Collected Thoughts

November 2015
November 9, 2015

There are periods when I’m pushed away from writing because public affairs, and particularly political life, seem so stupid there’s nothing to say about them except that they’re idiotic. And simply to repeat that things are idiotic isn’t an enthralling activity. In other words, there are times when silence seems to be the only option.

I’ve been in one of those moods lately. Still, to write down one’s thoughts in order to see what they are is for many people, including me, an essential of mental health.

The recent paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case about increased mortality rates among white, middle-aged people has drawn considerable attention, and extensive speculation about the cause of it. A consensus seems to have risen that it comes from a malaise of spirit. This particular slice of the population finds little to be hopeful about and so it devolves into life-destroying habits -- drug and alcohol addiction, poor diet, lack of exercise, and discouraging rates of suicide.

Since I’m a member of that demographic I suppose I have as much right as anyone else to wonder about the causes. My best guess about the leading cause is anger. These people are more angry than other types, and I have no doubt that incessant anger is very bad for one’s health.

So why are they so angry? A leading reason is that they have been enrolled as shock troops for the wealthy, to storm and destroy efforts towards social reform that would result in the rich having a smaller slice of the economic pie. A truth we should all remember is that a strong majority of people who are rich got that way by caring more about piling up money than about anything else. Consequently, they can never get enough. Even when it’s pointed out to them that if they take away everything from the lower 90%, the economy will be destroyed, they don’t care. They want more, and no other good, regardless of how basic it might be, can ever compete with raking more loot into their enormous piles. Doing this is what they call freedom.

Obviously, there are not enough of them to rule the political process directly. They have to bring masses under their control who will vote as they wish. And the tactic they have devised is to propagandize poor and generally ill-educated white people into thinking a liberal establishment is out to take away their rights. And what is the principal right white people think they have? It is their God-given authority to lord it over people with darker complexions. The fear that this authority is slipping away from them drives them into convulsions of rage. This authority has been, since the dawn of the republic, a fundamental element of the American sensibility.

Some people speak of an alliance between the wealthy and the mass of white people, but that’s a false term for what binds them together. It’s not an alliance; it’s the consequence of a money-driven propaganda campaign. The white people are ready to be angry about the loss of their principal “right” and the rich people are skillful in doctoring up evidence to help justify that anger. Remember the Willie Horton campaign. That didn’t come from a man of modest means.

There’s nothing I’ve said here that’s original. My guess is that you’ve heard it many times before. My reason for repeating it is that I don’t think it can be said too often and that it’s probably more personal for me than it is for many of the people you’re likely to read. This most heavily propagandized, most thoroughly manipulated, portion of the population are the people I come from. And despite their seeming willingness -- even eagerness -- to be duped, I love them just as much as I ever did. They are, on an individual, personal, level, as kind, and helpful people as you can find. But they’re not good at recognizing what’s driving public policy. More than anything else, they need to join the other kind, helpful people of America in bringing forth a decent, fair-minded society. They need to join a real alliance rather than a phony one.

The forces holding them back make me almost as angry as they are -- maybe because I’m one of them -- but not for the same reasons they are, and I hope not in the same health-depleting way.

•  •  •

As a footnote to the remarks above, I want to mention Diane Ravitch’s essay published this morning in Salon, titled “Our New Orwellian Double-speak: Right Wing Ideologues and Compliant Media Screw Our Kids.” She’s pointing to the same sort of campaign I am, in this case the drive to cripple the public schools in order to make money from the public funds set aside for the education of American children.

Here are just few of the things about the so-called reform movement in education led by the wealthy that make Ravitch angry:

  • “Reform” means privatization.

  • “Reform” means assaults on the teaching profession.

  • “Reform” means eliminating teachers’ unions, which fight for better salaries and working conditions.

  • “Reform” means boasting about test scores by schools that have carefully excluded the students who might get low scores.

  • “Reform” means using test scores to evaluate teachers even though this practice has negative effects on teacher morale and fails to identify better or worse teachers.

  • “Reform” means stripping teachers of due process rights or any other job security.

  • “Reform” means that schools should operate for-profit and that private corporations should be encouraged to profit from school spending.

I’m glad to see Ravitch denounce not only right wing demagogues but also the compliant media. These are the same groups who are also impeding less-than-wealthy white people in comprehending who is really out to keep them in abject conditions, who is actually holding them under the thumb of the wealthy.

There is nothing we need in America more than widespread recognition of who is doing what to whom.

November 10, 2015

We are now in an era of really probing political questions. Perhaps the deepest going the rounds now is whether, if one could return to the days when Adolph Hitler was an infant, the time traveler should kill the baby Hitler. Jeb Bush was asked this question recently and replied immediately that of course he would.

We have numerous reasons why Jeb Bush should never become president of the United States, but this one rises above the rest. If a man at his age has not learned to refuse to answer stupid hypothetical questions he has a mind so monumentally weak it’s not even up to functioning as president.

I’ve fended off quite a few foolish hypothetical questions from friends over my life, but I don’t think any of them has ever thought I would fall for anything as idiotic as this one. Whenever queries of this sort involve time travel you can know you’re being invited into a swamp where no one should ever set foot.

The best part of Hillary Clinton’s interview with Rachel Maddow a few days ago was when Ms. Clinton refused to answer Rachel’s humorous question about which of the Republican candidates she would choose if she had to have one of them as her running mate. It’s encouraging to know she has sufficient intelligence to recognize that any answer to that question would be disastrous.

•  •  •

Among many of my friends there’s a strong belief that the world is doomed. They don’t expect the earth to actually become a dead planet but they are convinced that human life on earth, as we have known it for the past several centuries, is not sustainable and that shortly crises of pollution, water shortage, and natural resource depletion will set off cataclysmic changes that will destroy a goodly percentage of the human population. Society everywhere will descend into chaos.

They are certainly not fanatics to think this. Evidence of approaching dire conditions are around us everywhere. But what does surprise me about some of them is an all or nothing mindset. Either a dramatic transformation has to take place -- one that’s close to impossible considering the general ignorance of most people -- or else the cataclysm will inundate us. They have little interest in ameliorative measures.

When I point out, for example, that if everyone would start driving cars that can go forty-six miles on a gallon of gas, they respond that such a change would put off the disaster only for a couple decades. And if I answer that twenty years is a long enough period to develop helpful processes that might bring us closer to sustainable life, they simply dismiss it as band-aid talk.

I’ve gradually come to see that this is a peculiarly American way of thinking. Either we’ve got to make everything perfect or there’s no sense in doing anything. You might say Americans suffer from perfectionism more than anything else. They are trapped in the notion that if things can’t be perfect there’s no gain to be had by choosing among various degrees of imperfection. They have been propagandized so long by the message that the United States is the perfect nation that the concept has transmogrified in their minds to the idea that they have to have perfect lives or else life is scarcely worth living. They remind one of the child screaming, “I want all the toys and if I can’t have them all I don’t want any of them.”

Quite a few Americans forget that since we can’t predict, with any likelihood, a future paradise, neither can we predict an inevitable descent into perdition. It seems to me that both may be possible but neither is assured, or even probable.

Life for almost every human is a series of ups and downs. And if we can add one up and delete one down, then those are worthy results, despite their inability to supply complete salvation. The latter we can never have, but a livable existence, we might.

•  •  •

I just listened to an hour long interview that Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept did with Charlie Savage of the New York Times about Savage’s new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. The main purpose of the book is to explain why Obama disappointed many of his supporters by appearing to maintain the Bush Administration’s policies with respect to national security operations, surveillance and secrecy.

There are areas where Greenwald and Savage differ about Obama’s relation to the national security agencies, or to the “deep state” as it is now increasingly designated. But their disagreement is not at all angry or disrespectful, and each listened carefully to the other’s explanations. It was the kind of conversation that should mark all of our political debates, but which is almost never heard when politicians or mainstream media figures talk to one another.

The main lesson one learns from listening to them is the complexity and degree of rationalization that characterize government decisions in cases where any choice made has the potential to backfire politically. Politicians are, more than anything else, people who wish to avoid political damage. They want to escape doing anything that will provide their opponents ammunition against them. Savage is a bit more sympathetic to this motive than Greenwald is (and than I am) but he’s also clear about how motives of this sort can lead to bad policy.

An example of the slight, but nonetheless significant, difference between them came out when they discussed the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen killed by the Obama administration in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Savage reported that Obama had wished to kill Awlaki well before he did it, but was held back to some degree because there was no clear evidence Awlaki had participated in actual operations against the United States. He had simply been a propagandist for al-Oaeda, making radio broadcasts critical of the U.S. And this was not a capital offense and may well have been protected by the 1st Amendment.

Finally the U.S. got a prisoner to confess that Awlaki had planned strikes against American airliners, and the government took this as adequate evidence to justify assassination. Whether the confession was truthful or simply an attempt to avoid harsh treatment no one seems to know. Nevertheless it was taken as enough. The implication was that U.S. officials didn’t care whether it was truthful, or not. It gave them cover to do what they already knew they wanted to do. So then, they did it.

Savage seems more respectful of that kind of Jesuitical legalism than Greenwald is, although the Times reporter admits that the Obama administration, by refusing to release the details of the confession, has raised questions about how legitimate it was.

Still, differences of that degree don’t interfere with what the public can learn from a conversation between men like Savage and Greenwald, and it’s considerably more than we can learn from the people who are presumably working to protect our interests. In fact, what I picked up from the conversation is that these matters are so tangled in self-interest, fear, and monumental rationalization it’s almost impossible to know, actually, what the motives of our so-called public servants are.

I’ve grown weary of that, but I don’t guess there’s much I can do about it.

November 14, 2015

I just read an article which says that Leon Panetta, while he was director of the C.I.A., approved a drone strike which he knew would kill innocent civilians, including children. Here’s the reason he gave for deciding to do it: “I felt it was really important in that job to do what I could to protect this country.” What he meant by protecting this country was killing a guy who was thought to have planned and carried out operations against American forces in Afghanistan.

Whether protecting and aiding American soldiers in a far distant country, which the United States had invaded, constitutes “protecting this country” is a question which, I’m pretty sure, would be answered variously depending on to whom the question was put. And if such a person were sentient, he clearly would take into account, when answering, how much hatred the slaughter of children would cause towards the United States. Hatred, after all, quite frequently ends up having consequences. Yet as far as I can tell from reading Panetta’s statements he didn’t think about attempting to hold hatred towards his country at the lowest possible level. In that respect I imagine he was much like all other Directors of the C.I.A. When they’re out to kill somebody they don’t give much thought to how many devoted and lasting enemies of the United States that killing will recruit.

Panetta says he hopes God agreed with his decision. This strand of theology, I confess, is too deep for me.

On the level of simple morality, however, I don’t mind admitting that my and Panetta’s views of things fail to run alongside one another. I wouldn’t kill any innocent people just in order to kill somebody I wanted to kill. That may be because my desire to kill anyone is less avid than Panetta’s appears to be. And that’s also one of the reasons why he became a Director of the C.I.A. whereas I never could (I hasten to emphasize that’s only one of the reasons).

A more important cause of our difference, though, is that I have no way of knowing what my killing of someone would take away from the future. Panetta might say it could take away danger. I don’t think he has any sound way of knowing even that, but when dealing with a man who has already committed many dangerous acts, I’ll give Panetta a slice of plausibility. But in the case of a child? How in holy hell can he know what the consequences of killing that child would be? The simple and obvious answer is that he can’t. So his willingness to do the killing has to flow from a serious paucity of imagination. He has small inclination, or ability, to imagine what that child’s life could have contributed to the future had it not been snuffed out by a U.S. drone. Or, as Panetta put it, had it not become collateral damage (I hesitate to predict the future but I would be willing to bet this term will enter the pages of history as one of the most odious concoctions ever devised by the crooked timber of humanity).

Still we need to recall we don’t hire people to become Directors of the C.I.A. on the basis of their imagination. We hire them, at least in part, to decide whom to kill. This takes the burden off someone else’s shoulders, which is viewed by some as heroic. But then “heroism” is another term that dives too deep into theology for me.

November 15, 2015

The aftermath of the assaults in Paris has reminded me of an emotional habit I have difficulty understanding. When lives are lost to violence, the sadness expressed about them varies with the type of violence that brought them to an end. What appears to affect people most strongly is not the snuffing out of lives. Rather, it’s the agency that took them away, and the methods that agency employed.

Compare, for example, the emotionalism expended over the bombing of the Russian airliner in the Sinai with that rising from the attacks in Paris. It’s a ratio of, at least, of one to ten. About the same number of people were killed in each (actually the Russian plane incident took more). And as far as we can tell both were carried out by the same entity -- the quasi-state in Syria and Iraq called ISIS. Yet the evidence is abundantly clear. We are far more enraged about what happened in Paris than we are about what happened in the skies over the Sinai.

I can see one valid reason for this. More Americans have been to Paris than have been to Russia. And most of us, when we did go to the French capital, had a good time. It’s a beautiful city offering a multitude of delightful experiences. Strolling along the Seine from the Eiffel Tower down to Notre Dame on a bright, breezy afternoon can make one feel that all’s right with the world. It’s reasonable to have a more vivid emotional bond with something we know and have cared about than with something that seems remote. Yet that’s not the only reason the occasion in Paris struck Americans as more horrid than the plane bombing did. It seems to be the case that being gunned down in a theatre is seen as worse than being blown up in an airplane. Why? The result is the same; life is taken away. I have a theory about that which I’ll get to a bit later.

If we compare the explosion of media excitement following the Parisian killings with the notice given to a natural disaster like a hurricane or a tsunami, one that may destroy far more lives than the ISIS gunmen in Paris did, we see even more clearly that loss of life is a secondary concern. Something else is the real trigger for setting off tidal waves of emotion. After all, there is terrible violence occurring somewhere in the world almost every week. In the United States in an average thirty-six hour period as many people are killed by gunshots as were killed in Paris on Friday evening. Yet this ongoing American slaughter has become an almost ho-hum matter to us.

In short, though we like to flatter ourselves with the thought that we’re feeling intense sympathy what we’re actually feeling is something different. I’m not saying there’s no sympathy involved, just that it’s not the main thing. Sympathy isn’t what keeps the TV cameras whirring and the news presses rolling.

No, what actually holds our attention is a desire for revenge. The more intensely we feel that desire, the more sensational the horrid event becomes. When people think of a gunman standing at the rear of a theatre killing members of the audience indiscriminately, their rage towards the gunman and whomever it was backing him up becomes boundless, even stronger than the feeling about a guy who slips a bomb into a cargo compartment. They want, more than anything else, to get back at anyone responsible for that callous act. And in their rage they lose the ability to recall that all war involves indiscriminate killing. The young men who carried at the attacks in Paris saw themselves as soldiers in a war. I think they were terribly misguided but I have little doubt about their own perception. We refuse to grant them their own sense of self by labelling them “terrorists.” And that adds fuel to the desire to kill them immediately or “to bring them to justice” which normally means killing them later.

I have to conclude, sadly, that among most people nowadays lust for revenge is a deeper, more powerful, emotion than sympathy. And as long as that remains true, we’ll be in for more miserable events like the one that, at the moment, continues to dominate our headlines.

November 22, 2015

I have now watched the first several episodes of The Man in the High Castle, and I remain uncertain about its actual character. Is it simply cheap melodrama or is it delivering a message worth our attention? After a couple episodes I was leaning toward the former stance but now, further in, I begin to incline in the opposite direction. The reason for the shift I think is that I can’t get the scenes out of my mind and they have begun to affect my feelings as I go on my daily rounds. And how have they affected them? you might ask. I begin to sense a peculiar agoraphobia. As I walk around a supermarket the thought comes to me, unbidden, that about 90% of my fellow shoppers are potential Nazis. Might that be because 90% of all people everywhere are potential Nazis? Or is it that my emotions are in the grip of a delusion induced by a TV series?

I suppose almost everyone now knows the story is about a fictional America that lost the Second World War, and in 1962 is divided between a Nazi controlled eastern half and a Pacific region ruled by the Japanese, with a decaying neutral area between that incorporates the Rocky Mountains.

The most striking character in the series is -- believe it or not -- “John Smith,” a high-ranking S.S. officer stationed in New York, who is charged with stamping out any resistance that may be growing among the American population. Played with chilling effectiveness by Rufus Sewell, Obergruppenführer Smith conveys the dismal anxiety that would be induced in a fascist America after it had been the grip of a conqueror for seventeen years. Civility a half-inch thick overlaying the most bottomless brutality imaginable leaves the people in perpetual fear and unable to trust anyone.

The most important question about the series is whether it will be able to cause a significant portion of viewers to wonder if that’s what we’re approaching, all on our own. If it can, then it becomes genuine art. If not then it’s probably just one more thriller.

•  •  •

I find that a column by William Astore I came on at the end of last month sticks in my mind more than most short pieces I’ve read recently. It was titled “We Still Think We’re Heroes: The Sad Denialism That Plagues American Foreign Policy.”

It was probably the satiric use of “heroes” that first drew me to it. There have been numerous nauseous instances of catachresis (that is, the drift of meaning) which have marked the first decade and a half of this century, but I think none has been more bilious than what has happened to “hero.” When I hear the word now my invariable impulse is to run away.

Anyway, here are a few of the points Astore made:

  • The U.S.has been in imperial denial since the Spanish American War.

  • As we kill people we tell ourselves that we’re liberating them.

  • American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.

  • Recruitment posters may as well say, “Join the Army, travel to exotic lands, meet interesting people -- and kill them.”

Too harsh? I once would have thought so. But as I’ve traced our national course since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I think so less and less.

•  •  •

A book I intend to read sometime in the next couple months is David Campbell’s Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. It was published in 1998.

The most interesting feature of the book is the idea that in America the national state uses an evangelism of fear to identify a danger/enemy, and presents the state as the only legitimate protection against the threat. In this way the war on terror justifies obedience to the state and constitutes identity by differing the self from the other, or the “us” from the “them.”

When I’ve managed to work my way through it, I’ll let you know more of what I think.

•  •  •

A friend sent me a note about what Jane Austen would have thought about some recent political behavior. I jotted down a response which I somehow neglected to send to him. But since it makes a general point which I think we need to keep more in mind, I’ll share it with you here.

“I regret to have to tell you this, but the reason I respect certain persons from the past has to do with who they were, living in their own time. What they would have thought about situations occurring long after they died cannot be known because such post-death creatures do not exist. There is no such thing as Jane Austen living and commenting in 2015. And since such a concept is nothingness, it lacks the ability to summon an opinion about anything.”

•  •  •

I saw a commercial on TV which informed me that a new drug called “Trulicity” (what kind of minds make up these names?) will activate your “Within” more fully than anything else. I guess it must be true because it was on TV. Still, it raised quite a few questions for me. Exactly what is this “Within” (capitalized, of course) and why does it need to be activated? Might it not be just as well off to relax? It seems to me that people are already so activated they’re in danger of losing their minds. The internal organs of many people I hear about are in a state of frenzy. So why would they take a pill to go even farther in that direction?

I think if I were making drugs I’d come up with one called “Peaceacopia,” and be able to promise that it would have no side effects whatsoever. And if I couldn’t promise that honestly, I’d probably just get out of the drug business. Come to think of it, that might be a healthy course for far more people than simply myself. Their Withins are already so activated we’re going to have a hard time surviving the excitement.

November 27, 2015

I notice the New York Times editorial board is calling for turning the volume down on drug commercials. If I had the reach the Times does, I’d suggest turning it off. The drug ads that besmear the evening news hours is one of the more obnoxious -- and harmful -- aspects of our commercial culture. It functions, primarily as a way to induce fear and thereby make money off of hypochondriacal anxiety. The examples which have irritated me most over the past year are promoting new blood thinners as a substitute for warfarin. The main difference between them and the standard treatment that has worked well for most people for sixty years, or so, is that they cost ten to thirty times as much as warfarin does. You can get a three months supply of warfarin from Walmart for ten dollars, without insurance. Just walk in with your prescription and pay.

Can there be any doubt that the main reason for the introduction of Xarelto, Eliquis, Pradaxa, and Savaysa, is to increase profits for the drug companies? The advertisements concentrate on trivial benefits: that you don’t have to get your blood checked as often, and that diet has a lesser effect than with warfarin. Warfarin’s disadvantage with respect to these differences are, of course, wildly exaggerated. On the other hand, nothing is said about ignorance of long term difficulties associated with the new products. For example, a giant lawsuit has been filed against Xarelto, asserting that the drug can cause serious internal bleeding which can’t be stopped by any current treatment.

The ubiquitous phrase, “Ask your doctor if this or that is right for you,” will go down in history as, primarily, an enormous financial scam. The sooner we can escape its toxic, noxious, results the better off we’ll be.

•  •  •

Sheriff Mike Jolley of Harris Country, Georgia has put up a sign outside his office which warns people that his county is politically incorrect, and that if they are offended by sayings such as “Merry Christmas,” and “God Bless America,” they should leave. I don’t know why Sheriff Jolley thinks that “Merry Christmas” is politically incorrect, unless he’s been swigging down too much Bill O’Reilly juice. But if there should be someone who was offended by the saying (actually I’ve never heard of anyone who is) I don’t know why he or she should be admonished by the sheriff to get out of the county. Sheriff Jolley went on Fox and Friends to explain that he’s not so naive as to think he has the authority actually to order anyone out of the county, and he doesn’t think anyone else is either. He’s just expressing an opinion, not issuing an edict. So why should anyone object to his sign?

The sheriff’s claim of not being naive is challenged by his supposed belief that a sign posted on the official county billboard, telling people that if they don’t think like he does they should leave, is not threatening. He, after all, is the guy with the guns and legal power that can kill people.

I don’t suppose we need to get seriously upset by Sheriff Jolley’s folly. He’s just one more simple-minded cop without the imagination to grasp the ominous thrust of his sign. He sees himself as a good guy and thinks everyone else should too. Yet the truth is his sign is one more drop in a fascist stream, and though a single drop seems nothing, millions of them together can swell to a torrent. Somebody should try to get that through to him, but no one at Fox News is likely to make the effort.

•  •  •

There is one productive feature of the Donald Trump campaign. It shows lucidly where the Republican Party has been headed over the past thirty-five years. Given the appeals used by the Republicans to scoop up every ill-informed and bigoted voter the party was destined to push someone like Trump to the head of its pack. Now that he’s there, the supposed rational Republicans (if there are any such creatures) claim to be distressed. Why? He’s everything they have been clamoring for.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo describes the situation succinctly:

There’s nothing new under the sun about Trumpism. It’s just a turbo-charged,
more media savvy version of the resentment politics the GOP has been tapping
for fuel and riding for decades.

Resentment is the default emotion of ignorant people. Whenever it’s pointed out to them that they don’t know what they’re talking about they become infuriated at those who bring facts to their attention, call them snooty elitists, and act as though knowing anything is an insult to moral existence. This process has been going on for a long time now, and the only people who don’t recognize it for what it is are the bigots themselves, the plutocrats who have schemed to use the supposed “hidden majority,” as their shock troops, people who are too distracted to pay any attention to the political health of the nation, and a dominant segment of conventional journalists, particularly those who report the news on TV. The serious question the nation faces now is whether these groups have transmogrified into an actual majority. I doubt they have but they make up a sufficient portion of the population to have become more dangerous than comic, and may now be capable of serious damage. By employing obnoxious brashness, Donald Trump has become their symbol.

Should he become the Republican nominee he will likely suffer a crushing defeat in the general election. That might be enough to awaken Republicans to the stupidity of their tactics over the past three and half decades. But I doubt it. I suspect they have gone too far for reform.

©John R. Turner

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