Collected Thoughts

March 2015
March 2, 2015

Nations reach low points from which they can descend even lower, or, propelled by the stench of what’s happening, decide to change their ways. One of those points is occurring tomorrow for the United States.

Two conniving and duplicitous men have conspired to humiliate the president of the United States. Don’t let yourself be deceived. This is not a matter of disagreement and debate. This is backstabbing, pure and simple.

John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu plotted, secretly, to bring the Israeli prime minister to the United States to address a joint session of Congress without letting the president know what they were doing. They didn’t inform the president until the deal was set and only two hours before it was announced to the public. As far as I know, no plot this deceitful has ever before been concocted between a speaker of the House of Representatives and a foreign leader.

Americans who pay attention know that John Boehner is one of the most pathetic men ever to reach high office in the United States. There appears to be no tactic so low he won’t snatch at it in an attempt to hold onto his position. He will do anything he can to damage the president in trying to appease the most rapacious members of his party. I don’t know how well the people of this country know Benjamin Netanyahu, but they need to know him better than they do, given his ambition to turn this nation and its people into his attack dogs.

Boehner and Netanyahu, operating from quite different motives, think they can undermine a primary initiative of the president’s foreign policy, to negotiate with Iran and the members of the European Union a program for insuring that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon, but that will offer it enough advantages to bring it into workable relations with the rest of the world. These talks are not easy, of course, because over the past sixty-five years, Iran has been given more than ample reasons for distrusting the Western powers. They are just as suspicious of us, and our goals, as we are of them. Uncountable lives have been lost because of these suspicions, and the hatreds generated by them. It’s an entirely sensible thing to try to put them behind us and come to agreements that will meet the primary needs of both sides. But Boehner cares nothing about that. All he cares about is cheap political advantage. And Netanyahu is, if anything, worse. Inflamed relations in the Middle East allow him to posture as the tough-guy warrior and, therefore, the indispensable figure in the Israeli government.

Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo has pointed out that it has been an open secret for years that Netanyahu ignores the advice of the leading Israeli and military leaders about Iran’s intentions. They see the dangers in the kind of military adventurism Netanyahu regularly employs, and they know it’s not good for their country’s future.

Yet as Marshall warns us “No amount of deterrence will stop the onslaught of weaponized grandiosity he (Netanyahu) plans to unleash on America this coming week.” That’s where the American media come in. They’ll make a circus of the whole affair, and ramp it up to highest level they can imagine. When it’s over, nothing healthy is likely to have been accomplished and there will be piles of international wreckage to be cleared away.

I hope against hope that the whole business will backfire and both Boehner and Netanyahu will be revealed even more fully as the kind of reckless opportunists they are. Why people will elect men who are more than ready to make a mishmash of their lives is one of the ongoing mysteries of politics. But sometimes such manipulators do overstep, and my respect for democracy would get a big boost if this should turn out to be one of those occasions.

March 3, 2015

I see that Rudy Giuliani would like for Benjamin Netanyahu to be president of the United States.

His sentiments remind me of a motif popular among politicians that I consider nothing but a pot of rancid nonsense. It’s the notion that we’re all Americans together, that we all want what’s good for our country, and that despite differences among us our Americanism bonds us together in ways far more powerful than anything that might try to pull us apart.

I do not want for this country -- or any country for that matter -- what Rudy Giuliani wants for it. I don’t want Mr. Netanyahu to be our president; I don’t want the police tactics Giuliani pushed in New York City; I don’t want the pompous posturing Giuliani carried out in the ruins of the twin towers, which was supposed to have transposed him into America’s mayor; I don’t want to live in a city where Giuliani is mayor, or where anybody like Giuliani is mayor. In short, I don’t want Giuliani to have anything to do with the public policies of my town, my state, or my country. And what I can say about Giuliani I am ready to say about thousands of other public figures who parade through our news every day. Or to put it another way, I want us to face the truth that the oppositions that stir American political discourse are radical. They are not minor differences of opinion which are easily bridged over by common values. There are no common American values.

Why, one might ask, do I want the completeness of our antagonisms to be openly acknowledged? Wouldn’t it be better for them to be covered over with a web of euphemism? I don’t think so, because cover-ups engender policies that harm peoples’ lives. Now, for example, in the United States there’s an effort to say the bad old days of racism are over and that few people any longer feel the kind of contempt towards other races that stained the past. That’s a lie. It’s true that racism isn’t as blatant or as publicly vicious as it once was. And I’m glad about that. Yet it continues to be endemic in American culture. People vote on the basis of it more than for any other reason and hundreds of thousands of people are insulted and humiliated every day because of it. Unless we acknowledge that truth, we won’t do anything about it.

I don’t know why those who occupy what they like to call the moderate center (there is no such position, by the way) want to pretend that we’re all pulling together towards some generally accepted goal, and that our differences are mainly about how to reach that goal, when there is no goal which fits that designation. The life of perpetual bombast, endless warfare, near-torture in packed prisons, and vast wealth for those who scramble into money manipulation that Rudy Giuliani treasures has nothing to do with the sort of society I would wish to inhabit. Not only are those two social visions different, it is necessary that they attempt to do away with one another. When a house is divided to the degree that Lincoln posited, it’s valid to say that it can’t stand. One needs to prevail over the other. And if Giuliani’s vision of America should win out, much that has been struggled for throughout the history of this country will be dumped in the trash can.

I am using Giuliani, of course, just as an example (mainly because he made the idiotic remark about Netanyahu that got him into the headlines once again). There are dozens of other well-known names I could put in his place. I will admit, though, that Giuliani is, for me, a particularly obnoxious character. I would never wish to be in the same room with him, or even in the same county.

I always have to add to an effusion like this that I do not want Giuliani, or those I would put in his category, to fall into any personal anguish. I don’t want them to get sick. I don’t want them to lose loved ones. I don’t want them to starve or to be forced into harsh living conditions (though I don’t think living in a house of less than five thousand square feet is as harsh as they might find it). All I want with respect to them is that they disappear from public life because the majority of Americans have come to disdain what they stand for. I doubt, very much, that they would extend the same charities to me. They tend to cheer when other people hurt. It’s their mode of entertainment.

Consequently, I will not join any draft Netanyahu campaign, or support a constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek the presidency. Just because I have chosen to single out Rudy Giuliani in this piece, doesn’t mean he’s the worst I can imagine. Mr. Netanyahu horrifies me even more than Rudy does.

March 9, 2015

I’m encountering an increasing number of reports which try to make the case that political stance is strongly influenced by genetic factors. I’m not sure what to make of these arguments. I once would have dismissed them as overreaching social science. But as more evidence has reached me I begin to sense they may be more credible than I had supposed

It seems clearly to be the case that persons who regularly vote for Republicans are more fearful and suspicious than the rest of the electorate. Consequently they are ready to see harsh things done to persons who differ from themselves in complexion, religion, and national origin. And this not because such persons have done anything hostile to them, but just because they’re different. Now come studies which show that those who have lower concentrations of anandamide in their body chemistry exhibit the same feelings -- fear, high sensitivity to threat -- that Republicans express through their actions and voting habits.

I don’t really know what anandamide is. It’s generally described as a molecule which acts as a neurotransmitter. It comes from a certain gene which some people have more of than others. But its effect, when it’s present at reasonably high levels, is to make people feel calmer, more secure, and less fearful than those who don’t have very much of it.

It would be ridiculous for me to argue that low anandamide levels are the cause of Republicanism. Clearly, I don’t know enough about it to get into that sort of debate. I mention the hypothesis here merely to introduce the question of whether our political divisions could arise, to a considerable extent, from our varying physiological makeups, and the further question, that if they do, what does that say about how we should engage our political opponents?

We have tended to assume that people are persuaded by evidence, and that the side which can assemble the stronger evidence in support of its positions will win out in democratic contests. But what if evidence has little to do with how people think about political right and wrong?

About a decade ago the social psychologist John Jost led a study team which interviewed 22,000 participants, and collected data from the mid-1950s through the 1990s, to try to determine what leads people to call themselves “conservatives” (almost all Republicans describe themselves that way). The main conclusion of the study was that conservatism (in its modern guise) can best be described as “motivated social cognition,” or, in other words, that people who choose to see themselves as conservatives make their own reality from what they want to be true. They use their minds not to investigate but to propagandize. We see fascinating instances of the practice in the news every day, as for instance when Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma brings a snowball into the chamber to prove that global warming is not happening.

Think about trying to have a genuine conversation with Inhofe about the scientific evidence that the earth is growing warmer because of industrial deposits in the atmosphere. You can’t have such a discussion because Inhofe is a conservative and consequently evidence doesn’t register with him. And then when you have to wonder whether it fails to register because he is driven by a particular brain chemistry, the whole thing gets even more vexing.

I don’t like the idea that I can’t converse with someone because of differences of taste and opinion. But what if, in the past, I’ve let what I like determine what I believe? Should I keep on forever trying to reason with the Inhofes of the world because I like to think I can?

I raise the question as a genuine puzzle. I don’t know the answer.

All I can do is offer a few tentative conclusions. The first is to drain anger and indignation out of your response to Inhofe and others in his category. Yes, he’s behaving in a way that will damage the world and hurt a great many people. But what if he can’t help it any more than a cat can help chasing a mouse? We know what he’s doing but we can’t be sure why he’s doing it. We can have suspicions -- I confess that I do have suspicions -- but it doesn’t make sense to get angry because we suspect something.

Second, stop worrying about whether people like Inhofe are going to take over America. Fearing them is no answer to anything. The more you fear something the less able you are to thwart it. Simply know that you don’t want them to direct the nation and that you need to think steadily about reducing their influence.

Third, reflect that humor is usually a better weapon than indignation. Inhofe, even though he’s dangerous, is a funny guy. Remember when he went to the international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, pledging to disrupt everything that was going on there? He ended up mainly wandering around the airport, going to one of the buildings at the conference and issuing a statement that no one paid any attention to, and them coming home after  being in Denmark for  about four hours. And in addition, of course, revealing in a brief interview with David Corn that Barbara Streisand was responsible for the climate hoax. That’s the picture of him that needs to be planted in the minds of Americans.

Finally, those of us who do want to converse should find people to talk with, and make time for conversation. As long as there is a significant portion of the population who do want to know what’s going on, and why, there’s a chance to make social conditions healthier.

Then, there’s the chance that someone will discover a digestible and effective anandamide powder we could slip into Inhofe’s breakfast coffee. Come to think of it, I could use a dose now and then myself, especially when I get to thinking too much about the doings of Republicans.

March 13, 2014

It’s fairly clear that motion pictures are now the most powerful influence on social thinking. Only a small percentage of Americans read books and fewer and fewer are paying attention to what continues to be called the news. But almost everybody watches movies to some degree. It once would have been discouraging to think that films, which after all are made primarily for entertainment and profit, constitute the average citizen’s basis of knowledge. Yet I suppose one could say that they are better than singing contests, or recordings of people who have been taken to islands and other remote places and made to compete against one another in childish games, or simply nothing.

The curious thing is that we have little investigation into what movies do to, or for, people. The most potent force for shaping people’s thoughts about what has gone on in the past, or is going on now outside personal circles of gossip, doesn’t draw much serious sociological scrutiny.

For example, I suppose most American adults know that human slavery was once a regular feature of the legal system in the United States. But how do they know it? And how have they arrived at what they think they know about the conditions of life in the slave system? It’s very likely that movies have given them most of their sense of what slavery actually was. Yet the grinding boredom and flatness of life in slavery is hard to depict in films. Movie makers want high drama, which they usually translate into melodrama. That’s what leads people to buy tickets. So in slavery movies we normally get heroic, unusually bright slaves and slave owners who are either moral cowards or psychotics. We don’t see much of ordinarily stupid people who have been shaped by a vicious, wearing social system.

Think of the most recent big hit about America’s peculiar institution, the best picture winner for 2013, Twelve Years a Slave. The plot itself is atypical; it’s about an educated, articulate free citizen who was kidnapped into slavery. Persons with such a background made up not even a hundredth of a percent of the people who were held in legal bondage. And then, this man ended up being owned by a person who was completely crazy. You might say any slave owner had to be crazy, and there’s a way in which that’s true. But most owners of slaves weren’t neurotically deranged in the mode of Edwin Epps of the film.

The movie was certainly affective, and doubtless did push viewers towards humane sympathy. But it wasn’t very educative about what happened in the United States between the founding of the country and the end of the Civil War in 1865. One might argue that raising the right sort of sympathy is far more important than accurate knowledge. But the problem with that position is that sympathy is more easily manipulated than firm knowledge can be. Sympathy may push people in the direction of responsible citizenship but it’s unlikely, by itself, to hold them there.

The same sort of case can be made about two other historical films I’ve seen recently -- Philomena and The Book Thief. One is about the punitive nature of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1950s (and afterward), the other about civilian life in Germany just before and during the Second World War. Both are pretty good movies; in fact, I think that as films they’re both better than Twelve Years a Slave.

I’ve heard lots of stories from friends who grew up Catholic about the harshness of nuns. Though those tales were fairly scathing, none of them has approached the virtual prison for unwed mothers depicted in Philomena. I hope that was an unusual situation, though I confess, I can’t be sure it was. The nunnery in the film was actually involved in selling babies. Was that a norm? I have talked to people who think the Catholic Church has been one of the biggest tyrannies of history. I’ve talked to just as many others who say that though flawed, the Church has done more good than harm. I don’t know who is right, or if there can be any right in a dispute like that. But I think I do know that one is unlikely to get a balanced view of the Church from movies. We need other forms of information to probe into that issue. Like Twelve Years a Slave, Philomena pushes sympathies in a humane direction. It doesn’t provide us a sensible way to think about the Catholic Church.

The Book Thief strikes me as being superior, historically, to the other two movies I’ve mentioned here. That’s because it lays out Nazism and Word War II from the perspective of an ordinary lower-middle-class German family.  It shows how people can fall into passive support for a political movement they don’t begin to understand, and should remind us of the patriotic backing by most Americans of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The unusual feature of the family here is that they had a Jewish friend they felt obliged to protect and that, of course, opened their eyes to the nature of Hitler’s leadership faster than it would have occurred for most Germans. Still, the overall portrayal of social life in a small German town from 1938 until 1944 was probably reasonably accurate. It doesn’t introduce falseness into history but it remains a long way from the whole story (I don’t want to imply that there is any such thing as the whole story for anything as complex as World War II, but there are degrees). A footnote to the film comes from the reviews it received, as posted on Rotten Tomatoes. They’re unusually bone-headed, which leads one to suspect that film criticism is less than a golden avenue to historical understanding.

So my quick conclusion is that movies offer us quite a bit. I would not like to be without them. On the other hand, they remain limited educational tools and, consequently, I don’t think we should be relying on them to the degree we are. I do wish we had better ways to discover how they shape the thinking of the average American. If we had that, we would be quite a bit closer to grasping where we are right now.

March 16, 2015

Those of you who visit this site occasionally probably know that I think political differences in the United States have become unbridgeable. Talk of compromise or of moving towards “the center” becomes farcical when disagreements run as deep as they now are in this country. More evidence for the split emerges each day.

The New York Times today is a pretty good example of my point.

The editorial board this morning held forth on the absurdity, corruption, and viciousness with which capital punishment is promoted in some sections of the nation, ending with the statement that “until capital punishment is abolished nationwide, the United States will remain a notorious exception in a world that has largely rejected state-sanctioned killing.” The implication is that judicial killing will inevitably be done away with here. I certainly hope that turns out to be correct. Yet a clear majority of the citizens want the states and the nation to continue with such killing. They see it as a necessary element of justice. There is no compromise to be had between those who think state killing is a filthy abomination and those who think it is justice. Their perceptions of a moral humanity are so segregated from each other there can be no stitching them together. I know, myself, when I’m in a room with people defending the death penalty, I have nothing -- on that point -- to say to them. It would be like trying to talk to a brontosaurus.

In the same edition, the Times has a long article about David Lane, who heads the American Renewal Project. His concept of American renewal is to enlist evangelical clergymen in a campaign to secure a presidential nomination for a certain sort of Republican candidate. The brand of candidate the GOP has chosen in the last two presidential races is far too moderate for him. He appears to want the United States to be, officially, a Christian nation, and not just nominally Christian, but Christian of a particular stripe. The effect that might have on citizens who are not Christian holds no interest for him. The bizarre thing is that people who are likely to support Mr. Lane are also those who would most avidly favor continuation of judicial killing. So it’s not just that there are two separate attitudes which are incomprehensible to a considerable portion of the electorate, those attitudes are bound together. It’s a mindset that links them, placing them outside compromise more than the positions themselves. And, obviously, there are other linkages, weaving a thick net which creates an ineluctable barrier to discourse or a meeting of minds.

Again, in the same edition, we have a column from Charles Blow titled “Flash Point Ferguson.” Ah! “Ferguson.” There’s a word which points to the moral fragmentation of Americans about as well as anything could. Between those who think Darren Wilson was right to kill Michael Brown and those who think he had a moral obligation to avoid killing him if he possibly could have there’s a chasm that not only can’t be bridged, it can’t even be seen across. Rudy Giuliani, for example, thinks that Wilson deserves a commendation for the killing. Blasting the brains out of an unarmed teenager made Wilson a hero. I’m pretty sure there are quite a few citizens who can’t begin to imagine what goes on the mind of a man like Giuliani (I know, for sure, there’s one).

In Blow’s column he quotes Martin Luther King: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.” Which portion of Americans understands what King was talking about, and which portion can’t get it? If we knew the answer to that question, we would know better where we are. My own sense is that those who can grasp King and those who can’t are about equal in number. And if I’m even close to being right, the split-apart nation, the house divided that can’t stand, is going to be with us for quite a while. And if the metaphor about the house divided has any accuracy, there will continue to be serious crumbling in our future. What that crumbling is going to bring us, no one can say.

I’m neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I can’t find virtue in either of those positions and, besides, each is severely flawed intellectually. So I have no notion of what’s going to happen in this country over the long range. The notion that there’s something in the American character that will, eventually, steer us onto the right course, is nonsense, fit only for the blather of politicians. Yet, knowing what I know of today, I would bet that tomorrow will be bitterly contentious. Come to think of it, I would make the same bet about next month, or next year.

Consequently my advice to my fellow citizens is to get ready for increasing nastiness, and decide how you, personally, are going to respond to it.

March 17, 2015

My friend Eric Zencey is publishing in Resilience some essays that should get more readers than they will. For quite a while now Eric has been addressing the difficulties -- and actually the insanities -- of thinking about economic life in the way most people do. The notion that economies must grow in order to be healthy is the order of the day for most political leaders. Yet it’s an idea that’s obviously nutty.

There was a time two or three centuries ago when the concept of ongoing growth made sense. Most people were mired in severe poverty, lives were stunted, suffering was immense. There was a strong need for more goods and services to allow people to live meaningfully and comfortably. Furthermore, the resources of the earth seemed limitless. Humans simply needed to find ways to exploit them. This induced what Eric calls “Infinite-Planet thinking” which became embedded in our political economy. But that mode of thinking has long since become inept. We do not now have an infinite planet, or even a seemingly infinite planet, given the number of people who are trying to subsist on it. Many resources are being used up; many systems are being polluted; great swathes of the earth have been poisoned. We humans passed, decades ago, the point when we should have made major changes in our thinking. But we didn’t make them. Now we are at the point of crisis. It’s clear that unless we take emergency measures very bad things are going to happen. What’s not at all clear is that we will find the will to adopt what needs to be done. If you were looking at the evidence in the most dispassionate way possible, you would be led to say we won’t.

The most toxic mental disease affecting humanity is the desire for wealth (as it’s now defined). Most people want to get rich. If you were to ask the average person whether the earth has the capacity to maintain seven billion rich people you’d probably get no more than a gape for an answer. If you pushed forward and asked, “Who will clean the toilets?” (because, obviously, rich people don’t clean toilets, not if “rich” keeps on meaning what it means now) the gape would  widen. People don’t want to think about things like that. They just want to be rich. They want somebody else to clean their toilets.

A few, slightly more sophisticated people, would answer, “Technology is the answer. We don’t have to have toilet cleaners because we can get self-cleaning toilets.” But if we do, somebody still has to build the toilets, and install them, and repair them if they break down. And all that will require lots of material, and lots of effort that doesn’t really go with being rich. I’m all for technology that can ease backbreaking and disagreeable labor, and I do think the future will provide more of it than we have now. But you would have to be looney to think the earth can sustain enough of it to permit everybody to be rich. That’s not going to happen. As long as the great majority of people want to be rich, we’re doomed to a bitterly contentious social existence and ultimately to extinction.

A good many rich people are consoling themselves with the thought they can live in guarded enclosures, and let just enough of the hoi polloi in to clean their toilets, prepare their meals and serve them drinks on the veranda. And it’s true, they can for a while. But the more they do that, the more conditions outside the enclosures will get worse. And after a time, the things needed to supply the enclosures, to keep them happy and sweet-smelling -- things like breathable air and clean water -- will get used up. As that happens, the hatred outside the enclosures towards those inside will become irrepressible. There will be breakdowns and break-ins, and, as Mr. Jefferson used to say, raw heads and bloody bones in the dark.

The universal desire to be rich is not sustainable over the long run. We need to replace it with something that is. That, I think, is what Eric and hundreds of others working in his vein are trying to supply. I wish them all possible success. But I doubt there are enough of them to do it by themselves. They need allies who can popularize these new realizations. They need movies, and TV series, and novels, and comic books, and plays, and music to deplete the glamor of wealth. And we have to remember the glamor of wealth is entrenched. It won’t be dug out easily.

It takes a certain degree of intelligence to perceive that being rich is not the biggest thing in life. Where’s the intelligence going to come from? That’s the question that worries me most. If there’s not enough of it, there won’t be enough of the other qualities we need. If, for example, the collective intelligence of the Congress of the United States is the best we can do, we are severely diseased. How are we going to get well?

It’s not certain that we can, but if we’re going to make a home of the earth for the people who live on it, we have to begin curing ourselves pretty fast. You could start by reading Eric’s essay. That won’t do it completely but it would be a first step.

March 21, 2015

It has been two months since I last posted jottings from my pocket notebook. I haven’t been writing in it very actively since then, but here are a dozen items that did force me to overcome my lethargy.

  • Ben Carson informs us that the U.S. holds the title of “benign pinnacle nation in the history of the world.” How do you suppose a phrase like that can infect someone’s mind?

  • Here are dates for four quintessential American acts:
December 29, 1890
August 17, 1915
August 28, 1955
March 18, 1968
  What American glories balance, or redeem, or make up for, the occurrences on
  those days? When I ask myself that question an answer doesn’t come readily.

  • Religion in its ordinary form serves not only as a substitute for thought but as a forbiddance of thought. Why think when everything important has been laid out for you?

  • How to pull out from the vast assortment of materials available to us the items on which we should concentrate may well be the most challenging intellectual difficulty we face.

  • Jonathan Haidt - in The Righteous Mind - says it’s a mistake  even to raise the comparative worth  of the various moral systems propounded by groups or cultures by comparing them to some ideal morality, i.e., one based on truth, beneficence, and justice. So for him a morality is simply what some group says is right or wrong. There is no universal human morality. From a certain perspective that’s correct, though it’s not the only perspective. Consequently, according to this theory, there are all these numerous moralities, and no scale we can set them on to measure their comparative weights. It raises the question of how they will ever get on. Perhaps they won’t.

  • I doubt anyone ever carried out a suicide bombing attack mainly because he or she thought there would be a reward for it in the afterlife. This is a jejune idea pushed by Westerners to puff up their own ego.

  • The ancient tribalisms of the past are not the mechanisms by which the future can be redeemed. That they are is what conservatives keep telling us, and that’s the reason why conservatism constitutes the reservation for people with less than active imaginations.

  • There are all kinds of people in the world. Some of them are intelligent, but what percentage of the whole they make up can’t be known. I suspect they constitute a smaller portion than the ones who are crazy.

  • Recent events in Ferguson support the hypothesis that when people have been assholes for decades they come to think of that condition as a God-given right, and that the moral universe is crumbling when their assholedom is challenged. This is an example of system justification theory.

  • When Rush Limbaugh is the person with the best claim to be considered the representative American -- as he likely is -- one can scarcely claim that the nation is great, moral, or even sane.

  • I’m tired of the word “destiny.” It’s generally used to justify some rapacious behavior in the interest of personal aggrandizement. When people think they’re destined to achieve a condition that will make them glorious, who, or what, do they think it is that created this destiny? That question seldom comes to mind. Feeling destined for greatness is the same sort of thing as telling yourself this is your night as you approach the casino doors.

March 25, 2015

Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, went on another verbal rampage last Friday while speaking in Florida at the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast. He offered a fantasy about intruders breaking into the home of an atheist family and doing hideous things to them. Somehow, in Robertson’s thinking, this would be more horrifying than if it were done to a Christian family.

I sent the link to an article reporting on the speech to some friends, accompanied by the question: “Is Phil Robertson evil or is he just crazy?” I was referring to a discussion we’ve been having lately about whether the disgusting actions reported so often nowadays arise mainly from depravity or from disordered minds.

I’ve been trying to advance the argument that if we discussed these things as being less than sane we would be likely to take more of the pertinent influences flowing around them into account.

The responses I got were provocative. The main point they made was that the sensationalist media of today give people like Robertson far more prominence than they would have received from the subdued media of the past. This my friends think of being an unfortunate situation, and that if the Robertsons of the world were ignored they would simply fade away.

They are clearly right about the prominence. A Robertson-like figure gets greater attention now than he would have fifty years ago. But is that a bad thing? I’m not sure. Unless the attention creates more inflammatory characters than once would have existed, I’m not sure it is.

A thing that’s easy for people who live in genteel circumstances to forget is the gigantic number of Americans who are spewing hate speech or some sort or another. If they do it simply in crossroads filling stations it doesn’t get a lot of publicity. Yet it still exists and it still has consequences. The question such behavior raises is whether it’s better to keep it under the rocks or would it be healthier to turn the rocks over and expose the underside to sunlight.

Growing up as I did in the segregated South may have given me a different perspective on the question than some of my friends have. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, nasty things were being done to black people every day, within fifty miles of where I resided. I knew about virtually none of them. These incidents didn’t get into the newspapers, and even after TV was introduced, they didn’t show up much on the screen either. That was because they weren’t news. This wall of silence allowed me to grow up in innocence. And I admit it was very pleasant. Until I was well into my college years it never occurred to me that my society was flawed in serious ways. I didn’t know that injustice was rife all around me. Was that a good thing, or not?

The loss of that innocence is the main ingredient fueling the rage of the right wing in America today. Why can’t we just live without being reminded of harsh behavior? Why can’t we just go to our church picnics and enjoy life? Why do have to hear continually about some policeman killing a black, unarmed teenager, or about a drone strike in Afghanistan wiping out most of the people at a wedding party? The leaders -- the big men -- know what they’re doing so why not just hush up and let them do what’s necessary?

It’s that very notion of the big men which points to the psychic condition of the right wing. Most of its members have little confidence in themselves; they have to look to somebody who will show them the right way. And once they are shown, they usually become vehement.

This is the reason I’m not willing to accord the title of evil to a person like Phil Robertson. “Evil” conveys a sense of frightening, dark power which he neither deserves nor possesses. He’s simply a pathetic person who grew up in a defective intellectual culture and never summoned the courage or the initiative to become independent of it.

I admit that people like Robertson can do considerable harm, particularly when they’re protected by a sense of cultural virtue. But that doesn’t make them evil; it just makes them cogs in a cultural machine that has run awry and needs to be dismantled. And leaving them to hide in the shadowed crevices of the nation is not the way to disassemble their bigotry.

Sure, all the furor of the sensationalist media is annoying. It’s hard to enjoy being continually deluged in bad taste. But if it makes cracks in the solemn pretensions of respectable journalism, the very important people as Paul Krugman designates them -- cracks where some daylight can flow through onto the rot dotting the landscape -- then I think it’s worth enduring the odor that comes with it.

I’m not eager to return to the good old days when the right sort of people didn’t have to know about the wrong sort of things.

March 26, 2015

The main lesson the American people need to learn is that the “big officials” are not big -- not in the way they are presumed to be. They have exactly the same number of hours in their day as you have in yours. Actually, given the schedules they have to follow, they have less time to learn about what’s going on in the world than you do, that is if you will be reasonably diligent in trying to find out.

March 27, 2015

People who want to start a war with Iran are insane. But we have a lot of them here in the United States. We saw a good example yesterday in John Bolton and his op/ed piece in the New York Times.

You’ll note that most of these people write Iran off as a nation that has no interests of its own but is merely evil. The great advantage of tagging something as evil is that relieves you of the duty of explaining it. Once it’s evil, there’s no more to be said about it.

People who think of themselves as warriors against evil are the most dangerous people on earth. It doesn’t matter what ideology or religion they profess, they are a huge threat those of us who want to live for something other than destruction. There has never been a sillier idea than the thought that we can make the world a better place by killing all the evil people in it.

A feature of existence the warriors for good against evil ignore is the consequences of carrying out their programs. They have it in mind that if you can kill bad guys there’s no cause to worry about what will flow from the killing. Therefore, there’s no reason for restraint. Kill all of them you can; there’s no reason not to. That this is sub-adolescent thinking doesn’t bother them in the least. They glory in a sub-adolescent mindset. It’s the way of all warmongers.

What do you suppose the price of gasoline in the United States would be seven days after we launched military operations against Iran? What effect would it have on any cooperation we might get from the European states? How would it modify economic relations with China? What options would it provide Vladimir Putin he doesn’t have now? How would it affect behavior in the Middle East? How many more jihadists would it create who would dedicate their lives to striking at the United States? The warriors for virtue aren’t worried about any of those questions. They attract the attention only of sane people.

There has been an impulse towards insane violence running through the American character since the founding of the nation. The number of lives it has consumed is incalculable. You would think that people capable of learning would wish to analyze its effects and see if we can begin to wash it out of our thinking. And many people have. American scholarship is brimming with works that inform us of the effects of massive lethal violence. Just one, for example -- Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-hating and Empire Building -- would shift our relations with the world were there any means to get significant numbers to pay attention to it. And if it were complemented by Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, there would be a transformation. But this is an idle thought. At the moment there appears to be no way to persuade the American people to take a full look at the nation’s past behavior.

I don’t know if there are means to thwart those who lust for war with Iran. I do know they aren’t going away any time soon. So if they’re not going to get their way, we have to get far more attentive to who they are and how they think.

March 31, 2015

I’ve been in the habit of thinking that nothing seems as stable or secure as it once did because I have grown older, and that old age by itself introduces a sense of risk. But I’m gradually coming to see that the feeling of everything’s being uncertain is not just personal. It has become a social emotion. That’s because our social structures really are less grounded than they were a half-century ago.

In the middle of the 20th century there was a widespread conviction that democracy would provide the political structure of the future because education was spreading and educated people would demand a voice in the organization of government. Now the future of democracy seems shaky, even in countries that are nominally democratic. Major reports have been issued recently asserting that the United States no longer functions as a democracy. Most citizens believe that they have virtually no influence on how the government behaves, and that’s doubtless because it’s true that they don’t. The educational basis for democracy is also withering. Though people now receive more schooling than they did earlier, most of it relates to forms of training which do little to promote critical thought or independent judgment. One would be hard put to demonstrate convincingly that the American electorate is better educated now than it was in 1950.

A half-century ago most people thought that science would progressively enhance economic health for all citizens. Though science has been progressive, it has not led to economic stability for most people. Rather, it has been a tool for heaping up great mountains of wealth in relatively few hands. It is far harder now for the average wage-earner to support a family in middle-class comfort than it used to be. Many Americans live in a state of desperation over how they can provide a decent house and healthy food for their children.

In the 1960s there was confidence that the demons of the mind which had tortured people down the ages were being brought into the medical corral and tamed. New medications were being devised which could supposedly restore brain chemistry to its proper composition. Now we have not only learned that there is no such thing as brain chemistry as it was conceived of then, but that the studies which supported the new medications were distorted by financial pressure from drug corporations. Studies by impartial groups indicate that there is more widespread mental illness now than ever before. For example, the General Accounting Office announced in June of 2008 that one out of every sixteen young adults in the United States was “seriously mentally ill.” If that’s indeed the case, we have no adequate means to treat such an epidemic. What are we to do about it?

When I was young there was no doubt that spring would come round again each year as it had for millennia. We could at least rely on Mother Nature for steadiness. Now all science reports that human pollution of the earth is seriously degrading the ecosphere, including the weather. Without major changes in human habits we will be faced with increasing natural disasters as the 21st century unfolds. Yet, there is an enormous effort, led by corporate propaganda, to undermine environmental reform so as to avoid impacting profits in the slightest degree. The chance that we can thwart what scientists tell us is coming seems increasingly remote.

The one change that appears hopeful is that now there is less chance of full-scale war between major nations. Many do seem to have grasped that such an event would be bad for everybody, victors as well as vanquished. Yet what has been put in place of gigantic wars, such as the conflicts from 1939 to 1945, is perpetual small wars taking place all around the globe. The advent of the so-called war on terror has led to military attacks on small groups that once would have been dealt with by law enforcement authorities, with much less destruction of life and property. This, in turn, has created levels of militarization in some countries, including the United States, that is clearly insane. The resources of the people are being squandered to guard against threats that are far less threatening than the deteriorations which are being ignored. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to halt this development because groups at the center of political decision-making are accruing vast profits from it. There are huge numbers of wealthy people who want more war rather than less.

After the Second World War there was a strong desire to put the savagery of that conflict behind us. The concept of human rights took a step forward. There were certain things that reasonable, decent people did not do, no matter what. That movement continues but it is now countered by so-called realists who argue that if you wish to protect yourself you can’t expect to keep your hands clean. Anything goes when it comes to security, including torture of the most hideous sort, some of it devised by the medical professions, the incineration of babies, the destruction of vast stretches of the natural environment, and rampant violation of one’s own laws under the cover of the state secrets doctrine. The things being done to human beings by authorities now rival any of the horrors of the Middle Ages.

There is a common feature of all these destabilizing conditions, and that is the lust for money. The concept that money is the root of all evil has been with us for centuries. Yet it never seems to make genuine headway. There’s evidence that it may be worse now than it was in the past. If we can’t defuse the idea that wealth is the purpose of human life, we are lost.

It’s no wonder that people feel anxious, that they fear for the future. The future has always posed dangers, but until recently there were good reasons to expect something better. A realistic sense of something better is what has been taken away from us. I’m not sure it can be restored but I am sure that unless it is we’re heading into very stormy waters.

©John R. Turner

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