April 4, 2015
The comments I posted a couple days ago, about the problematics of psychotropic drugs, got a few responses from friends which have caused me to think I should push forward with the subject just a bit.
One response noted that this is a dicey subject, and that’s certainly correct. It raises all sorts of questions which are difficult to answer. And it presses us to wonder whether the most pertinent questions are being asked. An observation I haven’t been able to repress over the course of my so-called career in education is that a goodly percentage of persons engaged in what are generally called the psychological professions are bright, and sincere, and hard working but not much given to philosophical speculation. And I have come to think that without careful philosophical probing, we tend to wander off down blind alleys.
For me, perhaps the most provocative theme in Robert Whitaker’s book -- which formed the basis of my previous remarks -- is the tendency lately to treat very young persons with mind-altering drugs. This has been based on the notion that mental disorders arise primarily from biological weaknesses in individual persons. The truth seems to be that it has been pretty much taken for granted that personal biology is the prime source of mental disorder. If that’s the case, then the problem has been present from the start, and the sooner we get to work on it the better.
A notable consequence of this train of associations has been the use of a drug, most commonly called Ritalin, to treat many children still in elementary school for something called ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. By 2010, the number of school children in the United States being dosed with a stimulant such as Ritalin had climbed to about three and a half million. The Centers for Disease Control reported that one of every twenty-three children between the ages of four and seventeen was receiving such a medication. It doesn’t seem exaggerated to say that ADHD has reached epidemic proportions. It may also be useful to remind ourselves that 75% of all psychotropic drugs used on children throughout the world go to American children. There are at least twenty times as many children outside the United States as there are here. Yet the American children get three times more of this kind of drug than all the rest of the children on the globe. Why do you suppose that is?
When I was in school -- admittedly quite a while ago -- nobody had ADHD. That was because it hadn’t been invented yet, and you can’t have something that doesn’t exist. Please don’t think that my pointing this out is an attempt to argue that ADHD is not real. It most clearly is real. It was created by a very real, and very powerful, organization, The American Psychiatric Association, and once created it began to have very real effects. And something that causes real effects clearly qualifies for reality itself. Its story reminds me of the old Kevin Costner movie with its theme: “If you build it, they will come.” And they really did come. This is an ontological principle. But then we need to remember that ontology is not a field of inquiry much grappled with by professionals in psychology.
The question about ADHD is not whether it is real but whether its invention has been healthy for us. And in order to start answering that question we have to pose subsidiary questions, of a somewhat philosophical character, which lead up to it.
Is a fifty year old person, who was diagnosed as having ADHD when he was eight better off, or worse off, than if he had been designated simply a fidgety kid? We don’t have the means to answer that question. One reason is that we don’t have adequate data to answer it. But an even more important reason is that we don’t know what we mean by better off or worse off. Those are philosophical issues.
Another way of asking the question is whether one is more helped by being tagged, to some extent, as being mentally ill, which would result in the activation of certain mechanisms designed to treat the illness, or more hurt by the reputation that goes with mental illness, again however slight? But putting the question in that moderately different framework doesn’t help us much in answering it.
Another issue we seldom address is how we feel about limited discomfort versus full lifetime attainment. Supposing a girl, between the ages of eight and ten, could be made to feel somewhat better about herself through the use of drugs, but at the cost of her peak intellectual powers as an adult being reduced? How would we decide which way to go in that case?
I left something behind I have to go back to -- the thesis that mental disorder is mainly a biological phenomenon. What if that’s not true? What if people get mental illness not because of their own brain structures but because they catch it from demented social conventions? Will taking pills help society to think more sanely? Or might it impair social sanity?
One of the more provocative statements Whitaker quoted came from the Finnish psychologist Tapio Salo, who said:
Psychosis does not live in the head. It lives in the in-between of family members, and in the in-between of people. It is in the relationship, and the one who is psychotic makes the bad condition visible. He or she wears the symptoms and has the burden to carry them.
So if the psychosis is in the relationship between a person and society, is drugging the person the best way to remove the psychosis? Might drugging the person give the psychosis an even stronger grip on all of us?
These are just a few of the questions the responses from friends set off in my head. I don’t claim that the questions offer any conclusive answers. But I do think they present us with strong advice. Significant questions we haven’t answered and are not yet prepared to answer suggest we shouldn’t be cocksure about what we’re doing. They tell us that the whole business of how to go about helping people with disabling mental distress is extremely complex. Given that it is, we would do well to heed the Hippocratic Oath, “Primum non nocere” (First, do no harm), keeping in mind that every psychotropic drug has the potential to do a great deal of harm. So this sort of medication should not be used until it has been considered with extreme care, and until it emerges as a treatment of last resort. If that degree of carefulness were applied, I’m pretty sure prescriptions for psychotropic drugs would decline. And that, all in all, would be a healthy development.
April 8, 2015
Here are a half-dozen sentences I jotted in my journal this morning:
I got up early and finished reading Judt’s essay on Edward Said. It made a strong impression on me. I’m impressed by the courage exhibited by both Judt and Said. It’s not easy to care more about evidence than it is about nationalistic propaganda. If there is a source of evil in the world today, the latter is it.
I had in mind one passage that I both admired and disagreed with to some extent:
Said tellingly observed just a few months before his death, “I still have not been able to understand what it means to love a country.” That, of course, is the characteristic condition of the rootless cosmopolitan. It is not very comfortable or safe to be without a country to love. It can bring down upon your head the anxious hostility of those for whom such rootlessness suggests a corrosive independence of spirit. But it is liberating.
Certainly, I don’t know a great deal about rootless cosmopolitans. I am not one myself, and I don’t think I have known many over the course of my life. Truth is, if I were asked to produce evidence that such people exist, I doubt I could do it. I’m willing, though, to take Judt’s word that Edward Said fit the description. What I’m not willing to do is agree that such cosmopolitanism is necessary to produce a dispassionate view of a country.
The concept of loving a country, I admit, is difficult to lay out clearly. What does it mean? If all Said meant by saying he couldn’t understand it is that he couldn’t summon to mind any adequate definition of it, then I’m with him. But if he meant he couldn’t grasp the kind of emotionalism involved, then I suspect he was being disingenuous. Displays of such emotion are around us everywhere. Some of them are heartening, some quite stupid. But they definitely are amply present.
The feature that makes them problematic is that professed love of country is certainly not the same thing for all those who claim to feel it. But nationalistic propaganda wants to say it is. It wants to insist that this love demonstrates itself most truthfully by feeling a thrill when the flag passes by, by experiencing a religious presence when one stands for the playing of the national anthem, by automatically expressing gratitude to anyone wearing a military uniform, by cheering when a warplane flies over the stadium before a football game. My own take is that such stuff is, more than anything else, a demonstration of lack of confidence. It’s like praying volubly in public to show that you really are a Christian.
Praise of country doesn’t manifest love of country. If one feels compelled to praise, it probably means he’s not fully sure of his status with respect to the country. I know, for example, that there is no one more American than I am. That’s not a statement of pride; it’s just a statement of fact. My ancestors’ presence in what is now the United States goes back farther than does that of almost anyone I know -- to the late 17th century. That doesn’t mean I have a stronger claim to Americanness than people who arrived here over the past couple decades, but it does mean that to the degree family history influences one’s identity, my family history is thoroughly American. In other words, I don’t need to go round issuing paeans to the grandeur of the United States, in order to establish who I am. Neither do I have to doubt my standing because I have come to see that the nation has been behaving badly over the past three decades and, in fact, has had strong elements of bad behavior over the entire course of its existence.
One of the less than lovable features of most Americans is that they use words so loosely one has a hell of time knowing what they are talking about. When we speak of loving the country does that denote the same emotion as loving wives, husbands, children? It certainly doesn’t for me. Rather than popping off abstractly about overweening love of country one could say something more meaningful by expressing honestly the feelings that rise up when features of the country are encountered. In Vermont, for example, I experience a sense of a bond when I see in the spring the land emerge from out of the snow and lie bare in a way it is bare at no other time. I think of that as the reality of the land, and I like it very strongly. When I walk into a baseball stadium and, every time, discover the grass to be greener, and more luminous than I was able to remember, I feel something very moving. Is that love? What does it matter? It is what it is. And if I wanted to sit here all day at my keyboard I could list hundreds of such experiences, every one of them exquisitely American, and every one of them, for me, possessed of greater integrity than cheering a warplane.
So, I am arguing, a little bit, with two men I admire -- Tony Judt and Edward Said -- about what it takes to work towards a “corrosive spirit of independence.” Rootlessness may be a help, and cosmopolitanism too; I don’t know. But I do know that the absence of those qualities doesn’t inevitably consign one to mindless jingoism.
April 10, 2015
Reading David Brooks’s column this morning I was reminded that there’s a fundamental truth which is routinely ignored throughout the world. It’s that if one wishes to qualify as sane, he or she must recognize that one’s identity as a human being is primary. Other identities are significant -- Yankees fan, American citizen, Guatemalan farmer, evangelical Christian, and so forth -- but none of these, nor any other one might adduce, approaches the importance of being human.
David Brooks doesn’t appear to get this and that’s why I consider his mental health to be questionable. His piece this morning was about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over the use of nuclear energy. He pointed out that the Ayatollah Khamenei has continued to say hostile things about the United States and, therefore, any agreement with Iran is useless. Brooks’s implication is that because one elderly clergyman -- who in this case happens to have more power than clergymen generally do -- is convinced that the United States is an evil force in the world, the two countries should set aside efforts to reach an agreement which would be immensely beneficial to both of them. In other words, in Brooks’s point of view, the main thing that counts is that one rather fanatical, elderly man is out of sorts. That’s not say that there aren’t other fanatical people in Iran. Obviously there are, just as there are hundreds of thousands of them, and perhaps millions, in the United States. But is it required that fanatics always be allowed to run the show? And if it is, by whom? Who determines that it always has to be the case?
Is it beyond possibility for U.S. government leaders to remember that there are millions of people in Iran who have the same human needs everybody else does, and that if ways can be found to help them meet those needs, the likelihood of turning everything over to the fanatics declines? The more we as humans can find ways to help other humans the more the power of fanaticism declines.
Fanaticism, in truth, is little more than manipulating the behavior of people who are finding it difficult to address fundamental human needs.
I recognize that there are people in the United States, and elsewhere, who think that the only way to meet the legitimate needs of Iranians is to bomb them so, that those who manage to survive will get a better government (where it’s going to come from is generally not explained). These are people who are not only fanatics themselves but are so out of their minds they’re deeper in the looney bin than Khamenei is himself. If we’re really serious about repairing the depredations caused by crazy people we should begin at home.
The crucial problems in the world do not have to do with countries you don’t much like getting a bit more power. Rather, they always arise from people getting it in their heads that other people -- that is, people with different identities -- are not really human, and therefore don’t actually deserve to get their humans needs met. We are afflicted with the immense forgetfulness that a hungry two-year-old is just that -- a tiny human creature who is suffering -- far more than being a member of a particular country, or a particular religion, or a particular tribe. This is another way of saying that it is not all right to bomb or to starve Iranian children. I don’t give a damn what your supposed motives are. Anybody who thinks that’s okay has departed from civilization.
If we could somehow plant in the mind of every Iranian citizen that the United States is a country which is as concerned about the health and general well-being of children around the globe as it is about bombs, then the power of fanatics all over the world would take a hit. The ability of the Ayatollah Khamenei to force Iranians to think about crazy stuff rather than the healthy needs of life would be reduced. We can’t plant that idea, of course, first of all because it’s not true and virtually everybody in the world knows it’s not true. To think that way about the human needs of children -- and everybody else for that matter -- is not what’s called realism. And this demented notion of realism is what will continue to control us for quite a while. Henry Kissinger will keep on figuring as a great mind.
Still, the time has passed when it is sane to think only about how we can gain advantages for ourselves over the next three to five years. If we expect there to be a future for current grandchildren, then we had best begin to consider the coming fifty years, or the next century. The only way for those years to be a betterment rather than a plunge into horror is for all people to come to acknowledge the humanity of all other people, to face the truth that hunger and sickness are bad conditions no matter who it is that is suffering from them.
Joining the group who understands that will provide a finer identity than the ones we’ve tended to preen ourselves over in the past. We don’t have a world anymore where you can live in your own little tribe and forget about the tribe that’s off somewhere a few hundred miles away.
April 11, 2015
Reading history is a desolate, if necessary, business. It’s gloomy because the principal lesson it conveys is that fools, ignoramuses, and charlatans can -- and do -- worm their ways into positions of authority, and, hence, gain the ability to damage and ruin the lives of others. When you think of the number of people who have been tortured or eviscerated because of pronouncements coming from twerps sitting in comfortable rooms, it’s enough to push you deep in the dumps.
The primary goal of politics ought to be to reduce the incidence of such acts, first by eliminating arbitrary power, and second by finding ways to keep numbskulls and lunatics out of office. At the moment, the political function isn’t being carried out well most places in the world. It’s certainly not going sterlingly in the United States.
I wish I had an ingenious plan for setting it right, but with respect to that effort I’m just like everyone else. None of us knows how to do it. That’s because we don’t know how to persuade people to think sensibly. Given the persistence of folly in the human race, one might conclude that efforts to construct rational and humane political structures are hopeless. I’m not beyond believing that myself, at times. But even when we’re driven to conclude that the odds are strongly against any degree of sanity in politics we still have to try. What else can we do?
There are, after all, glimmers. Some countries in northwestern Europe have livable political systems. Obviously, they’re not perfect and their flaws give Republicans from Texas, and other loons, opportunities to declare them failures. But those are just lies, and since falsehood has been a feature of political maneuvering forever, we can write them off as simple dust from the past. My guess is that people in Copenhagen are not much troubled by the wisdom of Louie Gohmert, though they may occasionally reflect that persons of his mindset would actually blow up the world if they ever acquired the wherewithal to do it.
I’ve been working my way through the essays in Tony Judt’s Reappraisals. They offer abundant fodder for discouragement. Conditions in many parts of the world are appalling, and even where they are livable they’re flavored heavily with stupidity -- as in most of the United States. Even so, an open-eyed assessment of humanity does supply some evidence that future disaster isn’t already foretold. The happiest thought one can draw from wide-ranging and realistic assessments such as Judt’s is that there are differences in the world. It is not a scene of uniform degradation. The truth that some places are better than others creates a direction, a kind of arrow pointing towards intelligent existence. There are, for example, adjacent essays on Belgium and Romania. In Judt’s estimation both countries are big messes. Yet, clearly, Romania is a bigger mess than Belgium is. And if one reads between the lines it becomes evident that the pertinent distinction between them is the comparative level of education and knowledge. The people of Belgium are less than intellectual marvels but they aren’t as deeply mired in superstition and ignorance as the Romainians are. That difference is real, and discernible. Pathetic levels of knowledge are not the only conditions making for abject politics, but they do pretty well ensure that government will be inequitable and vicious. So if one cares about fairness and humane behavior the spread of knowledge ought to be high on his or her list of things to think about and support.
At one point, late in his book, Judt’s declares, “We now know that some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only solution.” That may sound fairly bromidic but just because something has become a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. The key elements here are “liberalism,” “maximum of freedom,” and “in every sphere of life.” You could certainly set off a colorful debate trying to define them in a way that would lead a clear majority of people to accept the proposition. Success would be dependent on adequate knowledge of the past and a minimum of linguistic sophistication. In spite of those challenges, however, if we could have discourse about the soundness of such simple proposals we would take a considerable step beyond screaming at one another about the nature of the freedom involved in the right to carry lethal weapons onto college campuses, and such other vital issues that dominate the American political conversation.
I make this simplistic point for the sake of introducing the contention that greater concentration of mind among wider swathes of the population is a sine qua non for any public improvement. If we can’t get people to think, we can’t persuade them to make healthy changes. If absence of thought guaranteed the status quo that would be doleful but perhaps not disastrous. But we don’t have the kind of stability that could let the way things are just roll along. There are disturbances which will get ever more out of control if we don’t start producing stronger thoughts about how to manage them. The three largest, of course, are excessive population, demented depletion of natural resources, and hurtful changes in climate. Close behind them, and pushing them to more toxic levels, is the ongoing notion that war is the natural condition of mankind. If we can’t modify those four factors, the idea of improved public life is lost. And to alter them for the better you have, at least, to recognize that they are problems. I doubt that a majority of American citizens understand that.
I recognize that I’ve written pieces similar to this one before. But since the theme of this web site -- if it has one -- is that we ought to think more carefully than we do, and be more active in gathering evidence, I guess it’s inevitable that I occasionally break down into something this direct. I can only hope it’s not so repetitive as to be unreadable.
April 17, 2015
There’s a concept at work, strongly in Washington, and to a somewhat lesser degree through the rest of the country, that the United States should rule the world. Most advocates wouldn’t state it quite that baldly. It has the ring of bad manners. Nonetheless, that’s what their plans are pushing towards.
I don’t like the idea of the United States ruling the world and for various reasons this morning I’m in the mood to say why I don’t like it. But before I start in on that, I’ll admit that if the United States did rule the world it might make some improvements here and there. That’s the record of empires generally and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t also be the record of this greatest empire of all being contemplated by the United States. Even so, the improvements wouldn’t balance the harm wrought by a power center in control of the whole globe. That too is indicated by the record of empires in the past.
There remain quite a few empire boosters among geo/political thinkers. They are persons who concentrate on the improvements, and refuse to pay much attention to the cruelties empires have committed throughout history. My sense of these intellectuals is that they are more than willing to consign millions of lives to misery in order to create monumental structures. That’s where I fall out with them, because one of my firmest principles is that nobody has the right to manufacture miserable lives in order to build up stuff he likes.
Now, I can go on to my reasons why I don’t want the United States to be in charge of everything. My first reason is the impracticability of the scheme. We don’t have enough brain-power, and certainly not enough brain-power in Washington, to make decisions for everybody in the world. In fact, if you look at the current government of the United States you have to conclude there’s not enough good sense to direct this country alone. So how could it possibly perform intelligently if its responsibilities were extended far beyond what they are now?
Second, it’s only sane to ask who’s in charge of the United States before you try to put the United States in charge of everything else. It’s clear that the United States is primarily controlled by gigantic corporations. It is no longer actually a functioning democracy. Corporations are interested in only one thing, amassing capital. They put a vast number of commercials on TV every day which say they’re interested in other things. But those commercials are all lies. They are designed to make people believe that corporations care about something other than capital in order to smooth their way to ever greater riches. For corporations to have more money than they have now is not good for me and it’s not good for anybody I know. So, extending their power beyond what it is now strikes me as insane.
Third, the United States is already more militarized than I want it to be. The cost of maintaining this militarization starves and shrinks activities, such as medical research, building an efficient infrastructure, adequately supporting education, creating less destructive means of energy production, that would enhance the lives of all American citizens. A military of the size we have now does not do that. It says it does, but that’s a lie. So just think of how these ill effects would be magnified if the U.S. had to have a military operation that controlled even more of the world than it controls now. The results would be disastrous.
Fourth, if the U.S. ruled the world, a universal culture would superimpose itself on the multiplicity of local cultures that provide the world a rich and vivid environment. If you want to know what that culture would be like, just take a stroll down any gigantic mall. That would be it because that’s what the corporations would want. The world would automatically become a flatter, more stultifying place.
Fifth, if the U.S. had world control, American citizens would be more disliked by everybody else than they are already. Anger against Americans varies all around the world. In some places it’s intense, in others much milder. But there is a degree of it almost everywhere because people don’t like to feel submissive. If the U.S. were completely in charge then the American people themselves would have to share that reputation. Anti-Americanism would rise and we as individuals would find more of it being directed against us. I don’t wish to be hated but I dislike even more the thought that my grandchildren will have to suffer the charge of being tyrants. That’s not a good way to live.
Sixth, any people who think of themselves as world rulers invariably become arrogant. And arrogance of that sort rots the brain. Anyone who enjoys the thought of being in control of everybody else will eventually become mentally ill. And that disorder will affect not only how one tries to rule but everything else in his life. Imagine a country where a majority of people looked and thought like Dick Cheney. That’s what we will move towards if this notion of U.S. suzerainty continues to metastasize.
You may be thinking I’m exaggerating the thrust towards control operating in our so-called ruling classes. But if you read the news carefully you’ll see more and more instances of it. Consider, for example, the recent furor over Ukraine and then recall it all got started because the United States wanted to cram NATO right up to Russia’s borders. Why do we need NATO, with all its weaponry, sitting right in Russia’s face? There can be only one reason, and it’s not a motive that will lead to self-direction for most countries of the world.
If I sat here all day I could think of other reasons why U.S. dominance of the world isn’t a good idea. But just this half-dozen are enough to demonstrate that proceeding along this path is unlikely to be healthy for any of us. I’m against it and I think you should be too.
April 25, 2015
I’ve known for decades that the widely read -- or viewed -- news sources in the United States are more concerned with persuading than with informing. In other words, they are thoroughly propagandistic. The message they most wish to convey is that America is great. They don’t bother to explain what that means. The sound of it is sufficient. They are fortunate that they have been able to train a mass audience to enjoy hearing that refrain endlessly. The readers and viewers demand nothing more, so why should anyone be bothered to give them anything more? When you know exactly what you’re going to say next week, next month, next year, it makes your job cushy.
For the past week, while the jurors in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been laboring to decide whether to kill him or to lock him up for the rest of his life in a purely punitive prison (those are their only options and how could anyone wish for any other?) have been busy telling us that those who were injured by the bomb set off by Tsarnaev and his brother have suffered. Imagine that! A person who loses a leg, or two legs, in a bombing suffers. This happens to people on a miserably frequent schedule all around the globe. A great many bombs are being manufactured every day. Each one is built to have the same effect. I just glanced through a list of international bomb-makers, that is companies that make bombs for profits (Google gave me no list of those who make bombs in garages, barns, caves and so forth by persons who don’t sell them but simply use them). There are 123 bomb-making companies in the United States alone. I was hoping to find the number of bombs that are being cranked out for profit in the world every year. I didn’t discover that; maybe nobody knows. Still, you would have to assume that 123 bomb-making companies would turn out quite a few bombs over the course of a year or two. And keep in mind, these are just the ones located in the United States (there are more bomb-makers here than in any other country, at least according to the list I consulted). One might think that the making and using of all these bombs, and the effects these bombs produce would be an important news topics. It wouldn’t be bizarre, would it, for the the New York Times or CBS News to have a division that kept up with bombs and bombing, and reported regularly on what it had found? But as far as I can tell, there is no such division in any news medium that reaches a large number of people. Bombs, generally, and the philosophy behind the use of bombs, appear not to be newsworthy. It’s only particular bombs that go off in particular places that draw great journalistic attention. I’d be willing to bet that in the United States there have been more words and pictures devoted to the effects of the bomb that went off during the Boston Marathon than to the results of all other bombings over the past couple years.
Even so, the reporting has been fairly narrow. It has concentrated on the physical and emotional damage done to the people near the bomb when it exploded, and how they have been hardy, and rallied courageously after having been hurt. But no large news organization seems seriously interested in why they were hurt. Why was the bomb set off? What caused it? Shouldn’t we want to know the causes so we can diminish them in the future? What went on in the minds of the Tsarnaev brothers that led them to build a bomb and set it off during a public event? You would think that would be the most urgent question to emerge from the explosion of a bomb in a crowd. But no big news outlet digs into it. There have been a few passing remarks about how the brothers resented U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but then the subject is just dropped without going any further. Lots of people don’t like U.S. behavior in the Middle East, but the overwhelming percentage of them don’t go around setting off bombs.
I return to my beginning proposition. There’s little careful examination of the causes of terrible events because there’s virtually no propaganda value in it. In fact, the propagandistic effect could be blunted to some extent by strenuous analysis. Understanding is not the purpose of propaganda, so anything that heightens understanding will get short shrift in the U.S media (and perhaps in other big media all around the world). There has been a single overweening message about the marathon bombing: good people were hurt by bad people. And how do we know that the hurt people were good? Because they were Americans. And how do we know the hurters were bad? Because they were anti-American. After all, we don’t conclude that everyone who hurts innocent persons with bombs are bad. In many cases, the media excuse the killing of innocent persons with only a passing nod to the difficulty of the decisions that led to it. Often when killing with bombs occurs, the media ask no questions at all about whether it should have occurred. They simply applaud. That’s the nature of propaganda.
It’s only reasonable to inquire whether the big news outfits can do anything other than what they do. Perhaps, given their links to gigantic financial systems and powerful political offices, they will inevitably function as nationalistic cheerleaders. It could be that Scott Pelley is the best we have any reason to expect from a network news anchor. He doesn’t dig very deep in his evening reporting but, then, he heads a program that’s not designed to dig deep. I don’t guess we can expect him to ask whether bombs beget bombs, and if they do, whether we should give them up altogether. Nor can we expect him to trace the links between bomb killings in Afghanistan and bomb killings in Boston. In fact, you can’t expect him to trace any serious links at all. That’s not what he’s paid to do. This being the case, we are left to wonder about the future of national (and nationalistic) news organizations. Ever greater numbers of people are dismissing them because there’s scant reason to trust the full truth of what they report. Maybe, after a while, they’ll just fade away, or transform themselves into human interest purveyors of such stories as the use of photo manipulation technology to make a Down syndrome child appear to fly.
If they do go away, it will be all right with me. I decided quite a while back that if I wanted to get even a semblance of what’s actually occurring in the world I had to seek out smaller organizations and read their reporting as critically as I could. That leads to fragmentation, of course, but isn’t that better than just a single gigantic propaganda voice?
I’ll give Scott Pelley credit: he hasn’t yet told me that the Boston jurors should decide to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In this world we have to be thankful for small blessings.
April 27, 2015
It’s time for another set of jottings from my notebook. It seems I accumulate enough for a posting about once a month. If I should gather a dozen sets a year for a dozen years, roughly twenty-five hundred jottings, what kind of book might that make?
- It’s very hard to get history right because there’s always an army of mythologists who want to capture it for purposes sharply distinguished from truth-telling.
- I dislike jargon, perhaps to an unreasonable degree. But I don’t care if it’s unreasonable. I still like to think of myself as a detester of jargon.
- If the people conducting tests on the safety of medications will benefit financially from results showing effectiveness, then the tests are worthless.
- The 1980s was the decade of snake oil. There was the Reagan presidency, with its morning in America. There was the American Psychiatry Association’s campaign to medicalize treatment for mental illness. There was the belief that if the United States would spend more money on weapons than the Russians could, then the Soviet Union would collapse from trying to keep up.
- The most difficult problem of life is discovering how to gain a healthy balance between strength and the ability to see clearly. Overweening strength tends to blind both people and nations.
- Nation states are not proper objects of worship. Anyone who can’t understand that is disqualified from thinking rationally about international relations. But, then, it’s probably true that nothing is a proper object of worship and, consequently, anyone who can’t understand that is disqualified from thinking.
- The often-expressed excuse that people are too busy to think doesn’t win me over.
- The distinction that has occupied me today is between those who care most about acts -- being heartened by some and disgusted by others -- and those who care most about groups and organizations -- loving and being loyal to some and hating others.
- The best practice in international history is to lay out as accurately as possible the mindset operating in each of the countries being discussed. But for the most part American historians don’t get that. They think American thoughts are the only ones that need to be discussed since they are the only ones that matter.
- Maybe there’s no meaning in “meaning.” Perhaps I should read up on how that concept has been used. But, then, there are many topics I should read up on.
- The ability to conceive of options is the prime characteristic of wide-ranging minds. It’s also the characteristic most hated by those who see themselves as defenders of purity and, consequently, as enemies of indecency.
- Professions should be conceived as boxes within which one is enabled to think in a certain way. If you don’t wish to think inside a box you’re unlikely to become a consummate professional.
- An important feature of stories is that they might be true or they might be fantastic. There are some uses to which a story can be put which aren’t much affected by its truthfulness. But there are probably more in which truthfulness is extremely important. And those uses wax toxic if the story is said to be true when it’s not.
- Blowing up houses when you don’t know who’s in them is hard to justify by any moral standard I’ve ever heard of.
- Many people like cruelty. They think it’s great. They laugh about it. They cheer it on. Is the privilege of cherishing cruelty one of the fundamental human rights?
- The inability to distinguish between the truth and what one wishes to believe is a common human characteristic. This being the case, might it be wise for those peculiar enough to be drawn to truth to give up any defense of it and simply declare that what they like has been decreed as proper and needful by the universe -- or whatever other word one might like to substitute for the universe, such as “nature” or “the spirit of things” -- thus slipping truth in by the backdoor, so to speak?
- The incident when a man, out of sympathy, said to W.C. Fields that it must be hard to lose a relative, and Fields replied, “It’s almost impossible,” shows that it takes some courage to be a comedian. It also reminds one that failure to appreciate wordplay is generally a sign of intellectual cowardice.
April 29, 2015
Disruptive events such as the ones we’ve observed in Baltimore over the past several days ought to generate serious reflection. I fear, though, that the reflection given to them in the media hasn’t, for the most part, been serious. Journalists generally rush to assign a cause to occasions like this, seldom pausing to reflect that almost never do they have a single cause and that it’s not unusual for them to emerge from so many causes it’s very hard to take them all into account, or to weigh their comparative importance.
I noticed that Shep Smith of Fox News was assaulted by a set of his colleagues with aggressive questions, most of them being more accusations than genuine queries. One of the more voluble was, “Where are the parents?” Shep Smith, of course, doesn’t know where the parents are, so the question, as question, was absurd. But obviously it wasn’t really a question; it was an assertion that Baltimore teenagers were in the streets, committing vandalism because their parents were failing in their responsibilities. In other words, what’s required is parental crackdown and then this sort of thing would stop.
Many people think they’re virtuous because their parents were strict, and that if there were more persons who had experienced their sort of upbringing the world would be a better place. This isn’t a testable hypothesis, but if you’ll consider what the world would be like were it controlled by men like Brian Kilmeade, with an occasional Bill O’Reilly thrown in, you might become suspicious of it.
Right now major sections of most big American cities are problematic places to live, where violence, inflamed tempers, and bad manners flourish. The common reasons given for this are racial prejudice, economic inequality, ill-trained police forces, low educational levels, and organized gangs that make money by breaking the law. I can’t be sure these are the main causes for the kind of urban ills Baltimore has evinced lately, but it seems pretty likely that they are. And if this is the case, then they all need to be addressed.
When you launch into urban triage, you have to set priorities. In other words, you have to ask which of the main disorders when handled intelligently would lead most directly to improvement in the others. I can’t be sure about this, but if I had to take a stand on it, I’d say the police have to get better in doing what they’re supposed to do before major straightening of the other disarrays can be made. I say this because I think society needs a sense of justice, a sense of fair-play, above all. If people can believe they will be rewarded for the things they work on, and that they won’t be punished or mistreated for things they didn’t do, then a healthy stability can take hold. On the other hand, if there’s a feeling that no matter what you do somebody is going to cheat you or hurt you, if the system is stacked in favor of the predators, then you’re likely to conclude there’s nothing else for you to do than to become one yourself. And if the main predators in your neighborhood are the cops, then a rage against hypocrisy exacerbates other angers.
The American people have been thoughtless about the inequities of their criminal justice system, leading law enforcement authorities to believe they can get away with anything. Truth is there has been so much thoughtlessness the whole system has become a mess. I don’t know what percentage of policemen in big cities are bullies. I hope it’s not a majority, but it’s clearly significant enough to convince inner city residents that the police are more oppressors than protectors. When that attitude is deeply held, any lethal behavior, justified or not, can trigger riots. It’s all very well to declare sanctimoniously that rioters are thugs rather than protestors. But if what lies behind the riot are tens of thousands of nasty insults and indignities, a gigantic reservoir of outrage has been stoked. Toss a match-like incident into it, and the whole thing flames out of control. Property is destroyed, cars are burned, people are injured and put in danger of being killed. That’s what has happened in Baltimore over the past few days.
When a cop takes more pleasure from shoving people around than from protecting them, then he should be ejected from the law enforcement system. Intimidation shouldn’t the main goal of police forces. Too often it is.
The wise men of the right-wing tell us that violent protests are senseless, stupid, and ill-conceived. But are they? They are clearly unpleasant and frightening. But what if they’re the only action that can get the attention of a smug establishment? As I heard someone ask a couple days back: what’s more important, a broken back or a broken window? I very much dislike broken windows, but if they’re the only alternative to broken backs, and the reckless pumping of multiple bullets into unarmed men whose only crime was that they weren’t obsequious enough to the cops, then I don’t have any trouble making a choice.
The United States has become more and more known around the world as a police/imprisonment state. That’s not the reputation I want for my country. But I know that unless a lot more people start paying attention to the behavior of our criminal justice system, the reputation will not only persist, it will grow. And we will all pay for it in the future.
April 30, 2015
This morning I came across a sentence in Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought I particularly like:
The habit of hallucinating causal powers and forcing experience to fit them has shaped human cultures from time immemorial, producing our species’ vast compendium of voodoo, astrology, magic, prayer, idolatry, New Age nostrums, and other flimflam.
The key word here is “flimflam.” What does it mean? Seventy years, or so, ago, it was defined this way, “A freak, trifle, or conceit. Also a deception, a trick, now, especially, a trick by which one is swindled.” Fifty years later it had been simplified to “deception, fraud, deceptive nonsense.”
I like Pinker’s assessment because lately I’ve been forced to be increasingly aware of how assigning false causes to events is always driven by a desire to cheat somebody, even when the cheater has become so self-deluded he’s unaware of what he’s doing. It’s true that many people have ambitions which they are never able to acknowledge.
Remember when George Bush assured us that “they hate us for our freedom?” I don’t know if he was aware of what complete flimflam that was, but aware or not, the character of the message remained the same. Or think of “a rising tide lifts all boats” as a metaphor for the functioning of a national economy; that’s about as pure flimflam as you can get, but I suppose it’s possible that some of the people who chirped it thought it was true. Instances like this remind me of what a pathetic word “sincere” is as a measure of virtue.
Still, since flimflam has shaped human cultures from time immemorial, we have to ask whether there’s something in the human makeup that causes us to wish to be deceived and cheated. It’s a question that can’t be answered definitively but one, I think, that creates valid suspicions. If we want it, is it wrong for us to get it, even if it hurts us? If it’s a sort of intellectual drug, ought it to be tolerated for its short-range soothing effects? At almost every funeral I’ve attended I’ve heard someone musing about how the recently deceased person is somewhere looking down (always down) on us and smiling as we commemorate his or her life. My impulse when I hear things like that, is to say, “No he’s not, because he’s dead.” But I’ve never yet said it. Is that the result of good manners or of cowardice?
The answers to these questions depend on what sort of future one thinks humanity might achieve. It’s the quality of that expectation which divides people into the most bitterly contentious groups. The problem with flimflam is that it’s profuse. There is an enormous number of versions of it, and each one of them marshals a group that’s ready to take action against all those other groups because they are seen as having chosen a wrong type. As we know, quite a few of these differences lead to killing, torture, and immense destruction of property. Are these simply the necessary price for the comforts of flimflam?
My best take on the generality of these problems is that we should recognize as a fundamental human duty the requirement to distinguish, as best we can, among what is, what might be, and what is almost surely false. The immensity and mystery of the universe offer us a gigantic array of concepts which we can neither confidently affirm nor conclusively dismiss, and, therefore, a great number to play with that don’t purposively deceive or swindle. They are the stuff of imagination. On the other hand, human duplicity and induced confusion, deserve nothing but rejection. There’s no reason to respect them even if others have been taken in and address them with devotion. We don’t have to dislike or scorn people who have fallen for flimflam, but neither are we obliged to credit them for their errors just because they are committed. Commitment by itself is a morally neutral stance. It’s what one is committed to that matters, not the commitment itself.
I don’t think it’s naive to look forward to, and work for, a time when humans can agree on the validity of evidence. And if we can get to that time, human society will be less cruel, less torturous, and less stupid. Surely, for example, it’s not out of order to hope for a time when all the members of the U.S. Senate will have intelligence enough to see that when industry pumps immense amounts of pollution into the atmosphere, the weather will change and be less nurturing of human health. Do we really have to put up forever with legislators as blank-brained and ignorant as Jim Inhofe? Might we not expect someone better than him from the people of Oklahoma? That they’re giving him to us now is sad. That they would supply us with people like him indefinitely would be devastating.
We need a form of the Hippocratic Oath with respect to public behavior that would run something like, “For goodness sakes stop doing stupid stuff, stop groveling before flimflam.” If that were honored, would it make society perfect? Obviously not. But would it make it less pathetic? I think so. To surrender to the status quo and say that what we have now is as good as it can get is craven.
We don’t know where humanity is going. We don’t know what it can achieve. It’s possible for it to end up making a social world that’s inferior to the one we have now. There is one thing we can know, though. If we settle for the flimflam-laden world we have now, things will inevitably get worse, and then even worse than that. I’m glad we have scholars like Steven Pinker who can demonstrate what our language tells us about who we are, and can suggest how language can tell us who we might become.
©John R. Turner
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