an abandoned mental hospital.”

The decision by the GOP to court the religiously crazed class, because they have no critical mind and are therefore easily lied to and manipulated, is one of the most dangerous developments we’ve ever had in American politics. Turning the nation over to people who think that God will run the country if he’s just prayed to in the right way would be its destruction: “If this country ever fully uncorks the genie of politicized religion, as the Republican Party has been attempting to do, we shall long regret it.”

The Republican Party has chirped for decades about wanting to lower the national debt, but that’s a complete falsehood. All their policies have been directed in the opposite direction, especially their maniacal efforts to enrich people who are forever pushing a more highly militarized country. “This tendency (to keep the debt high) was fatally reinforced by a military-industrial complex that saw, and continues to see, its real mission as achieving the greatest possible throughput of dollars, while it prioritizes its threats in proportion to how they might enhance contractors’ cash flow.”

All this put together is not just the result of ordinary greed and stupidity. It is, rather, a rabid attempt to criminalize the nation. In the waging of repeated aggressive wars, which have nothing to do with the well-being of the American people, Washington has descended into clear-cut criminal behavior. He contrasts recent acts with the stance the United States once at least professed to believe. “An ethical  chasm separates the Great and the Good of contemporary Washington from the principle that Justice Jackson expressed at Nuremberg: ‘Any resort to war is a resort to means that are inherently criminal.’”

The national government has been captured by a mind-set which is characterized by “a lack of intellectual seriousness, combined with ideological rigidity, sound-bite glibness, and ethical corner cutting. And power worship, whether the object of worship is money, high office, or military might.”

So, we’re in a mess. Does this mean we’re doomed? Lofgren is surprisingly optimistic. The reforms needed to wash the sewage out of the national government would be relatively simple, he says. The main one would be to make the buying of elections illegal by forbidding private contributions to political campaigns. Let the public take over the rules by which people contend for office and then the general interest will be served rather than the ambitions of the rich and powerful. That may be so, but I can’t see, at the moment, the prospect of the people as a whole rising up to insist on honest elections.

Lofgren does say to the ordinary American, “If you want politicians to treat you as a citizen rather than as a subject, don’t give them reason to regard you with contempt.” Good advice, but who’s ready to accept it?

The strength of Lofgren’s book is in explaining how conditions have become cankered, not in his prescriptions. But the explanations are very clear, and very honest. And until the average citizen comes to see what has happened, and how politics is practiced now, it’s unlikely any reform can take hold.

©John R. Turner

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