June 5, 2015
My friends of the Johnson Society are meeting next Tuesday to discuss the nature and problems of aging. I wish I could be with them, but since they will be in Vermont and I will be impounded in Hardee County, Florida, the adamantine nature of geography makes that impossible. The best I can do is scribble a few thoughts here, and let them know they’re available on Word and Image of Vermont.
The first thing I have to ask myself when I think of age is whether there’s anything uniform that can be said about it. Do we get wiser as we get older? Not invariably. Do we get stupider? Not necessarily. Do we get more set in our ways? Not unless we want to. Do we get physically weaker? A goodly percentage of us do, but not everyone.
We can say, I suppose, that when we’re considered old we are closer to death than we were when we were considered young. But even that has to be modified by recalling that at no time of life do we know for sure how much longer we will live. It’s always between a second and an unknown number of years. And although at a given time one of those may be more likely than the other, we can’t be certain.
Old people often have a bigger, and more problematic, jumble of memories than young people do, but that depends on how well one remembers.
An annoying feature of age has to do not with your own condition but with other people’s assumptions about you based on your age. They think they know what you will like or not like, how much weight you can lift, how many stairs you can climb, what sort of books you can read, whether you can drive a car comfortably in Italy, whether you will be fearful of teenagers you meet on the street, and what kind of food you can digest. They warn you that “now” you have to be careful to keep your doors locked. There’s no answer to this gabble of assumption other than being light-hearted when you inform people of their mistakes. It gets worse, of course, if the mistakes become your own because you’ve bought into common notions of what you can and can’t do “at your age.” At that point the damage metastasizes from irritation to self-inflicted debility. Yet that clearly, in America, is the most popular form of masochism.
The attribute of age that may come closest to homogeneity is awareness that nothing ever stays the same. As you drift into your seventh decade you would have to be brain-dead not to perceive how the passage of time transforms all things and all people. I recall that when I was about ten years old, because the stores in my neighborhood had, as far as I knew, always been there, I assumed they always would be there. It never entered my mind how fragile the stability of the neighborhood was. I couldn’t imagine that I would return to it thirty or forty years hence and find it thoroughly transmogrified, and in some parts barely recognizable.
What was true of my neighborhood was even more true of larger entities, the nation, for instance. When I was a boy, I was sure the United States possessed an enduring character, and that its basic features were destined, in some manner I didn’t need to understand, to persist permanently. It didn’t occur to me that the history I had been taught in school might not be accurate, or that that the nation’s future could be wildly different from anything I ever imagined happening to it. I certainly didn’t recognize that propaganda was always steadily at work to burnish some groups and institutions and to tarnish others, or that the leading news sources were under the control of the nation’s thought-shapers to the degree they were.
I was so naïve as to believe that virtue was engraved into the nature of certain institutions, and that the government of the United States was clearly among them. It could be trusted even when you couldn’t trust much else. If anyone had told me when I was twenty-five years old that I would come to regard the government of the United States as I regard it now, I would have thought he was insane. And I would have thought he was even more nutty if he had told me I would ever view the American people as I now view them. That was because I hadn’t begun to grasp either the corrosive or the creative potential of time.
It may be that in youth there’s a nearly irresistible impulse to believe in the glory of stability, to have confidence there are some things you can count on, no matter what. And perhaps maturity -- if not age -- teaches that flux is the law of the universe and that learning to ride the waves of change is what genuine education demands. To want to remain precisely the way you were is not only to wish for the impossible, but in addition to surrender to something ignoble in yourself.
If, however, a despairing old age is to be escaped, there is a certain element which has to be preserved, a kernel of self which, regardless of punching, mauling, shoving, and battering, must remain internally recognizable. Though it’s pathetic to stay as you were at the beginning, it’s doubtless worse to have who you are ripped out of you. This “who-ness,” is a thing that’s unlikely ever to be described adequately, or to be analyzed. We can attempt to use abstractions, such as “essence of being,” to talk about it, but they aren’t of much use and mostly should be avoided. It’s sketched, or pointed at, by concrete experiences -- lying on your back with your head on roots and seeing through oak leaves a blueness of sky no one else has ever seen or ever will see.
I doubt that any of us, however old we get, can dispense either with tension or the duty to manage it. And the prime tension lies stretched between the meaning-making self and the boiling, whirring universe in which we, somehow, got placed.
June 7, 2015
There’s a lengthy excerpt in Salon today from Godfrey Hodgson’s new book on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The piece is titled “The 60s Great What-If” and discusses the question of what would have happened in Vietnam had Mr. Kennedy not been killed in November of 1963. This, of course, is not a new question. It has been debated for decades.
A majority of Mr. Kennedy’s closest advisors eventually came round to saying that had the president won re-election in 1964, as he was expected to do, he would have begun to disengage from the Vietnamese venture. Before he died he had already come to see that greater military involvement wouldn’t be beneficial to the United States. Vietnam’s political future wasn’t important enough to justify major American sacrifices.
Hodgson has no difficulty seeing why Kennedy’s survivors would take this line. The inclination to endow a slain president with a prescience confirming the judgment of later times -- times bolstered by hindsight -- is easy enough to comprehend. The industry of transforming Kennedy into a man virtually without peer began almost as soon as the sad news from Dallas spread across the nation. But despite all the efforts of hagiographers, Hodgson sees Kennedy as very much a man of his time. He admits that no one can be sure what Kennedy would have done, but the gist of his argument is that the young president would probably have behaved about the same way Lyndon Johnson did. That, after all, fit with the mindset of the nation’s leaders at the time. They were all obsessed with what they considered to be the great Communist threat.
I doubt that anyone could be less confident about Kennedy’s actions than I am. Arguing about what a man would have done had he been alive rather than dead strikes me as rather silly. But since there is an argument, I’ll say that I find Hodgson’s position more convincing than what we have got from people who wished to view Kennedy as a hero. Arguments based on a perception of heroism don’t do much for me. Kennedy was a politician and while he was alive concentrated on enhancing his political strength. It’s conceivable that he could have changed his mind about what he considered most important. But there can be no evidence about such a transformation. He continually said he believed in the domino theory and I’m willing to take him at his word, despite its being one of the most foolish notions ever to beguile a nation. If history teaches us anything it’s that there can be nothing so stupid as to, inevitably, repel political belief.
The more informative feature of this excerpt is not about what Kennedy would, or wouldn’t, have done but rather about the likelihood of a president’s being able to get the government to carry out his policies. They are not nearly as great, says Hodgson, as most people think they are. He gives as an example the coup that led to the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in early November 1963. One of the key incidents leading up to the coup was a cable sent by Roger Hilsman, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, to Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador in Saigon. Hodgson exaggerates the degree to which this message lacked the support of the top figures in the U.S. government. But it was sent on a Saturday afternoon, when most of the leading decision makers were out of Washington and, in effect, on vacation. Efforts were made to secure their assent, but it was a pretty jumbled process and it can’t be said that either the president or the secretary of state were fully aware of its implications. It told Lodge that he could let the dissident military leaders know that unless Diem got rid of his ruthless brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the U.S. would no longer protect his presidency. The generals, of course, took it as a green light to continue with their plot. Two months later, it was hatched, and Diem and his brother were murdered. It’s not clear how much Kennedy approved of this, but it does seem clear that if he had been fully involved it would not have played out as it did. No one can say that Mr. Hilsman knowingly took the policy of the United States into his hands but nevertheless that’s pretty much what happened.
There’s a personal note for me in these doings, which I didn’t realize until much later. About the time Hilsman sent the fateful “Cable 243” to Lodge in Saigon, I, along with about a half-dozen other management trainees, visited Mr. Hilsman in his office at the State Department. We were supposedly learning about how the government worked and being sent round to various high-ranking officials to be briefed on the process. I don’t remember many of the details of the meeting. Hilsman impressed me as an intelligent man, but I knew nothing about the stances he was pushing within the government. I do recall, though, very clearly, one thing he said. He was explaining to us what the Washington scene was, and remarked, “This town is filled with crisis managers, and if they don’t have a crisis to manage, they’ll make one.” That warning has stuck with me all these years, and in light of what was about to happen in Saigon, seems now to have been thoroughly ironic.
When I reflect that the American incursion into Vietnam was ramped up, and ended by killing well over a million persons, I have reason to be less than worshipful of the men who brought it about. I’m sure they thought they were doing the right things. But they lacked the qualities of mind necessary to imagine the horrors they were unleashing. Or else, they just didn’t care. In either case, they were not men we should have allowed, as uncritically as we did, to lead the nation into mass slaughter and yet-to-be-reckoned mass destruction. The land of Vietnam is still poisoned by what we did there.
Now, fifty years later, the men directing the nation, are no brighter than the Kennedy generation was. Shouldn’t that tell us something? And if it should, what?
P.S. One of the people killed in the Vietnamese war was my best boyhood friend, Richard Osborn. Just a little over four years after I was in Hilsman’s office, Richard had his brain destroyed, reputedly by a young woman with a shotgun. In any case, he was definitely dead. I think about that quite a bit.
June 15, 2015
I don’t know how much schlock TV I can stand before my head explodes. That I have to ask the question tells you something about my current environment.
I just got through episode four of Between; you must all know about Between, the series that tells us the tale of what happens in the wonderful little town of Pretty Lake, where everybody twenty-two years old, or older, dies, and the government puts a big fence around the town, and then surrounds the fence with a deadly minefield, presumably to make sure nothing bad gets out.
It’s a kind of cheap version of Lord of the Flies.
I don’t know what would really happen in a community populated by people twenty-one and younger if all of a sudden it was isolated from the rest of the world. But I hope it wouldn’t be as bad as what happens in Between. Would fascism and pure criminality rise up in a contest for supremacy? I’m not overly optimistic about today’s youth but I hope they would do better than that.
Between wouldn’t be giving me such an icky feeling were it not that over the weekend I watched all thirteen episodes of the first season of The 100, which, of course, is even more famous than Between. The 100 is set about a hundred years after a gigantic nuclear conflict which released such levels of radioactivity that no human could survive on earth (that was the theory, at least). So twelve space satellites were blasted into permanent orbit around the earth, and they eventually linked themselves together into a huge complex called the ark. The ruling philosophy on the ark was that it would take two centuries for the earth to detoxify sufficiently to support life. So humanity, if it were to survive, had to sustain itself in space until Mother Earth got well. Things went along pretty well for about half the period of exile, but then the system for producing oxygen began to conk out -- why was never explained very clearly. Obviously, something radical had to be done.
It turns out that on the ark a rather draconian judicial system had evolved. Virtually all breaking of the rules was punished by being “floated,” which meant being ejected into space and left there to perish (rather shortly, actually). There were one hundred juvenile delinquents -- strange that there should be such an even number -- scheduled for floating. So instead of killing them outright, it was decided that they would be sent to the earth’s surface to see if there were any possibility of living there.
That’s what was done and thus the story got underway.
To explain everything that happened to the hundred after they got to earth would be incredibly tiresome, so I’m not going to do it. I’ll simply let you know that the earth was not as toxic as supposed but it did present quite a few problems. And here was a set of former juvenile delinquents trying to deal with them. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn there were numerous screw-ups.
The TV series is based on a trilogy of novels written over the past couple of years by Kass Morgan. I’m not eager to read them. In fact, I doubt I ever will. They might be more subtle than the television version, but it’s unlikely they’re entrancing literature. What interests me about these two shows is not their dramatic achievement -- slight at best -- but their fumbling attempts to show societies being reconstructed by young people when most of their support structures have been taken away. They do manage to illustrate Kant’s warning that out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made.
They force me to ask, what prevents straightness. As soon as the question is out, it’s answered. Humans can’t free themselves from outdated ideas, no matter how rancid they are. With the advent of neoliberalism, even human slavery, in fancy, gussied up forms called free markets, is inching its way back in. Inept attitudes from the past have always been the serious burden of humanity, especially when they’re dolled up with moral coloring. Two statements, up till now, have been pretty much the constructors of humanity. First: “You can’t do that.” And, then, after being asked why not, the second: “I don’t know, but you just can’t.”
Maybe it’s unfair to expect people to have thoughts that fit the situation. It would take fresh thinking, and who’s capable of that? TV people are content to show groups lurching from one crisis to another, because crises and disasters build ratings. But it’s scarcely sane to follow an identical pattern in actual life just to give us something to be excited about. The scary feature of both Between and The 100 is that they’re firmly symbolic of the way social and political behavior have been developing lately. If you took characters modeled on the current Republican candidates for president you might build a whale of a TV show, with lots of explosions, screaming, and thoroughly yucky sex scenes. And you could pick all your dialogue off the internet.
I do think the stuff we look at every day on millions of flashing screens foretells a human tipping point. We might dump the droopy, slave-morality of the past and move towards a fairly interesting and healthy future. Or we might choose actually to become a TV series, where evil avatars from the past rise up to drink our blood. I’m not advocating, by the way, that we stop watching TV. That would be impossible. But we might learn more from it than we have been learning lately, and recognize that our encrustations of righteousness are dragging us down to something that even we, crooked as we are, wouldn’t enjoy watching.
June 17, 2015
Chris Hedges, whose ideas I respect, has decided that the upcoming presidential campaign is a farce. He argues that to the degree we take it seriously we promote forces that are undermining the health and well-being of the American people. So what do we do instead? Here’s what he advises in a recent edition of Op-Ed News:
Every action we take now must be directed at ripping down the structures of the corporate state. This means refusing to co-operate. It means joining or building radical mass movements. It means carrying out sustained acts of civil disobedience, as Kay activists are doing in Seattle and fishing communities such as Kodiak, Cordova and Homer, as well as a dozen indigenous tribes, are doing in Alaska, to physically halt fracking, drilling for oil and natural gas or U.S. Navy training exercises in the pristine waters of the Arctic. It means striking for a $15 minimum wage. It means blocking city streets to demand an end to the indiscriminate use of lethal force by militarized police, especially against poor people of color. It means, in large and small ways, acts of open rebellion.
These actions would be seen by the mainstream media and by the political establishment as seriously radical. But that’s just the point. They strive to discredit anything that would interfere with the system now in place. And why? Because that’s the system that gives them their wealth and position. Keep in mind that virtually all the figures you see reporting the news on television, and the great majority of people you see quoted in the New York Times, are very rich. Why would they bite the hand that has fed them?
Chris Hedges was for quite a while a New York Times reporter, and a highly respected one. Yet for the past twelve months, despite his having been intensely active, he hasn’t been mentioned in the paper (it does run ads for his books, but that’s the result of being paid). He’s not a figure worth reporting on, according to the New York Times. Why do you suppose that is?
To me, the answer is obvious.
I agree with Hedges that I don’t want the U.S. government to be controlled by gigantic corporations. I agree with him that such a government cares very little for the people it is supposed to serve. I agree with him that the government has been pretty much bought by monied interests. Yet I continue to be strongly interested in the outcome of the elections that will take place in 2016. I still think it matters who will be successful. I would prefer certain of the announced candidates over others. Even though the possibility gives me stomach heaves, if I were left with just Rick Perry and Jeb Bush, I would prefer Bush. Is that stupid? Why should I even care?
Hedges, in effect, says it doesn’t matter. I’m willing to admit that he may be right. Still, I can’t quite go all the way with him, and when I ask myself why, I begin to worry that the reason is cowardice.
I confess that I don’t enjoy being in a large crowd of people who are screaming about political issues. That may be no more than a defect in my personality. I can’t be sure. Years ago, when I worked at a somewhat unusual college, I avoided joining hands with other people in a circle and swaying in unison, even though many of the people there thought that was just about the grandest thing one can do. But the thought of doing it myself gave me the creeps.
I’ve never been able to abide being taken over by, or subsumed in, a group of people, not even if I agree with what they’re trying to accomplish. The idea of being identified, primarily, by membership in a group, repels me. Does that make me evil? I know some would say so. But if does, I suppose I just have to accept that I’m on the dark side -- but, still, not a member of the dark side. I don’t want to join hands even with those who have crossed over.
So, here I am, in agreement with Hedges, respectful of Hedges, wanting much of what Hedges wants, but unable to take up all the means he prescribes. I want to help him but I need to find ways that don’t require being taken over. He might say there are no other ways. And I guess he could be right. Even so, I can’t give in.
It may be that the main reason I disagree with him about the presidential race is aesthetic rather than moral (if there is a distinction between those two modes of judgment). When an ugly manner, and ugly phrases, and vulgar pronouncements about taste are spread across the land by a bought-up mainstream media, day after day, month after month, in the guise of reporting on the president, the result is pollution. And it seems to me that our difficulty now is just as much that we have become a polluted country as that we’re a country with immoral political leadership. Surely we all remember the picture of George Bush strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier to brag about the results of a murderous war.
Chris Hedges has a religious personality, and I don’t. Maybe that’s the main difference between us. In any case, I wish him well, and I’ll cheer him on to the degree possible, as long as I don’t have to go out in a crowded street and shake a banner while I’m cheering.
I’m sorry, Chris, if that reservation, delegitimizes me. I hope the “small ways” he mentions in his statement will be enough to rescue me from perdition.
June 19, 2015
A couple days ago I did something I rarely do: I watched a fairly long clip from Morning Joe. Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and their guests were discussing whether Hillary Clinton is likable enough to be elected president.
The principal guests were Hugh Hewitt (conservative, get it?), David Axelrod (liberal, get it?), and Mark Halperin (centrist, or non-partisan, or objective observer, or just doesn’t give a damn, get it?).
The conclusion, as far as I could tell, was that Hillary may be likable enough, or she may not be.
Halperin’s presence reminded me of “the gang of five hundred,” a term he coined to describe, collectively, the only people in the United States who matter. “Matter to whom?” one would almost reflexively ask. The obvious answer is, to the gang of five hundred. This gang, which supposedly cares about politics -- which, by the way, has nothing to do with good government -- cares actually only about boosting one another, so that all can be viewed as very important persons. They flit from one venue to another, so that their faces can appear on screens, talking gabble.
They are all very busy, meaning they have crowded schedules. Some of them, I’m told, claim not to have time to sleep. And in return for their busyness they have to be paid quite large sums of money.
I’m not an anti-elitist. I would argue that persons of unusual knowledge, perception, grasp of meaning, and careful thought should play a major role in the direction of society. If the gang of five hundred were functioning as social educators, I’d be cheering them on. But they’re not. They’re not teaching anybody about anything. You could listen to them for weeks and never hear a single serious discussion of the consequences of industrial pollution, of the backlash effects of assassinating people with drones, of neoliberal influence on the quality of education, of the incarceration rate in the United States compared to other countries, of clean energy production, of the American food supply, of the shortage of water in the America, or of anything, that might actually affect the quality of life of most people.
I suspect that’s because scarcely anyone in the gang cares about those things. What they care about is who’s up and who’s down in the gang. Whether Brian Williams gets a new job at NBC is far more important to them than whether children die from malnutrition. Brian Williams, you see, is a former top member. He was once important, and he might be again.
One way to get a sense of the nature of the gang of five hundred is to reflect on who’s not a member, and then, maybe, ask yourself why. Noam Chomsky’s not a member, nor is Glenn Greenwald, nor Robert Parry, nor Henry Giroux, nor James Carroll, nor Mark Danner, nor Tom Engelhardt, nor Thomas Frank, nor Andrew Bacevich, nor Jeremy Scahill, nor Peter Van Buren, nor Dahr Jamail, nor Amy Goodman, nor Jane Mayer and not even Joseph Stiglitz. About Paul Krugman, I’m not sure; he may be on the border. But David Brooks, he’s smack dab in the middle.
Chances are, most people have not heard of most of these non-members. The reason is that the gang of five hundred controls, to a considerable degree, who so-called average people hear of. The gang are the gatekeepers, deciding for the rest of us what’s fit for mass consumption.
One could argue that the gang is just one more display booth along the corridors of Vanity Fair, which has been in operation for millennia. That would be fair enough. The gang is simply performing its historical function, producing the glittering array people need to satisfy not only their need for gossip but their assumption that somebody significant is in charge. You might view Joe Scarborough as a direct descendant of the guy who was once a celebrity for carrying away the king’s urine every morning. And we need the gang, don’t we? How else are we to know whether Hillary is likable enough?
The reason I can’t dismiss the gang as a public bauble is my sense that it’s blocking the flow of information the electorate needs even to begin making healthy decisions. We have to face the truth that most people aren’t critical-minded. So when they hear authorized persons discussing whether a presidential candidate is likable enough, they think they’re getting news they need to be adequate citizens. It’s entirely possible that a person might dismiss a candidate, whose positions she favors, because important figures have explained to her that the candidate doesn’t have a sufficiently appealing personality. And, then, candidates might decide they have to gussy up their manner even beyond the cosmetizing that already produces the mannequins we see out patrolling the campaign trail every day. If we keep this up, we might as well have robots running for president and spend our time arguing about how they should be programmed.
My weakness is I can’t think of any tactic other than ridicule to flush the toxic effect the gang is having on our public discourse (I mention the latter jokingly, of course, because the truth is we don’t have any genuine public discourse, and that’s the reason we don’t have a democracy). If we could get to the point where we see every member of the gang as we view Donald Trump now, then perhaps, after a while, we’ll grow weary of them, and Morning Joe will join Leave It to Beaver as an impossibly artless relic.
Still, I need to remember that there are people who perceive Beaver’s antics as the high-point of really great television, and even some who think that Trump would be a truly magnificent president. Dealing with the latter, though, is sliding over to psychopathology, which I can’t do today.
June 20, 2015
We are in for a spate of commentary on and denunciations of Dylann Roof. I have already seen numerous announcements of hatred. One man I read said he wished that in 1865, the Union Army had continued to sweep through the Confederate States and killed every white person who lived in them. That would have left us with true peace, wouldn’t it?
There’s a contest underway to show greater horror and disgust over what Roof did than anyone else can possibly demonstrate. If one can do that, then, of course, he or she will attain spotlessness.
People can do what they wish, but I’m pretty sure that hating Dylann Roof is not the avenue to moving ourselves towards a virtuous society. He’s not the problem we are facing. He’s simply an offshoot of the problem.
The problem is a clot of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes which have always been and continue to be a basic component of the United States. It’s a tangled mess of thinking made up of more strands than any of us have counted. And all of them are imbued with a core component which proclaims that killing other people is not only a way to solve problems but also the principal way to attain nobility. Killing people is what heroes do, and I’m pretty sure that Dylann Roof longed to be a hero. He’s probably telling himself right now that he is a hero and that he’s on the path to sacrificing his life for a noble cause. And if the past is a predictor of the future, the state of South Carolina will confirm his twisted myth by killing him. That way, justice will be done. I don’t suppose it could occur to a true-blooded South Carolinian that teaching him something, so that he could reflect sanely, and regretfully, on his own deeds would do more to prevent future occurrences than assisting him to march proudly to a hero’s death.
American public thought is extremely weak in perceiving connections. Right now in South Carolina and all over the nation people who have assisted in solidifying the clot are lining up to proclaim how sorry they are about the church murders. The gun freaks will all proclaim their disdain for Roof, and never pause to imagine how they helped transform him into a gun freak. The war mongers who pushed and continue to push criminal wars will all be appalled, and never even suspect that a suggestible young man in South Carolina might have derived inspiration from their paeans of patriotism. The law and order fanatics who glorify our militarized, authoritarian police, who are on a pace to kill more than a thousand Americans this year, won’t see the association between Roof’s thinking and cheering the gunning down of bad guys.
I often recall the remark of my supervisor in a government office when, in 1963, the news broke about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham: “Well, now, I think that’s going just a little too far.” He was against it, you see. He wasn’t bright enough to recognize that he, and millions of others with the same frame of mind, had helped push people up to a line that they, themselves, were too timid to step over. The techniques Americans have for persuading themselves of their own goodness are uncountable. That may constitute the principal element of their ingenuity.
We’re good and they’re bad is the main theme of human history. And though it flourishes all around the world, in the 21st century I doubt that anywhere else it’s as pervasive and potent as it is in the United States. When you combine a religious faith in your own goodness with the belief that you express your faith best by killing bad people, then you’ve stirred up a murderous brew. Is it surprising that young people searching for meaning in a neoliberal society, where the only thing that counts is piling up marketable goods, would quaff great gulps of it? One can argue that they’re wrong, and even evil, for swigging it down. Maybe. But the question remains, who served it up to them? Another thing the American public mind is bad at is understanding motives. If we can’t grasp that Dylann Roof is an idealist, then we can’t begin to understand what led him to act as he did. Yes, we can say that we don’t share his ideals. I certainly don’t. But we still need to face the truth of what we tell people to do about their ideals. Put on a uniform! Pick up a rifle! Slay the enemy! Chase him to the ends of the earth and drop a bomb on his head while he’s having dinner with his children! That’s the American way. “We’ll show them” is another American motif. So Roof went out to show them.
I would like Lindsey Graham, or Nikki Haley, or, for that matter, Barack Obama, to explain to me why the murder rate in the United States is far higher than it is in any other so-called Western democracy. When the great American pundits get together in a TV studio, not a single one of them has the courage to step up to that question. Why is the American murder rate ten times what it is in Austria? Why is it nine times what it is in Norway? Why five times what it is in Germany? Why even three times what it is in our neighbor to the north, Canada? Is that because of American freedom? What are we free to do, murder people? (The murder rate in South Carolina, by the way, is one and a half times what it is in the country as a whole).
Racial bigotry is, in my opinion, a vile attitude. And, yes, it is pervasive in unacknowledged and somewhat unconscious ways throughout the nation. I wish we could banish it and I think we should keep on trying as vigorously as we can. It clearly had some part in the Charleston murders. Yet we need to keep in mind that they were murders, and therefore we also have to ask why murder came to mind as the appropriate way to express the bigotry. And when we ask that, we approach something deeper in the American character than even racist resentment.
Hating Dylann Roof is certainly not going to cure us of hatred, or of a murderous response to it.
June 22, 2015
Residing for several weeks here in Hardee County has pushed to the front of my mind a problem which has for a long time tickled the outskirts. I’ve come to think of it as the problem of “He who cannot conceive.”
We’ve had a good example of it being played out in neighboring Polk Country over the past couple weeks. A county sheriff, Grady Judd, who seems to be quite popular, preached a sermon in a local Baptist Church. That alone probably would not have caused a stir. But Sheriff Judd chose to do it wearing his full uniform. As a result, the Freedom From Religion Foundation protested that he was appearing as a government official and endorsing a particular establishment of religion, which they say violates the First Amendment to the Constitution. In other words, they are making a distinction between Grady Judd as a private individual and Grady Judd as an official of the county, which, ultimately, derives its authority from the Constitution.
This complaint has set off waves of public commentary, much of it quite inflamed. In today’s Lakeland Ledger, for example, Ray Anderson announced that the FFRF is “enslaved by group-think” and therefore deserves no respect in public discourse. Similar sentiments have been expressed frequently over the past week. None of these commentators have indicated even the slightest recognition that they, too, might be viewed as being under the influence of group-think. And why not? The reason is that their common thought, shared probably by a majority of Polk County people, is simply the indisputable, universal truth of evangelical Christianity. It has nothing to do with group thinking. Rather, it is a self-evident verity which is obvious to anyone who is not either deranged or evil.
As a consequence of this conviction it becomes impossible to see any distinction between preaching in a uniform and preaching in ordinary civilian clothes. All Judd was doing was speaking the truth, so why should anyone care about what kind of clothes he was wearing? It’s not conceivable that a sane person could care.
This is merely a small instance of the problem of “he who cannot conceive,” but I think it illustrates the problem pretty well.
The problem arises because history is not static, and over time public perceptions change. We saw it coming up last week at the Southern Baptist Convention with respect to gay marriage. Obviously marriage between persons of the same sex is wrong because the Bible says so, and the Bible is the word of God, who rules over heaven and earth and is the source of all rightness. To the people who controlled the convention it is inconceivable that there could be anything problematic in that statement.
The world is littered with groups who cannot conceive the worth of programs, ideas, and activities many people wish to pursue. It is inconceivable to some that the market should not completely control the distribution of goods and services. It is inconceivable, evidently to most Americans, that a person who did something really bad should not be strapped on a table and poisoned. It is inconceivable to most that there could be a way for a person equitably to gain the means to exist other than signing up for duties directed by others, or what are generally called “jobs.” It is inconceivable to a considerable portion of Americans, and perhaps to a majority, that the president and military leaders should not have the authority to destroy the life of anyone, no matter where he or she might be, that they -- completely within their small group -- have decided should not live. It is inconceivable to most wealthy Americans that they should be regulated in the consumption of any amount of natural resources they have the money to purchase.
One could go on all day with a list like this, but I trust the point is made.
So here we have this world packed -- and getting more packed all the time -- with groups which can’t conceive why other groups want what they want or wish to live as they do. What’s to be done?
The common answer has been that all groups should proselytize as hard as they can, and the one who campaigns the hardest will win out and dominate. A slightly less common approach is for everybody to go off in his little group and not bother anyone else. Neither of these is feasible. The truth is that we’re all citizens of the world and if we’re going to live in it, we’re going to bump up against one another. And when we do we have to find ways deal with the bumping. Ann Coulter’s program of forcing everyone to accept American values and convert to Christianity, and, if they won’t, to kill them, seems fairly impractical, even though, in a slightly less garish form, it has been the policy of the U.S. government over the past five decades.
I don’t have a completely workable answer, but I do think if we would try expanding our powers of conception, we might take a step or two towards one. After all, there’s a difference between disagreeing with someone and being unable to conceive why he is as he is. In the former case, there can be conversation; in the latter, any kind of reasoning together becomes very hard.
I guess you could try going to Ray Anderson -- mentioned above -- and say, “Look, Ray, I can’t find any credible evidence that what’s preached at the Baptist Church in Lakeland is based in fact. It all seems like mythological hokum to me. So maybe you can understand why I don’t want my tax dollars used to spread that preachment, even if it involves no more than purchasing the clothing of the person who’s spreading it. Do you get where I’m coming from?”
If you decide to try that out, maybe you could get a conversation going. I would certainly wish you luck. Because I think you’d need it.
June 23, 2015
Yesterday, forwarded from Vermont, my University of Virginia alumni magazine arrived in Bowling Green. It set me to thinking about the differences between Hardee County, where I am now, and Albemarle County, where the university is located.
Alumni magazines are not, to my mind, one of the finer literary genres. Occasionally you can find an informative article in one of them, but for the most part they’re pompous and mawkish. After all, they exist for the purpose of raising money, and it seems to be established that excessive sentimentality is the best fuel for cranking up the donation pump.
I confess that the feature of the Virginia magazine which most engages me is the real estate ads. They’re about as schmaltzy as anything you can discover, and they invariably turn my curiosity to imagining the character of the people who write them. Ask yourself about the composer of this: “a pristine horse farm set privately in rolling hills of Somerset estate country, adajacent (sic) to the Keswick Hunt, with extensive SW Mountain views. Appealing residence constructed ’06 of finest materials & further enhanced ....” It would take me a week to write something like that, and even then, I would fail. Anyway, this enticing concoction, named “Adaven Farm,” can be had for the pittance of $3,495,000.
To advance the comparison I mentioned above, it may help to know that Hardee Country is the poorest county in Florida, whereas I have read that Albemarle County is the richest county in the United States (and even if that’s not perfectly accurate, Albemarle is surely up there; a ten mile loop drive from the university will tell you that). When I was a graduate student, I used to wander through the hills and valleys of Albemarle County asking myself what Mr. Jefferson would think of it now. Also, then, because I was callow, I would dream about one day possessing one of the residences that presented themselves so proudly to me . It didn’t occur to me to ask what I would have to do -- or who I would have to be -- to own such property.
Obviously, I’m moving toward reflections on social class. Albermarle County is clearly upper-class country whereas Hardee County is just as evidently a domain of the lower class. What does that mean about the two sets of people thus characterized?
The first difference that would strike most people would involve taste. Virginians seem almost to be born thinking they have better taste than anyone else, and in fairness one has to admit that there are architectural qualities in Albemarle County that are hard to dismiss. Even taking into account that taste is a matter of opinion, the effect that Albemarle has on most of its visitors suggests that there’s something universal about the aesthetic standards that flourish there. But then we have to ask if they are simply a derivative of wealth. Virginians answer that there are other wealthy areas in the U.S. that don’t approach the beauty of Albemarle, an argument that’s not easily refutable. Yet the factor that lifts Albemarle County’s merit beyond normal class arguments is that it has benefitted from a historical accident. A single man of unusual taste was born and lived there, and not only that but he designed the university that remains the county’s central feature. Albemarle County would not look as it does today were it not for the University of Virginia. And the university would not be what it is, physically, were it not for Thomas Jefferson. So the question I’m left with is whether Albemarle’s unusually pleasing appearance is a matter of upper-classness, or whether it comes from something else. And I have to conclude it’s primarily something else, a something else that’s not reproducible (though I have to admit that wealth plays a part in it).
I could go through similar comparisons having to do with education, manners, personal health, complexity of thought, urbanity, and grasp of non-American cultures. In all of them, Albemarle would, at first glance, seem to be superior to Hardee. But the more I dug into them, the more I would be driven to say to myself, “Wait a minute. Is there anything intrinsically higher, or more meaningful, in the Virginia county than in the Florida one?”
That would raise the question of what I meant by intrinsic goods, and when I answered that I meant features promoting a healthy, meaningful, creative, and personally empowered life, I would have to end up recognizing that I couldn’t be sure. I could say that so far as secondary affairs were concerned, I would have to set Albemarle above Hardee. But I wouldn’t be able to say anything about primary affairs. And then I would remember an embroidered primer which hung on a wall in my grandparents’ home in Armuchee, Georgia, which proclaimed, “Business is business but les affairs is les affairs.”
Class analysis is a sticky proposition but I doubt it can tell us much about the genuine business of life.
It bemuses me to reflect that my home now is about equally distant -- in class standing -- from Albemarle County and Hardee County. Would I move my home now out of Montpelier, Vermont in order to live in one of the grand houses a few miles from the University of Virginia? It may sound insane for me to say this, but taking everything into account, I doubt that I would. Maybe I’m just making a virtue of necessity, but I think Montpelier suits me better, in terms of what I need to bring those intrinsic goods into my life. The snobbery of Albermarle, which is muted by gracious manners but nonetheless real, would grate on me. And the quality of mind there, I suspect, couldn’t do for me what Montpelier’s does.
So I’ll keep on getting my alumni magazine, let it spark intriguing fantasies for a quarter-hour, and then return to my genuine life. I also get an alumni magazine from Georgia Tech, but that’s a whole other story.
June 25, 2015
It’s great fun to ridicule Donald Trump and his presidential candidacy, because, you know, he’s a clown, an absurdity, a dope, an idiot, and so forth. Besides, he has silly-looking hair. All these assessments are true, but there’s another truth about Trump that doesn’t get proclaimed so often. He’s also the quintessential American. No other political candidate resembles the average man on the street as closely as Trump does. When he announces that he’s successful because he’s rich, and has built a lot of garish buildings with his name plastered on them, the average American agrees. That’s success. How else could one possibly identify it?
The Donald is the American Dream. When he proclaims that he’ll deliver the American Dream to everyone, the masses chant, “Yes! Yes! Let’s have it!” That’s what they want. They want to have the kind of things Donald Trump has; they want to live the kind of life Donald Trump lives. After all, he can always get a pretty girl, anytime he wants one.
When Trump issues his callowly simplistic solutions to foreign policy issues the average guy finds them appealing because that’s just what he would do. You don’t have to think about all that stuff. You just go in there and take care of it. And if anybody disagrees you stick a rifle in his face and offer him the choices of getting in line or getting his head blown off. And you don’t particularly care which he chooses. That’s what a real man does; none of this pantywaist nuance for him.
I don’t think Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination. I doubt he can stick with the campaign process long enough to make it through the first primaries. But he does have something going for him which might allow him to make a splash. And that is the biggest and most widely believed falsehood of American history, i.e. America is the land of good people and bad, corrupt, politicians (how it got to be that sort of place nobody bothers to explain).
Residing perpetually in the sinkhole of the American psyche is the notion that if we could get political leaders just like “us,” then everything would be okay. We’d know how to take care of things. Why make them more complex than they are? It’s the same notion that holds that Bill O’Reilly would be a grand chief executive (I’ve had more than one person tell me that). The notion could work to paint Trump as a regular guy. After all, he clearly not a politician. So might he be what we need?
It doesn’t occur to the guys sorting out the nation’s problems in the local bar that we do have politicians just like us, and that’s the source of our difficulty. Most members of the U.S. Congress think exactly like most insurance salesmen think, or most car dealers, or most Walmart executives, or most cops. The members of our legislature are almost perfectly representative. They can be bought just as the average citizen could be bought. They know no more than the citizens. They don’t care whether climate change is a problem because they can’t imagine the process of how climate change might be occurring. They don’t have time to think about stuff like that. They’re too busy getting money together just like the average member of the electorate is. Both politicians and people are all very busy.
Are there exceptions to this portrait -- in both groups -- Congressmen and guys hanging out at the golf course? Yes. But what percentage do the exceptions constitute of the total? Nobody can answer that question precisely, but we know the practical answer: not enough to make much difference.
So, then, the question becomes: What can we do, at the moment, to chart a more intelligent and healthy political future? The answer is pretty clear: not much. The American ship of state is on the course the people have put it on, and it’s not going to change course unless the people become different from what they are now. The people may change, slowly, incrementally, aided mainly by death. It could be that a half-century from now, the American populace will be capable of making more sensible decisions than they’re capable of making in 2015 or 2016. We can hope that will be the case, and I think it’s a good thing to try help develop such a capability. But it’s naïve to expect that it could become dramatically stronger in the next decade. We have a lot of stupidity and ignorance to live through.
That dismal thought brings us back to Donald Trump. Is he as ridiculous a presidential candidate as we have supposed? I can’t be sure but my inclination would be to answer, no. When you think of the array of announced Republican candidates, you have to conclude that Trump wouldn’t be any worse than at least two-thirds of them. The bitter truth is, I’m not sure he would be worse than any of the others. They’re all clowns of sort, and if we had a completely obvious clown it might activate the exceptional America, the alternative America, the minority America, to greater efforts. Maybe Trump couldn’t get away with as much nonsense as Jeb Bush would.
I’m willing to relax and let Donald Trump do his damnedest. Even if he won, it might awake the people to a more conscious perception of who we are. His success could set off the inception of thought in the United States, and were that happen, the Donald could go down in history as the man who turned us around.
Okay. I can’t really feel calm about risking it. Still, what can I do to bring it to a halt?
June 26, 2015
“Presentism” is the projection of standards and attitudes from one period onto the people of another, and then holding those people responsible for failing to live up to those standards. I regard it as a habit of severe intellectual delinquency.
Whenever there’s a moralistic spasm in society, presentism is likely to rear its head. And we’ve clearly been in such a spasm lately. Nine people were murdered in a church in Charleston, and as far as I can tell from the media, the majority of people who are upset about this are more concerned with the motives of the murderer than they are with the sadness of the loss of life.
Nine people who might have been getting up in the morning, enjoying a cup of coffee, chatting with their loved ones, going out and feeling the sun on their faces, are not doing those things because their lives were stolen from them. That’s what murder does; it steals lives. To my mind that’s why we should detest it. It’s certainly why I detest it. Whenever a murder occurs, it’s the loss of life that affects my thinking, far more than what was going on in the mind of the killer. No murderer, regardless of what he or she was thinking, can be justified in doing what was done. And the consequences of the act are the same, regardless of the motive. A life was stolen. It’s not up to me to make judgments about the value of the life that was stolen. It was precious to the person who possessed it; it comprised all he or she had.
When a jealous husband kills his wife, it’s just as horrible as when a deluded ideologue shoots someone he regards as a member of a hostile group. And you know why? Because someone is dead; a life is gone; happy afternoons have been erased; kisses have been missed; useful thoughts that might have arisen are now going to lie dormant.
I’m not so naïve as not to recognize that some murders are going to draw more publicity than others. That’s the way the media work. They will concentrate on the killings that afford them the most attention. But just because newspapers and TV networks are out for ratings shouldn’t canker our thoughts about violent occurrences. Does it make sense to allow a rather venial response to an event distort our thinking about it? Or does it justify half-baked historical analysis?
The murders in Charleston have brought forth a flood of Civil War analysis from people who know virtually nothing about the Civil War. A good many of them seem to have discovered who, among the people who lived through the cataclysm of 1861-65, are responsible for murders which happened this month. They are busy pronouncing about who should have been hanged in 1865. How such God-like powers have been visited on these newly minted historical geniuses is hard for me to understand.
I once spent more than a decade of my life trying virtually every day to sort out and understand how the Civil War came about, and how it was resolved. And though I read many books, and looked through piles of archival papers, and actually did learn quite a bit, I was never able to convince myself that I comprehended the how, or the why, of it. The more I learned, the more confusing the whole business became, which seems to me to be a common experience for people who actually try to dig into something complex. One thing I did conclude with a fair degree of confidence was that I was never going to enter fully into the minds of those who passionately threw themselves into a conflict that had a good chance to take their lives away, and did take away the lives of thousands of them. In my presentist arrogance, I would occasionally say to myself that the whole damned thing was crazy. And I guess it was from a certain perspective. But that wasn’t a perspective available to most of the men and women who suffered through those awful years.
Another thing I learned that there was no single motive operating in the minds of either side. You could almost say there were as many motives at work as there were people fighting, and if that’s an exaggeration, it still remains true that if you were able to transport yourself back to 1862, or 1863, and interview the soldiers of The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia about why they were fighting, you would get a vastly more tangled range of reasons than anything you ever hear from our current journalistic historians. People love to delude themselves that they know more about causation than they do.
As for those who have been castigating Ulysses Grant for failing to arrest and hang Robert E. Lee, they are pure intellectual twits. We can at least be grateful that Grant had a mind far superior to theirs.
Most of the people who lived in the United States in the 1860s were racially prejudiced. They had heard little to cause them to be otherwise. Trying to dump current bigotry back on their heads makes no sense at all. Yes, the past does influence the present. But the present has an opportunity to take hold of itself and do what it thinks is right. And the people alive right now in the United States have had ample opportunity to examine the fatuity of racial prejudice and drive it out of their minds. That they haven’t is scarcely the fault of people who have been dead for a hundred and fifty years. If we’re going to wallow in moral judgment, then, at least, we could turn that judgment on ourselves where it might have a chance to make a difference.
June 27, 2015
Louie Gohmert has warned that the United States is in imminent danger because of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. That’s because God has removed his protective hand from the nation and so we will shortly be affected by both internal and external forces (when you get right down to it, you realize that’s about all there are).
The genius of crazy people is that they can always offer an alternative cause for anything -- God putting something into effect because somebody sinned being the ultimate. I’ve tended to talk up open discourse as a healthy way to approach social problems, but when you have pronouncements like Gohmert’s to deal with you have to face the truth that discourse is simply not going to cut it. When Louie’s off in one corner of a room proclaiming that God’s going to do such and such because you did something that neither the deity nor Louie like, it’s hard to know exactly how to respond. If you laughed, which would likely be your first inclination, you would open yourself to the charge of failing to respect Louie, and not being willing to compromise, and not agreeing to move towards the center, and all sorts of other unreasonable behavior. So what are you going to do?
You can sit down, hold your head in your hands, and recall that Louie is a member of the Congress of the United States. That means that thousands of American citizens had to vote to put him into that position. He’s an important person, after all. But having recollected the facts, what then?
A truth which exists only within the confines of American political speechifying is that the American people are reasonable and intelligent. If you don’t say that, you can’t get elected. But if you’re not trying to get elected, might you dare to wonder a bit about the intellectual prowess of Americans? Might you suspect that people who want Louie Gohmert to be their Congressman are possessed of less than first-rate minds? Scandalous as it is, that thought, I admit, has entered my mind. In fact, it has taken up permanent residence there.
Once you surmise that the American people are not mentally capable of setting the direction for a vast nation -- or at least not setting it in a direction that leads anywhere but to disaster -- almost immediately two questions come to mind. Might the people gain the needed capability? If they can’t, what other system might be put in place of democratic control?
I can answer one of those questions pretty confidently, but the other leaves me in a quandary.
No, it’s not credible to think that the people of the United States, generally, can grow into the task of directing the nation sensibly. They don’t know enough to recognize the problems affecting the state and they won’t learn enough because they have no aptitude for learning. Whether the latter is mainly because they have been brainwashed by the monied interests or because there’s something deposited by history into the national character which is averse to facing complicated issues, I can’t say. But the ability isn’t there and I don’t think it can get there in the next half-century.
Possible substitutes for genuine democracy are almost impossible to assess. The most likely -- because it’s already partially in place -- is outright oligarchy. If we keep going in that direction it’s fairly clear where we’ll end up: guarded compounds for the super-rich, and almost everybody else living in slovenly conditions. There could be small pockets where people managed to create livable communities but they wouldn’t be strong enough to have much effect on the whole nation and their economic stability would always be tenuous. Beyond that, who knows? I suppose a Chinese-style ruling elite could emerge, but that seems unlikely, given what it would have to grow from. There are not many governing mechanisms which can work in the modern world, particularly since the reduction of natural resources and climate changes will almost certainly become more intense.
It’s not easy to imagine promising developments for the future. The best I can think up is more hard-hitting advocacy phalanxes, such as the ones which drove the Supreme Court decisions of the past week. I’m glad for the latter’s victories but I can’t see groups of that kind as guarantees of a healthy future. Increasingly divorced from the general population they would be likely to drift towards fanaticism. A more probable development is the increase of Louie-Gohmert-like public officials. They would be material for comedy over a decade, or so. But when they became the norm, they wouldn’t be funny anymore. Think of having to genuflect to somebody like Louie. Would life be worth living if that became your situation?
I don’t want to be seen as trying to predict the future. Nobody can do that because nobody can know what new forces might arrive on the scene. But thinking of things that might happen because they already have some wind in their sails could help us avert the worst of them. When I’m being child-like I can still hope for a commonwealth of republican (not Republican) virtue that really functions as a commonwealth. That was once a part of the American dream, though by now it has pretty well faded into the lust for material acquisition. If you happen to think of some way it might be resuscitated, don’t tell Louie about it. He won’t be on your side.
June 28, 2015
There are coincidences which I can explain to myself fairly well, but, then, there are some that come across to me as downright mysterious. I confronted one of the latter in the middle of last night -- about 4:00A.M..
I had been thinking of an essay which will be more difficult than most because it’s bound to be misunderstood. The misunderstanding will put me, to some degree, at odds with people whom I admire and respect, people whose ideas I have tried to support. For that reason, until last night, I had pretty much decided to forget about laying out the ideas I’d planned to present. “Keep your head down,” was the message my practical self began to deliver. But then I had a middle of the night experience which reminded me that practical selves are often less than faithful to full selves.
The response to the murders in Charleston has troubled me. I have no disagreement with those who say they were terrible. I suspect I feel the misery of them as much as anyone who was not directly affected. But the wave of moralism they released isn’t a phenomenon I can celebrate. Moralism consists of judging persons who are deemed to have committed immoral acts, a judgment that is complete, and total, devoid of nuance, sweeping all other considerations out of the way. My reading of history tells me that moralism often becomes more vicious than the acts it is supposedly condemning.
A common reaction to Dylann Roof has been not only that his total humanity has to be condemned but that anything he ever touched or admired must be expunged from public existence. Streets named after persons admired by their communities must be renamed. Monuments to persons similarly admired must be destroyed. Banners followed fervently by tens of thousands must be banned by law from any public display. Written history, produced by careful and arduous scholarly labor, must be swept aside in favor of simplistic interpretations that can be ingested whole hog in two minutes. I’m not saying that a majority of Americans are pushing this wave. I am saying it has gained enough force to cause people to be fearful of saying, even, “Wait a minute. Let’s take a second look at some of this.” I don’t think such fearfulness is healthy for any society.
As for the most rancorous feature of the recent discourse, the Confederate Flag (or what’s taken now to have been the Confederate Flag), I agree that it would be best to take it away from public buildings. Though it does not represent, solely, what the moralists say it does, it has been adopted over the past century or so by hordes of very ignorant and very hateful people. We can’t ignore that more recent history or the emotional effect it has had on those who suffered from it. Their feelings deserve to be taken into account. I’m not big on flags of any sort; they strike me as instruments best left to the past. But I do think that the states whose flags still incorporate elements of the 19th century flag should remove them in the interest of lessening hatred.
Now, what was this strange experience last night? I waked up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I decided to read a bit. As I was glancing through my bookcase, I saw a collection of essays by Milan Kundera titled Testaments Betrayed and was reminded that I had been reading it last January when I came away from Florida. I had intended to take it with me. But I forgot. And since I got back in May, I hadn’t recalled it. But there it was. I opened it to my bookmark and discovered that the essay I was just starting to read addressed exactly the subject I’ve been thinking about for the past week, i.e., the workings of moralism. It is called “Paths in the Fog,” and includes a discussion of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial. Those of you who have read it will recall it’s about a defendant named, simply, “K,” who is charged with a crime that was never really defined.
Kundera says that certain works of literature supply us with “concept words,” that is, words which forever shape and color our response thereafter to their referents. The two concept words that The Trial bequeathed to us were “tribunal” and “trial.” The latter of these suggests that “the spirit of the trial is the reduction of everything to morality; it is absolute nihilism in regard to craft, art, works.” In other words, when we put something on trial we take away any consideration of it other than whether it’s good or evil. Nothing else about it matters -- in any respect.
As Kundera says later, “A trial is initiated not to render justice but to annihilate the defendant.”
The “tribunal” is that which is charged with sufficient power to carry out the annihilation; there’s nothing else about it we need to know. One can scarcely read these words without thinking about the tribunal of public opinion. When it dons its moralistic mantle, it sets out to function simply as the force of annihilation. That’s what enables it, usually, to render its judgment in a two-word sentence, repeated over and over -- “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” We heard it being chanted with respect to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and we’ll doubtless hear it with respect to Dylann Roof.
Kundera puts it this way: “But the conformism of public opinion is a force that sets itself up as a tribunal and the tribunal is not there to waste time over ideas, it is there to conduct the investigations for trials.” What it manages, almost always, is to transform itself into a monster and the supposed previous monsters into victims.
Maybe I’m a weirdo, but I can’t applaud the fervor of public opinion as a tribunal, not even when it is, ostensibly, on the same side as I have been. Public opinion has to have a place in the workings of society; its voice needs to be heard. But if it comes to annihilating something, public opinion is not the tribunal we should be using. We say, of course, that our judicial system provides us our tribunals, and that they work independent of public outcry. But do they? I don’t think so. Not when a national moralism has been aroused. Public opinion is crude, even when its on the supposed right side. And crudeness is always too vicious to do any genuine good.
I am left with only two statements and one question.
Moralism scares the hell out of me.
Hate the sin but not the sinner.
How did I happen to stumble on that particular argument of Milan Kundera, right when I needed it to bolster my courage?
©John R. Turner
All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont