October 2, 2015
Here’s another compilation of short items from my notebooks. For a while I’m going to make this the form of the items I post here.
- In September 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was changing planes at Kennedy Airport on his way home. He was seized by U.S. authorities, held for two weeks, and then sent to Syria. There he was kept in solitary confinement and tortured regularly for ten months. He was never charged with anything and no evidence was found indicating that he had broken any laws. About the Arar case, Senator Patrick Leahy said: "We knew damn well, if he went to Canada, he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held. He'd be investigated. We also knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured." I wonder how many people besides Senator Leahy and myself remember what he said. The government of the land of the free has never taken any responsibility for what was done to Maher Arar. How many American citizens know this? How many would care if they did?
- History moves in great tides and powerful eddies. Those who choose to swim against the flow should not expect to divert it quickly. They need something other than popular success to keep them going.
- Perhaps I should start keeping a log listing the wrong things I do in a day. So far today there have been three, none of them monstrous. Still, I would rather they hadn’t happened.
- There’s scarcely anything that will turn one into a thorough misanthrope faster than spending time in airport world.
- Every day spent in Bowling Green is a day not spent somewhere else. But then every day spent somewhere else is a day not spent in Bowling Green. Time forces us to make agonizing choices.
- There’s little in the Southern sense of humor which can appreciate Steven Colbert, Jonathan Stewart, or David Letterman. Most Southern humor starts with something like, “You remember the day ole Cletus went down to the creek ....” The laughter starts before we learn anything that happened to Cletus, because the joke is Cletus himself, not the occurrence.
- It’s hard to know what happened in the past, especially because so many people are working fervently to lie about it.
- According to Rousseau, you don’t have to feel superior to anybody in order to feel worthy. That’s a concept which has a hard time taking hold in America.
- Maybe I should write a book titled, Behaving Well in Crappy Times: Possible or Not?
- When I see a politician like Darrell Issa, who I suspect would have his opponents assassinated if he thought he could get away with it, I have trouble feeling any affection or respect for him. The U.S. Congress is liberally sprinkled with such men. They were elected by my fellow citizens. So should I feel secure in this wondrous country of ours? Scarcely.
- There’s an AARP commercial -- really a United Healthcare Insurance Company commercial -- showing jolly Mr. Ignoramus driving along with his very savvy wife, who has discovered that there’s such a thing as Medical Supplemental Insurance. He, of course, has never heard of it. The contemptuous way many commercials treat potential customers is astounding.
- There are numbers of potentially worthy concepts which have been cheapened into farce by vulgar societies. In the United States the most prominent of these is “freedom.”
- Bring your life into accord with yourself. That’s not an altogether easy prescription.
- The theory that America is essentially an asshole nation seems -- especially with the Trump candidacy -- to be growing ever stronger. Aaron James may turn out to be a contemporary prophet.
- I am happy to see that the Washington Post has launched an attack on Bernie Sanders, and that Robert Reich has called the charges bunk. It tells me that Bernie’s on the right track. The Post was once a creditable newspaper, but over the past couple decades, it has gone the way of so many who enjoy the reputation of caring about the general population but are actually denizens of Wall Street. Hillary Clinton needs to cut herself loose from such people if she expects to generate enthusiasm for her campaign. It may actually be true that money is the root of all evil.
- I saw Rick Warren’s What On Earth Am I Here For on the “Must Reads in Paperback” table at a Barnes and Noble. I wasn’t persuaded that I have to read it, especially after I discovered a form for a “Forty Day Covenant” printed in the first pages.
- As one begins to suspect that humanity may be insignificant, he can also grasp his own lack of importance, or at least that’s how it seems to me today.
- You don’t have to like people in order to want them to be free of suffering. This is a truth Americans are having a hard time learning.
- That which used to be a “speed bump” has now become a “traffic calmer.” I wonder what the linguistic significance of the change is.
- Frithjof Bergmann in On Being Free argues that freedom is a goal worth pursuing but it is not necessarily the chief goal to take into account. There are other standards that have to be considered -- morality and pragmatism, for example. He consistently points out that freedom is an elusive and sometimes treacherous notion. This is based on his belief that it’s possible for some authentic selves to be unhealthy. I’m not sure about a definition of authenticity that comports with unhealthy action. But I could be wrong.
- I see that Bo Brooks, Republican representative from Alabama, thinks that Mr. Obama deserves to be impeached for granting asylum to Syrian refugees. This is an interesting Constitutional interpretation. But, then, we need to keep in mind that Representative Brooks probably thinks Obama deserves to be impeached for existing.
October 5, 2015
David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of Media Lens, a website devoted to pointing out the weaknesses of the mainstream media. According to Edwards and Cromwell, journalists in the mainstream media present an “official” version of events as Truth. The testimony of critical observers and participants, “especially those on the receiving end of Western firepower are routinely marginalized, ignored and even ridiculed.” Mainstream journalists gradually absorb an unquestioning corporate mindset as their careers progress, becoming unwilling to question their occupations or government claims. They don’t consciously lie. But they routinely put out twisted versions of what’s happening. As Edwards and Cromwell observe, “We all have a tendency to believe what best suits our purpose; highly paid, highly privileged editors and journalists are no exception. As a result, Western governments have got away with following “a historical pattern of deception,” going back several centuries. Thus “the corporate media are the source of some of the greatest, most lethal illusions of our age.” If you read the mainstream media critically, it’s impossible to miss the slant. But the problem is, very few people do read critically.
• • •
A friend and I have had repeated discussions about “evil.” When, in the past, he asked if I believed in evil, and I answered, “No,” I see that I wasn’t being clear enough to convey to him what I meant. He does believe in evil, and in order to sustain that belief he has to rely on a, perhaps, unconscious authority that can say, definitively, whether evil exists or not. I have no sense of such an authority, and no evidence for it. Consequently, I have no way of knowing what substance the word is supposed to convey. What I was really saying to him when he asked about evil is that I don’t think there’s any way of knowing what the word indicates, other than that it’s a way to denigrate somebody or some group. After all, what is any large group, such as a nation, saying when it designates another group as being evil? It’s simply a claim of the right to inflict major damage, and to soothe one’s own conscience for the killing of huge numbers of people. It’s a word that is not only empty of actual meaning but functions as an excuse for doing terrible things. Wars get launched because national leaders declare some other nation to be evil. And you’ll notice that when that claim is made, there’s no accompanying definition of what the evil nation is. What’s being talked about? All the people who live there? A few power mongers? A set of attitudes? A national personality? Use of the term allows the setting aside of all those distinctions. Once the label of evil has been applied, the right of massive destruction is gained. A word that means nothing and that works simply to permit terrible acts doesn’t strike me as being worth anything. There are plenty of ways to express opposition without such a blanket condemnation, ways that serve to limit the nature of violent response.
• • •
Andrew Roberts, a British historian, is in a bit of a hubbub right now because he was chosen by the New York Times to review the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger. The criticism has been, not only that Roberts is a fairly close friend of Ferguson’s, but also that Roberts was the first person chosen by Kissinger to write his authorized biography (an “authorized biography,” by the way, may well be a contradiction in terms, that is if “biography” is taken to mean a vigorously honest account of someone’s life). A friend wrote to dismiss the criticism, saying that Roberts’s review is “a reasonably sound review of one distinguished historian by another.” Yet it’s not hard to imagine why a goodly number of readers would reject that judgment when they came across this passage: the book “certainly gives the reader enough evidence to conclude that Henry Kissinger is one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic, someone who has been repulsively traduced over several decades and who deserved to have a defense of this comprehensiveness published years ago.” Kissinger, one of the greatest Americans in the history of the republic? Maybe, but only from a point of view that conflicts strongly with that most historians. I don’t suppose we can know for sure whether historical judgment can be completely divorced from judgment about contemporary affairs, but if there is some overlap one can find reasons to question Roberts’s standing as a distinguished historian. He continues to argue, for example, that the U. S. invasion of Iraq was a grand venture and that history will eventually come to regard George W. Bush as one of the great presidents because of it. My purpose here is not so much to question Roberts’s stature as a historian as it is to point out that however skilled one might be, his conclusions will be influenced by his own characteristics as much as by his research. Historical information is virtually limitless, affording one the opportunity to find in the past whatever he wishes to find. There is no right or wrong in historical writing. There are certain ethics about the use of data, but even scrupulous attention to them leaves one with the option of discovering what he wishes to discover. We need to free ourselves from the notion of some big measuring stick in the sky which can inform us about what was more or less important. There is no such thing. All we have is our own judgment, and it rides upon what we think counts most. Some scholars, for example, think the strength of empire is more significant than the well-being of less-than-famous people going about their everyday lives. That’s not my perspective, but I’m not calling on any transcendent truth or power to back me up. It’s just that I care more about ordinary lives than I do about empire. So my perspective is that Henry Kissinger spent more lives than anybody has a right to spend. Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts can think what they wish.
October 8, 2015
It’s curious how the American establishment has come to denigrate the term “socialist.” After all, socialism is simply the belief that society should be structured so as to assist and support all its members. Why is that bad? Well, the capitalists say, it’s against human nature. The latter, of course, is a term that’s brought into play to justify harsh treatment of some group or another. It’s certainly not a scientific concept. If we consider, for example, Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, and Pope Francis, what definition of “human nature” do we draw from them collectively? Our language is littered with terms like “human nature” which pretend to designate something that’s established within reality -- “reality,” by the way, is another such term -- when in truth it’s a linguistic tool designed for the purpose of oppression. There’s a grand book to be written distinguishing the words constructed to convey meaning from those used primarily to manipulate. The capitalists, I suppose, would use such a treatise to support the notion that propaganda is an element of human nature, and since it is, we might as well use it for our own benefit. We see that philosophy at work every night in TV commercials. But the capitalists are naïve about the working of time. It has more surprises in store for us than they can begin to imagine.
• • •
Mr. Obama and his team have now negotiated a Trans-Pacific Trade Accord which he will support by arguing that it’s good for us. But the chances are that he will not put much effort into explaining who the “us” are. A complicated agreement like this cannot be good for everybody. That’s not how such things work. They make some people richer and they make some people poorer. And if one were to be rational about whether to support it, he would need to know who falls into each group. Our political discourse is not adept in making such things clear. That’s because many -- and perhaps most -- who join in the debate are not interested in clarity. Politics is many things but it is not a school for clarity. At the moment, I tend to be skeptical about the move. And I admit that I am because the people I most respect are definitely against it, Bernie Sanders chief among them. That’s not a conclusive reason for me to be oppose it but is a justification for me for me to be suspicious, and to demand better arguments in favor of it than politicians usually supply. I wish we would all make that demand but I fear that’s not how American “democracy” works at the moment.
• • •
It appears ever clearer that U.S. policy in Syria is a shambles. We are at war with ISIS which is trying to bring down Bashar Assad, just as we are. Assad is, in turn, trying to destroy ISIS. Do we want him to succeed, or not? American strategy is supposedly based on support for one of the Syrian groups in revolt against Assad, whom we call the moderate revolutionaries. And how do we know they’re moderate? Because at the moment they have a deal with the CIA to supply them arms. We are charging Vladimir Putin with inflaming the situation because Russian warplanes are dropping bombs on ISIS, but also on the revolutionary groups that are closest to Damascus, among them the buddies of the CIA. It’s not clear whether America’s main objection to Putin is that he’s bombing the wrong people (from our point of view) or because he’s committing the effrontery of pretending to be a major player. For Russia even to have a foreign policy strikes many in Washington as an abomination. Every time John McCain appears on TV (which seems to be at least every hour) he’s on the verge of exploding about it. The entirety of Republican policy is that bad people everywhere, both inside and outside the United States, must be stopped (unless they happen to be the bad people who are our friends). A little over a week ago Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, spoke at the U.N., where he put two questions to the United States about Syria: “Why are you there? Who gave you the right to be there?” So far the U.S. has not answered. It’s not hard to see why. The truth would be embarrassing and a lie would run the risk of unravelling almost as soon as it was uttered.
• • •
Stanley Hoffman, political scholar and professor emeritus at Harvard, died last month. He was reputed to be one of finest teachers of his generation. Four years ago he was interviewed by Michal Matlak, who has recently published the transcript of the session. It includes the following comment, which is not only interesting in itself but also sets one to thinking about distinctions among various forms of approval:
Although I knew Kennedy a little, I did not like him, for purely personal reasons. He was very much an opportunist, very intelligent. I knew all three of the Kennedys. The youngest one, Teddy, who died about three years ago, was my student. He was not a genius, but he was a good person. He spent much of his time as a member of the Senate helping people get visas to the United States. He saved people. And he never really thought much about himself, because he didn’t think he was quite smart enough to reach the heights. But I liked him. The other two, Bobby and John Kennedy, struck me as hard-nosed, calculating machines.
I’m in agreement with the emotions expressed here. It’s clear to me that if I had ever been in a room with John F. Kennedy I would have come away alienated by a kind arrogance. He believed himself to be more grand than anybody actually is, and though, as Mr. Hoffman said, he was intelligent, I don’t think his intelligence ran very deep. Still, he clearly had talents, and perhaps it was the arrogance that in most instances is obnoxious which allowed him to dismiss the advice of the military loons who attempted to advise him during the Cuban crisis. That dismissal was truly one of the important presidential decisions of American history and, alone, earned Kennedy the right to be remembered as a worthy national leader.
The more history I read, the more I’m reminded that affection for politicians is not the point. What counts is, first, whether they avoid national disasters, and, second, whether they do anything to improve the lives of the citizens. Most fail on both those counts, so when one doesn’t fail, he, or she, deserves our respect, however grudging.
October 11, 2015
I read Alanna Weissman’s essay in Salon titled, “I Hate Your Kids, and I’m Not Sorry.” In it she makes clear that she’s not simply saying that she’s indifferent to children or that she doesn’t wish to have any of her own. No, she thoroughly detests them. The purpose of her piece is to defend her right to feel as she does. She’s correct, of course, to argue that as long as she doesn’t act on her feelings she has the legal right to hold or to express them. But that’s a jejune point. The question her essay raises is not one of legal right but, rather, one of mental health. Can Ms. Weissman argue sensibly that her feelings are healthy? I think not. Whenever a person expresses revulsion for a group of humans, whether it’s based on religion, ethnic background, nationality, age or any other inherent characteristic I can think of, she’s testifying not simply to an opinion or a taste; she’s exhibiting a phobia. Furthermore, it’s not correct to say that such feelings if not acted on do no harm. They hurt -- in many ways -- both the persons at whom they’re directed and those who hold them. The latter need our help in coming to understand the nature of their disorder, and why it’s harmful. I certainly hope that Ms. Weissman is able to get past hers.
• • •
I’m trying to wean myself from the words “right” and “wrong.” I can’t find any way to use them sensibly. The problem is that both terms imply the existence of some overweening, ubiquitous authority which can pronounce indisputably about whether acts, emotions, or ideas should be supported or opposed. I don’t think there is any such authority. The traditional authority was either God or the gods, but belief in such omnipotent deities has faded so markedly they can’t fill the role anymore. Nothing has taken their place. So it seems we have to conclude that there is no such moral authority that can be relied on.
Given this situation, what can we do? I can think of no alternative other than standing on our own feet. But when we do, we have to recognize that we certainly lack the kind of authority the gods, in the past, were presumed to have. We are not gods. Anyone who thinks of himself in that way is delusional. We cannot say, “this is right, that’s wrong.” What one can say, with perfect honesty, is “I like this so I’m going to support it, and I don’t like that, so I’m going to oppose it.”
By revealing ourselves in that way we give other people the opportunity of asking us why and thereby gain the option of answering.
When you adopt this procedure, you’re relying on the likelihood that you will find an overlap with others respecting what you like and dislike. When the overlap is large enough, there can be an orderly set of “Yeses” and Nos” which will produce a functioning society, helpful to all. In those situations where it’s not large enough, a vital social discourse needs to take place. My argument is that such discourses can occur more productively when one is not” trying to tell someone else that he, or she, is “wrong” but simply explaining why what the other person is doing causes you pain and discomfort. Obviously, agreements will come slowly, incrementally. But at least they have a chance, whereas arguing over right and wrong cuts the possibilities way down, and sets off conflicts that can last for generations. There’s certainly greater opportunity for live and let live when no one is being tagged as evil. Even the most intractable conflicts, such as racial antagonism, have a chance to fade to manageable levels. No one should be looking for perfection in social interaction. Simple livability is a worthy goal in itself.
• • •
The State Department has announced that the Pentagon will investigate itself with respect to the attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. There’s no need for anybody else to investigate because we all know that U. S. Military investigations of such things are always thorough and honest. In other words, the announcement of U.S. honesty is made with a lie. We certainly do not all know that military investigations are thorough and honest. What’s interesting to me about this this story is the blatancy with which State Department spokesman Mark Toner asserted the claim of U.S. military purity. What’s going on in his mind -- or the minds of the people who told him to say what he said? Who does either think is going to believe him? He seems to be relying on the subservience of the U.S. media, assuming that they would never seriously examine a claim such as his. That’s been true in the past but I suspect the truth of it is coming to an end. There’s a limit to the falsehood people can swallow, even the establishment minions of the mainstream media. Obviously, I don’t know how this story is going to turn out. But I suspect it’s not going to turn out as the U.S. wants it to. The U.S. military has got away with lots of “accidental” killing, but when it kills European doctors who have volunteered their time to help people in a seemingly perpetual war area, the anger might rise beyond what the State Department P.R. guys can handle.
• • •
The capitalist paradise is a human trash heap. That’s the theory of Slavoj Žižek’s Trouble in Paradise, and I agree with him. I certainly have not analyzed modern capitalism in the detail he has. But I know it nauseates me, and I can’t see how anything that makes me sick at my stomach is going to offer a fulfilling way of life. When I see the über-capitalists parading themselves, in their cars, and their fancy penthouses, and their yachts, I admit that I do a slight bit of analysis and conclude that such modes of living are degrading the planet. Yet I also have to admit that such moral judgments constitute only a small portion of my sense of disgust. The main element is simply pure revulsion. What right do I have to be disgusted by the Jamie Dimon’s of the world? I don’t know that I have any right, any more than I have any right to exist. But I do know that as long as I do exist I will continue to be revolted by them. This is not moralistic; it’s aesthetic. After all, healthy life is as much a matter of taste as it is of morality. I need to explain myself more thoroughly about this, just as I need to think more carefully about it. At this stage I’m just making my testimony. I do it hesitantly, knowing it’s bound to be misunderstood. But the drive to do it I can’t any longer resist.
October 13, 2015
I can’t remember just when I first began to doubt the desirability of fame but I can say that for a long time now that thought has grown stronger, so that now the thought of chasing after fame strikes me as insane. Yet I have to admit it’s an insanity that has afflicted the world for millennia and shows no signs of abating. It may be that it’s more toxic now than it has ever been, though I can’t say that for sure.
What is it about fame that people find so wonderful? Obviously it carries with it a great many hindrances. Often people who are monstrously famous complain that they have completely lost the ability to lead a normal life and that they miss many experiences they once found pleasurable, particularly since their degree of fame ensures that they will never recover any of them. They’re gone, forever. Just think about it. What if you could never walk down the street and actually see what’s going on because you are what’s going on? Would that be a good thing? And if you think it would, why?
The most terrible thing about fame is that it takes who you are -- your very identity -- which ought to be one’s most treasured possession and flings it out to the multitude. You may tell yourself that you still possess it, but if your image is on TV screens every day the media begins to project the reality. Who you think you are fades to insignificance. That doesn’t matter anymore; what matters is what the horde thinks.
It may be that the hidden allure of fame is that excuses one from having a self. They decide, not you. You escape the struggle to shape something distinctive, which I admit is not an easy task. Maybe it requires harder thinking than most people want to take up. Why not just be recognized, gloriously recognized, and let it go at that? There’s something mysterious about the lust for fame, and though I can’t claim to know, certainly, what it is, I think I do know I want no part of it.
• • •
It’s inevitable that as our view of the past changes, the incidents we celebrate will change also. We see that truth validated firmly by the fuss now taking place about Columbus Day. When I was a boy, Christopher Columbus was presented to us in school as the man who “discovered” America. It was viewed as a great thing. Nobody paused to reflect that to attribute discovery to Columbus was a completely one-sided view, the quintessence of us-and-them thinking. That was because the “them” in this case were not considered significant enough to count. Rather, “we” were the ones who counted and Christopher Columbus was one of us.
Why I didn’t see the bias involved remains hard to understand. But that’s what bias is, a kind of blindness. And if you’re blind and don’t know it, you take no actions to compensate. I didn’t know it and neither did anyone else around me. So we went happily along with what we thought we were celebrating. Over the past generation that blindness has been brought more and more to our attention. As it has, the clamor for abolishing Columbus Day grows. We have to recognize the hurtful features of what Columbus did, people say.
I’ve got nothing against acknowledging the hurt, the damage, the cruelty. But I’m also willing to use notable days as more than celebrations (in my view we “celebrate” too damned much already). Why not let Columbus Day become an occasion when we pay extra attention to one of the most eventful occasions in our past, when Europe became practically aware of the existence of the American continents? We could all benefit from thinking about what flowed from that. The issue is not, primarily, whether it was good or bad. We worry too much about the good and bad of history and far too little about what actually happened, and what we might learn from it. We, after all, are not the judges of the people who came before us in time. Who gave us that right, that power? What we are is the same as what they were, voyagers through time. If we can look at what happened to them, and use it to make our own portion of the voyage less cruel, less vicious, that would benefit us far more than either cheering on or disparaging those whose voyage is over.
• • •
David Brooks has written another paean to what he describes as the “traditional definition” of conservatism. This he contrasts with the behavior of current people who describe themselves as conservatives. These latter day people don’t come out very well. Brooks’s brand of analysis sounds gratifying until you reflect that his “conservatism” may never have existed as a genuine political force anywhere in the world and has certainly not existed in the United States over the past century. Yes, there once was an Edmund Burke, and Burke wrote some fine essays on the sensibility of his view of conservatism as compared with the upheavals in Europe which were described as revolutionary. I would recommend them to anyone. But we also would do well to remember that Burke died in 1797. His prescriptions have nothing to do with “conservatives” as they are currently designated in the New York Times.
Our “conservatism” indicates people who, mainly, want to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor, and in a somewhat lesser degree, those who want to impose their religious views on the whole nation and who see pale skin as a mark of virtue. They are furious because there are people who don’t agree with them and their common refrain is that such disagreeable people are not “real” Americans. Conservatives are also big on declaiming about what’s real and what’s not really real, this without having to bother with a definition of “reality.”
When people appear who don’t fit the conservative mold they are said to be undermining America’s status as the greatest nation ever (“great” being another word conservatives don’t find it necessary to define).
The attempt to suggest some affinity between Edmund Burke and Rush Limbaugh by hopping frantically among various definitions of “conservatism” is both intellectually fatuous and politically destructive. I wish Brooks -- and everybody else -- would give it up. But I recognize that’s not likely to happen because when there is no core of thought that can stand genuine inspection, pretending to have one remains more advantageous than admitting that you don’t give a damn about logic or consistency.
October 15, 2015
The principal effect of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas was to set a contrast with the Republican Party. When the Republicans debate, they come off as a clown show. When the Democrats debate we see less-than-perfect people who are nevertheless trying to think.
No prominent journalist I’ve read so far has noted that the tone of the debate was set by the Sanders campaign. We saw a Hillary Clinton we have not seen before, one seemingly no longer in the grip of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Why not? What happened? Bernie Sanders happened. And we have to give Hillary credit that she took note. Whether that’s just a campaign move or something sincere remains to be seen. I’d like to think it’s sincere. But Hillary heretofore has been such a creature of opportunism, we can’t yet say. She claims that she’s capable of learning and I hope that’s true.
She remains the person most likely to be the next president of the United States. I would like to see Sanders win. But I also know that as soon as he took office the establishment -- and particularly the military industrial establishment -- would begin a campaign to grind him up. I doubt that any single person, no matter how strong, can fully counter the efforts of thousands of government operatives to undermine him. When a country is sick, the germs are not just a handful of ruthless guys at the top. The infection spreads everywhere, and recovering from it takes a long time.
If there is at least a partial recovery in the next couple decades, it will be due more to Bernie Sanders than it will to Hillary Clinton. But she will get the credit. Bestowing credit erroneously is a primary function of the leading American media. But missing out on the credit will not hurt Bernie as much as it would most politicians. He actually does care more about the health of the nation than he does about reputation.
• • •
I happened last night on an Israeli film, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. It tells the story of a woman who has, for years, been seeking a divorce but can’t get one because in Israel divorces can be granted only by rabbinic courts, and they won’t agree to one unless the husband gives his permission. It’s hard to imagine a more tyrannical system, and yet, according to the film, there it is, operating in a modern developed nation.
The movie is extremely stark, seeming to be almost a documentary. It takes place entirely in a drab little court room, and in an equally drab waiting room outside. It’s likely that an average viewer, on first encountering it, would feel it was too boring to be watched. But I suspect that anyone who stayed with it for five minutes would become mesmerized. I know I did.
The arrogance of the three rabbinic judges is astounding. It seems never to occur to them that they have any responsibility to take human suffering into account. They are the agents of God, and, therefore, not to be challenged in any way.
The film would be gripping if it were entirely fictional and had no relation to an actual system. But from what I’ve been able to read, the legal practices that the movie depicts really are in force in Israel. How can this be? There have, of course, been many films depicting the insanity of religion but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one that lays out pure craziness as powerfully as this one does. It’s the viewer’s knowledge that this is not some retrieval from the ancient past but an example of something that could be occurring right now which gives the story its power, along with the tremendous talent of the lead actress, Ronit Elkabetz.
It’s a riveting story and one I hope gets more viewers than is likely in our jazzed-up Hollywood-controlled film world.
• • •
I generally find Roger Cohen to be one of the Times’s brighter columnists, but he has a weak spot in the brain when it comes to Russia. He’s so mired in Cold War sensibilities he can’t perceive the world as it exists now. His essay this morning is an example.
He chides President Obama for going too far with his resolution not to do stupid stuff. And why? Because things are blowing up in the Middle East and Russia is getting involved there. Why, exactly, is it so horrible for Russia to get involved in a region where we have been involved for decades and have generally fouled up everything we’ve touched? And why does it constitute a world crisis for Russia to refuse to overthrow a government that we want to overthrow (for reasons that nobody in Washington seems able, convincingly, to explain)? Does that actually mean that Russia becomes a threat to us? And if so, what kind of a threat?
Almost everyone outside the Middle East sees ISIS as a monstrous movement, bent only on death and destruction. Maybe there’s a case to be made for ISIS, but if so, I haven’t seen it. Vladimir Putin says he wants to eliminate ISIS as a political force, and certainly as one holding nation-sized territories. He has suggested that Russia and the United States collaborate in that effort. But the U.S. government finds that proposal ridiculous. It’s doubtless true that Putin has motives the U.S. doesn’t want to aid, but why must that be a reason for refusing to think about how Russia might be an ally in getting rid of ISIS? Cohen offers no answer. He seems to assume that Russia, being Russia, is by definition evil. But whose definition is he talking about?
Cohen wants some greater intervention by the U.S., particularly with respect to anything involving Russia, but he declines to say what it should be. An abstract call for intervention with no particular intervention in mind is worthless. It seems to me U.S. diplomacy would do better to ask itself, seriously, whether we’re worried more about a Russian threat or about Russia’s getting some credit that we want. Those are two different things, which at the moment Cohen seems to view as identical.
October 18, 2015
A friend and I have been discussing whether Bernie Sanders is wise to mention Denmark as a country the United States could learn from. He says Bernie is not helping himself that way, primarily because Denmark is a small, homogeneous country and Americans will take it as absurd that anything could be learned from such an inconsequential place. He may be right when it comes to what, in the United States, is called practical politics. Still, Sanders’s argument that helping the American electorate understand things differently is required for significant improvement is also a position that’s well worth considering. Last night on Real Time, in an interview with Sanders, Bill Maher took more or less the line that my friend has been taking. But Bernie would have none of it. He said, in effect, that unless voters who understand how they have been propagandized by false notions can be added to the electorate, nothing can change for the better, regardless of who wins. In other words, Sanders sees himself as much an educator as he does as an ambitious politician focused solely on gaining office. This may be viewed as naïve, but even the main media outlets are coming to recognize that Sanders is having a larger influence on the race than they thought possible. Where the contest will go from now no one can say. Hillary Clinton has the advantage, but if people expect Bernie Sanders just to go away, they’re expecting something that’s not going to happen.
• • •
The ads run by oil companies extolling the ever-expanding use of energy as the essence of the American spirit are both self-serving (as you would expect from an ad) and destructive of the future. They are also reflective of the Republican attitude that we should use everything we can at the moment and leave it to the people of the future figure to out how to accommodate the wastage of the present. Chevron has a commercial in this vein running right now. It presses the point that using vast amounts of energy is “what doers do” and America always has been, and presumably must always be, a nation of doers. The character of what they do doesn’t seem to matter much so long as they keep on doing.
People who are willing to damage the well-being of coming generations in order to gratify frivolous desires for immoderate luxuries impress me as constituting a serious problem, particularly now when the human population of the earth is spinning past numbers that would have been considered fantastic just a few generations ago. We have reached the point when commentators who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of declining natural resources deserve not only to be refuted but also to be seen as recklessly irresponsible. This refusal is the main reason why the Republican Party can no longer be viewed as partners in functional debate. They have been transformed into vandals who live for destroying anything they can’t rake into their personal coffers. Behaving that way is their definition of freedom, which is the reason that once-honorable term has become meaningless in working toward a livable future.
• • •
Since I touched on a comparison of Denmark and the United States a while ago, I thought I would add one more note of comparison here. I don’t know what it means, but I’m pretty sure it means something, and if we could decipher it, we might open avenues for helping our own country become more healthy.
In the United States, 69% of the people say they believe in the Devil, whereas in Denmark only 10% do. One might ask what people mean by the Devil, and I can’t say I know for sure. But the common explanation is that the Devil is a supernatural creature who is the progenitor of all evil in world -- and maybe in the universe. Exactly how far the Devil’s reach extends doesn’t seem to be an issue of debate for most people. In any case, if you believe in the Devil, you have to believe in a supernatural entity or force of some sort.
As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings. So those who believe in them have to ground their belief in something other than evidence. Exactly what this foundation might be is hard to say. The most frequent answer is faith. But that just pushes the explanation back to another abstraction. It’s just as hard to say what faith is as it it to say what a supernatural being is.
I’ve had quite a few people try to explain to me what the Devil is and how they know that he (or it) exists. I admit, I haven’t been able to grasp what they’re talking about. I don’t know whether that’s my fault or theirs. Still, one thing we can agree on is that if the Devil exists he’s bound to have some people as his servants. After all, what kind of devil would he be if he couldn’t gather up at least a few recruits?
From a practical, or a political, point of view, the main influence belief in the Devil would induce would be a corresponding belief in devilish people. The problem with having to deal with devilish people is that there can never be any response to them other than dedicated, determined, hostility. You can’t make deals with them, of course, because they’re little devils themselves. There would be no need to struggle to perceive the world from their perspective because you know what it is already. All they care about is causing evil. Diplomacy is out the window when it comes to interactions with servants of the Devil.
A world in which all humans are flawed, confused people trying to find a way to meaning and happiness is very different from a world in which some people are servants of God and some are servants of the Evil One. The latter is a world where there will be constant warfare and anxiety, until God decides to bring it to an end, through some apocalypse or another.
It’s not the sort of world I cherish, so I wish we had fewer people who think the Devil is always lurking out there, trying to carry out his schemes. Since more than two/thirds of Americans think the Devil is real, it’s not surprising that’s our national vision of what’s in store for us. Hatred always; peace never. Can you begin to see why international polls always set the United States as the main threat to peace, whereas Denmark is never close to the top?
You could say, I guess, that the Devil caused the Danes not to believe in him so as, through contrast, to heighten that belief in the most powerful, heavily armed nation. If that’s his game plan, we have to say it’s working pretty well.
October 27, 2015
If I were asked if there were any Republican presidential candidate I would prefer to see get the GOP nomination over Donald Trump I would have to say no. And that’s not just because I think Trump would be the easiest candidate for the Democratic nominee to defeat. If it came down to the horrible situation where one of the current Republican presidential candidates would become president, I’d pick Trump over any of the others. Am I insane? you ask. I hope not. My reason is that though Trump blathers incessantly about what he would do, he doesn’t actually have a program for doing anything. If he got into the Oval Office he would have to decide what he was going to try to do on the spur of the moment, and he wouldn’t, in any way, be constrained by what he said he was going to do during the campaign. Consistency means nothing to Donald Trump. Another reason I’d rather have Trump is that both the Congress and the permanent bureaucracy would try to undercut almost everything he did. He would have very little support within the government. And if we should get a Republican president, the best outcome we could hope for is that he would be severely hamstrung. When it’s a choice between doing harmful, crazy things and doing nothing, it’s obvious which we should choose. Would it be good for the country if Trump became president? No. Would it be worse for the country if any of the other Republicans became president? Yes.
Sometimes all we can do is pick the least harmful result. We’re in this situation now because one of our two major parties has become deranged. In a two-party system it’s desirable that an intelligent voter could choose between a party he could support 35% o the time and one he could support 65% of the time. Then he would be a member of the party he thought was right on about two/thirds of the issues but he could have some respect for the opposing party. But that’s not the situation in which we find ourselves. At the moment we have a party an intelligent voter can support, maybe, 50%, of the time, and another party which he can support never. What that tells us is that the party reasonable persons can never support needs to be either transformed or dissolved. Up until recently I would have been for transformation but I’ve gradually been forced to move over to the dissolution side. A party which pushes the goals of no one other than the greedy and the mean-spirited is not really an entity that offers much chance of reform. That it now can’t offer anyone better than Donald Trump as its presidential candidate demonstrates how true that is.
• • •
It’s difficult not to grow weary over the incessant demands that Republicans not be seen as enemies, that bipartisanship is the way to go, that people must be willing to reach across the aisle, and on, and on, and on.
After the recent hearing, conducted by the House Benghazi Committee, that weariness approaches a breaking point. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough demonstration of hypocrisy. The Republicans pious reiteration that all they’re trying to do is get to the bottom of what happened is astoundingly silly. It was a take-down-Hillary Committee from the start and that’s what it remains. As the Republicans see that they’re not going to succeed, they get evermore rabid. I actually thought late in the hearing that Jim Jordan of Ohio was going to start frothing at the mouth. He consistently misquoted Ms. Clinton, and just as soon as she corrected him, he would misquote her again.
It’s indeed unfortunate that we now have an entire political party who refuse to engage in honest debate. But there’s no sense in deluding ourselves about the reality of our political breakdown. It has occurred, and it’s not going to be repaired overnight. Consequently, for the moment, there’s little sense in expecting reasonable compromises with Republicans. Reason is not a virtue they practice or recognize.
• • •
I was glad to see the editorial board of the New York Times chide FBI director James Comey for the remarks he has been making about increased scrutiny of police behavior. He has been going around the country saying that the increase in violent crime is probably the result of police officers feeling that they’ll get in trouble if they enforce the law. That’s pure nonsense. He has no evidence for what he’s charging. Crime rates from year to year go up and down for all sorts of reasons. Police aggressiveness, or lack of aggressiveness, may be one of those reasons but there are many other possible causes, including harsher poverty in many urban areas contrasting with virtually insane displays of luxury by the richest fringe of American society.
To suggest, as Comey is doing, that police can’t protect the public against crime unless they are unleashed from regulations designed to stop police abuse of the general population is saying, in effect, that the only livable society we can have in the United States is a police state. It’s nothing less than one of the top cops proclaiming, “Give us all the power and everything will be okay.” That has been the position of virtually every dictator of history.
We all ought to acknowledge that police officers in certain urban settings have to confront difficult situations, including rude and unruly people. When the police do it well they deserve our respect and praise. But when they resort to the same brand of thuggery they are supposed to be repressing, then they need to be reined in.
There’s nothing wrong with people using photographs to show how police behave. If they’re behaving as they should, they have nothing to fear from pictures of what they’re doing. But you would have to be naïve in the extreme not to recognize that there has been a culture in some police departments which promotes bullying behavior. And that needs to stop, whether James Comey likes it or not.
©John R. Turner
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