Collected Thoughts

December 2015
December 1, 2015

At a debate concerning the problems of over-population held at St. Pancras Church in London, in 2010, Anglican clergyman Jeremy Craddick made a point that needs to be regularly recognized and more frequently applied. Here’s what he said: “If the issues in the population debate are connected to the very survival of our species and culture then the notion that different views are just people’s opinion is frankly ridiculous.”

The principle that everybody has a right to his own opinion is a cramped argumentative device frequently used to justify absurd and vicious propositions. One can always concoct a tangled debate about what “right” means, and whence it comes. But if we use it, as most people do, to denote actions and attitudes which no one should ever be denied, then the precept that there is a universal right to opinion, no matter what it might be, is idiotic. What about, for example, when someone has the opinion that members of certain ethnic or religious groups should be eliminated from the earth? Does that opinion constitute a right?

It’s true that we can’t eliminate opinions, regardless of what they might be. And attempts to police them using the power of the state have generally turned out to do more harm than good. It’s sensible and practical to say that any opinion should be legal in the sense that holding it does not break the law. Yet that’s a very different thing from saying that any opinion is a right.

In the United States, the Republicans generally opine that destructive climate change caused by human agency is not occurring. The argument underlying the statement is that their opinion about the matter is a right no one should deny. But that’s just the same as saying that nobody should criticize someone else for lying. GOP politicians demand the right to lie without anyone daring to say that they are wrong by claiming that their opinions are sacrosanct. Nobody should fall for that nonsense.

We need to work towards an argumentative climate in which some assertions called opinions are seen as no more than an expression of desire -- like chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream -- and other assertions are recognized as lies, nastiness, bigotry and greediness. Then the shield of “it’s just my opinion to which I have a right” can be shoved aside to get at what’s actually being said.

The right to an opinion depends on the nature of the opinion, and digging into that nature is a right no one should ever surrender.

•  •  •

In his column this morning, David Brooks adopted a rhetorical device we’re seeing more and more often lately, and that I think should be squashed. I’m speaking of the claim to channel some admired figure from the past. In Brooks’s case it’s Alexander Hamilton, who, through the medium of David Brooks, is telling us -- on November 30, 2015 -- what we should be thinking about climate change in 2015.

You’ll recall that Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr more than two hundred years ago, when the earth’s population had not yet reached one billion persons. I don’t think there is evidence that he ever concentrated his mind on the problems of over-population or of climate change caused by humans. “Yes,” advocates of channeling will acknowledge, “but we can take the statements of historical heroes and apply them to the problems of today.”

These twenty-first century sophists don’t want you think about the distinction between learning from admirable people long dead and applying what they said directly to problems they never thought of.

I know it’s often tiresome to state the obvious but in this case it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves that we don’t have an idea in hell what Alexander Hamilton would have said about the pollution problems of an earth that had more than seven times as many people as it did when he was alive. That’s because we don’t know what he would have learned in the two centuries after his death (had he not died) nor what interpretation he would have given to that learning. We do know he was a bright man and might well have come up with thoughts we wouldn’t expect from stances he took when he was thinking about radically different situations.

A friend reminded me recently that it’s almost uncanny the way people from the past, when channeled by persons in the present, find themselves mimicking almost perfectly the notions held by those who have swished them forward into the present. It causes one to wonder how that happened.

David Brooks is becoming ever more addicted to cheap rhetorical devices. It’s a common affliction among those whose minds have become really tired. I can’t think of anyone whom I have watched over a quarter of a century who shows the depletions of mental exhaustion more vividly than Brooks does. It’s hard to imagine anyone who needs more desperately to climb out of a rut and find himself on fresh ground.

December 2, 2015

After reading the headlines in newspapers and leading websites one can easily conclude that the world has gone mad. But then there’s a need to step back and ask whether it has always been mad and we’re just now getting around to recognizing it. I don’t know which is true.

I am convinced that the gigantic population of the world strengthens the sense that societies spread around the globe have become wildly unstable and are marked by an increased proportion of people who damage social health rather than enhancing it. One of our problems is that we have no accepted term for such people. In our loose talk we call them idiots or social idiots, and I suppose in America we can call them Republicans. But none of those designations is useful for thoughtful analysis of our difficulties. We need a word to indicate people who are politically harmful because of some combination of pathetic ignorance, reckless indifference, and hateful and bigoted attitudes.  One might call them social parasites but I doubt that’s term that could stick.

Anyway, such people exist as societal deficits and collectively they drag us away from a nurturing common life. The question I’m playing with in this comment is how large a portion of the general population they can make up before turning the whole society toxic.

I’ve generally thought that we reach a turning point at 30%. It’s a rough estimate, I’ll admit, but it’s probably not far from accuracy. In the United States, I suspect we have generally hovered around 25%, but in 1980, marked by the election of Ronald Reagan, the social deficit took a sharp turn upwards, and now has climbed above the 30% red line. A five to seven percent shift in a country like the United States can make a tremendous difference. It gives the deficits the power of paralysis and cripples the ability to respond intelligently to changing conditions. We’ve been in that paralysis for thirty-five years and are beginning to suffer seriously from it.

Is it possible to create a counter-shift of ten percent, or so? No one can say for sure. But it’s always good to know the dimensions of the problem you’re facing. And our problem is finding, or more likely creating, twenty million additional intelligent voters. It’s a big task but it shouldn’t be impossible.

How do we do it? Again, I’m uncertain. But I’m pretty sure we don’t do it in one big way but in hundreds of small ways. And if hundreds of small ways are to be activated, it’s going to take hundreds of thousands of people working at them.

When we make our small efforts, like introducing a fact into a fact-free conversation, or pointing out the likely consequences of an irrational policy, it’s easy to feel useless. What does one little thing like that matter? By itself, it doesn’t matter at all. But what if it were multiplied millions of times over? Then it might.

So I’m always hoping that more of us will become disciples of the small, positive, social act. It won’t hurt us personally -- at least not much. And it might help the world considerably.

•  •  •

I watched the final two episodes of the Amazon production, The Man in the High Castle, last night. It’s difficult to comment on it because the features which make it gripping are quite different from the characteristics that normally attract attention in rating a TV series. It raises a set of questions that almost never make it into normal melodrama. Yet before I say anything else, I’ll start with my response that it’s the most intellectually challenging television drama I’ve seen. I can’t think of anything else that caught me up as intensely.

I’ve seen criticism that the acting of the main characters is drab. That’s true in a way. But it doesn’t matter. The situations they find themselves in are what counts. As long as the acting is competent -- which it is here -- the moral dilemmas the characters face become so absorbing that sparkling personality or emotional expression is irrelevant.

The hero of the series is also its primary villain. No punches are pulled about how bad he is but, in the end, we find ourselves so tightly on his side that when he wins out -- after a fashion -- we feel a surge of uplift, which throughout most of the episodes has been very hard to come by. How can it be that a thorough villain is also a hero? That’s the question the series pushes at us so subtly we find ourselves in a kind of trap. We don’t want to be on the side of certain characters, and yet we are. How come?

The question becomes even more puzzling when, at the very end, we find ourselves on the side of the aging Hitler -- in 1962 he would have been 73 years old -- as his knowledge and steadiness thwart a plot to replace him with someone who would have been even worse (is that possible?), the still alive, in this alternative history, Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler in actual history did describe as “the man with the iron heart.”

If I had to formulate the question the series will not let us turn away from, as simply as possible, I would put it this way: “Is courageous, unbreakable loyalty a virtue regardless of what it is serving?”

We don’t really have a way of answering. If it were put in the abstract terms I use above, most of us would say, “Of course not!” What The Man in the High Castle shows us is that our emotions would not agree, at least not all the time.

That, to me, is a lesson worth learning.

December 4, 2015

I just read Chris Weizenbach’s essay in Counterpunch about the TV version of The Man in the High Castle, which he thinks is a travesty. He leaves no doubt that the television show does not much resemble Phillip K. Dick’s novel. And he has every right to prefer the novel to the filmed version. What he leaves us wondering is whether the producers of popular entertainment have a responsibility to be faithful to the tone and spirit of literary works which have suggested plots the television people are using.

Weizenbach clearly thinks they do. For the most part I disagree.

I think they do have a responsibility to be honest, and to acknowledge they have altered the story so extensively it shouldn’t be viewed as a retelling of the novel. But once they have done that, I see them as having the right to go ahead and construct whatever plot they think will draw an audience. This is no more than to say that literature and film are separate arts, and that what may be essential in one can be dismissed in the other. There are more ways than one to tell a story.

When the separation has been acknowledged as obvious, readers, viewers and critics can proceed to judge whatever particular work they’re discussing according to their own standards and tastes. Each should stand alone as an artistic effort.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out differences, or expressing a preference for one form over another. Yet just because something is different from the earlier work which suggested it doesn’t automatically make the later effort disgusting. It may well be quite good for what it is.

I, for example, think that literature can reach beyond what film can achieve. I know that’s a controversial point and that many intelligent people not only disagree but can offer interesting arguments in opposition. I’m glad to see them do it, and paying attention to their perceptions has been useful to me. Still, I haven’t given up my basic position. That core belief causes me to think that no film treatment can match the power of a fine novel, no matter how hard the producers try to be faithful to the book. Consequently, it would be ridiculous for me to rail against a movie made from Pride and Prejudice because it didn’t come up to Jane Austen’s telling of the story.

In the case of The Man in the High Castle, I think the Amazon series was quite good television, despite the ill-explained elements it contained. It wasn’t perfectly coherent, I’ll admit, but that’s a minor flaw which doesn’t take away from its power to set the mind to wondering. Any time a TV show can do that, I give it a pretty good grade, regardless of its less than worshipful attitude toward the writer who brought the idea to mind.

•  •  •

After the shootings in San Bernardino there has been much talk about guns. I suppose one might say that’s to be expected, but it’s also a reminder that guns appear to be a topic of obsessive interest in the United States. A goodly portion of the population seem to have a passionate relation with them.

Michele Fiore, a Republican assemblywoman in Nevada, has sent out a Christmas card which depicts most of the members of her family carrying guns. I try to project my imagination into the mind of someone who would do that, but when I try, I fail. I can understand having a quasi-loving relationship with a favorite pen, or a certain jacket, or even a dependable coffee machine. But a gun?

I had a gun, once. It wasn’t my choice; the Army made me do it. I spent quite a bit of time fiddling with it; the Army made me do that too. I shot it at stuff the Army made me shoot it at. I even got a sharpshooter badge for hitting those things fairly frequently. I never wore the badge on my uniform, even though that was required too. The Army was absent-minded about enforcing some requirements. My point in saying all this is that though I was with my rifle quite often, and even slept with it in miserably cold holes the Army made me dig in the ground, I never felt any affection for it. It was just a pain in the neck to me -- literally at times, but always figuratively. When the Army let me go, it kept my rifle, which made me glad because I certainly didn’t want to take it with me (to be meticulously accurate, the Army affixed several rifles to me over the course of my so-called service, but I felt the same way about all of them).

Nothing in my personal experience helps me understand a love for guns. When I try to understand those who do love them, my thoughts run like this: Guns are made for only one purpose -- to assist people in killing. I don’t want to kill anything. In fact, the idea of killing gives me the creeps. That surely must have something to do with my deficiency in fondness for guns.

Is it reasonable to turn that thought around and conclude that people who like guns have a more positive attitude toward killing things than I do? Might it be that they dream about killing other persons -- whom, of course, they call bad -- and see themselves as heroic for doing it? Could the whole gun mania be about a vision of heroism? It seems that many people who are drawn to guns also have an affinity for weapons that will fire a lot of bullets quickly. These people are not satisfied with guns that require squeezing the trigger each time you shoot. They want to pull the trigger once and send thirty or more bullets winging towards targets within a few seconds. What sort of fantasy is associated with that desire?

I’m pretty sure the psychology of gun loving is more complex, and perhaps far darker, than is usually discussed by journalists. We’re not likely to solve the gun problem many people are sure we have, until we dig quite a bit deeper into that psyche.

December 6, 2015

Reading Paul Rosenberg’s essay this morning about the folly of describing some wars as “good,” I felt a genuine wave of sadness wash over me. It’s a subtle, intelligent piece which makes a point the whole world needs to grasp. Hence the sadness. There is no chance of a significant portion of the world comprehending it, and that’s not just because most people won’t know it exits. The main reason is that they would not, or could not, read it even if it were shoved  in front of their faces.

The human race is marching towards catastrophe because only a minimal portion of it is capable of perceiving reality.

Rosenberg’s thesis is not difficult to understand. He argues that there is an important distinction between seeing war as, sometimes, necessary or inevitable, and calling it good. The latter practice help warmongers dupe people into believing that whatever war they’re pushing at the moment will turn out to be good. If it is recognized that war is always hideous, and almost certainly will have problematic consequences, then people will look more critically at proposals for war and, thereby, avoid the kind of idiot morality the United States stumbled into with its invasions of Vietnam and Iraq.

Most wars do not need to be fought. The consequences of avoiding them are far better than the so-called fruits of victory. They’re particularly better for those whose loved ones would have been slaughtered, or those who would have had their arms or legs blown off, or have had their brains scrambled.

You see? Rosenberg’s argument isn’t hard to comprehend. A person might not agree with it, but surely anyone who’s sane and mentally competent could understand what’s being said.

Yet, here’s the problem: a majority of people, were they somehow forced to read Rosenberg’s essay -- or any of hundreds of others one might recommend -- wouldn’t get it. Why not? That’s the biggest question we face.

It perplexes me. I ask myself over and over again and fail to come up with a sure answer. And I doubt that anyone is answering better than I.

My best guess about people’s incapacity to comprehend reality -- I readily admit it’s simply a guess -- is that comes from two intermingled conditions: poor education and induced, evidence-free, belief. Each more or less insures the other.

In the United States we argue endlessly about schooling but almost never do we seriously discuss education. Nor do we dare to discuss the nature of induced belief systems. I’m not saying, of course, that these topics are not talked about in small groups and specialized conferences. But they aren’t addressed seriously in an on-going, nation-wide forum. I’m pretty sure the people who could push them to the public’s attention -- such as the heads of media conglomerates -- would excuse themselves by saying there’s no audience for them.

Remember when Bernie Sanders was asked what he would have enjoyed doing if he had not gone into politics? He said he would have liked to be the head of CNN. I’m pretty sure the kind of forum I’m talking about -- the kind that might actually bring an essay like Rosenberg’s to public attention -- was what he had in mind. That answer alone, by the way, is a valid reason to vote for Sanders over any other candidate in the presidential race. It bespeaks a depth of understanding about our social and political problems that no other candidate has indicated he, or she, has ever thought about. We have few thoughtful political leaders because most people have never thought about needing them. There’s no demand.

All this is sad. I don’t hesitate to claim that my sadness this morning is justified.

•  •  •

Joshua Farley, who teaches ecological economics at the University of Vermont, has said, “So one absolute thing we have to change is the whole nature of the monetary system.” This is an idea being adopted by more and more people who try to think seriously about the future of humanity. The truth is, it becomes obvious to anyone who is able to free himself of the propagandistic myth which has been drummed into our minds by those who become rich by manipulating currency, i.e., bankers of various sorts.

Most people don’t know what money is. They think they do, of course, and this false certainty is what allows the money managers to run roughshod over them. If you ask the average guy where money comes from, and what it is created for, he doesn’t have an idea in hell. He thinks he “makes” it by doing stuff other people want him to do. But he doesn’t make it; he just gets it given to him by obeying the people who have accumulated great piles of it. And they want to give him as little as possible.

In the modern world there are two feasible creators of money -- governments and banks. And each creates it for a different reason. Banks create it so they can charge people for it by means of what they call “interest.” In other words, in a banking system, the creators use their power to get rich off of you. But what if the creators didn’t change you for it? What if they created it as a tool for social order and simply distributed an equal amount to each person? That’s what governments could, and would, do if they could escape the control of the usury-mad financial marketeers.

There would still be money, and people could use it for their daily affairs just as they do now. But it would be far more widely distributed than it is now. People could continue to get more than they got from the government, by taking jobs, or inventing things, or offering services. But everybody would have a human right to live decently. Nobody would be faced with homelessness or starvation. Nobody would be denied education or medical care. 

There’s nothing impossible about this. It could be put in place overnight if people could recognize its possibility. But there’s the rub; people can’t recognize it now because their brains are in thrall to the usurers. The masses have been trained not to think about it.

In the limited space I have here, I’ve been forced to simplify a bit. The transition would be complex. But the idea is fairly simple. Something like this is what Joshua Farley has in mind and has spelled out in his book Ecological Economics, which he wrote with Herman Daly of the University of Maryland.

Get a copy and read it. Who knows, it might set you free.

December 11, 2015

Lately, I flop down in front of my TV in the late afternoon and do my best to get as terrified as Wolf Blitzer wants me to be. But try as I will, I fail abjectly. Even when I’m told that the FBI is searching in a man-made lake (it seems to be extremely important, and somehow ominous, that it’s man-made rather than the natural kind) for something, maybe a computer hard drive, that an actual terrorist could have thrown in there, I feel no shivers running up my spine. In fact, as the expression on Wolf’s face becomes increasingly alarmed, and as his voice approaches a maniacal tone, I find myself feeling pleasantly drowsy and have to steel myself to avoid drifting off completely. The banner at the bottom of the screen screams, “Breaking News!” and Wolf informs me that the FBI may shortly have an announcement, and that they wouldn’t be planning an announcement unless they had found something that I need to know. Even then, I experience no anxiety.

I’ve begun to wonder if there’s a named disorder in the DSM 5 that might tell me what it is I have that causes this distressing -- and perhaps even unpatriotic -- absence of fear. I see numerous notices on the internet which inform me that fearfulness is on the rise in the U.S. and that most people are feeling very afraid. Many of them say they are going to vote for Donald Trump because of the frightfulness of the situation, and that they’re certain he will protect them better than anybody else against the threats that are, obviously, “out there.” I try to imagine the nervous angst driving their emotions and wonder if the government is working on a pill that could do something about it. Yet, right when I’m trying to concentrate my thoughts on these pressing matters, my attention slips to the warm cup of coffee in my lap and the temptation of taking a sip blots out the more momentous issues I should be struggling with.

There’s something even worse: at times, unbidden, a suspicion leaps into my pondering that maybe, just maybe, fear has become the thing to do, the thing to have, the thing that elevates one’s solemnity. I recognize the ignoble character of such a suspicion almost immediately and fling it out of my mind. I know have to settle down with the obvious truth that I’m just weird and that my lack of phobia is bizarre. Even if I switched from coffee to Scotch, I doubt I would be cured.

•  •  •

Conversation with friends has taught me lately that there are three basic stances one can take towards war:

You can simply ignore it as much as possible.

You can get engaged so that the side you would prefer to win, does win.

You can work to avoid it and, perhaps, sometime in the future, help to make it unthinkable.

The first two don’t attract me so I’m left to take up the third, though I wish I didn’t have to think about it at all. As I do think about it, though, I realize that these options define three different sorts of people.

Those who ignore have somehow convinced themselves that whatever society they inhabit, or its common behavior, is actually no concern of theirs. They try to find the best deal for themselves that’s available and forget about the well-being of the general public.

Those who want to win wars have convinced themselves that in mortal struggle there is always a good side and a bad side, and heroic people stand ready to sacrifice themselves to help ensure that the good guys win (those who sacrifice themselves for the bad side are not heroic but simply deluded).

Those who want to avoid have concluded that there’s no winning in war, that anyone who participates in it will be damaged, and that war is a foolish, vicious activity with no benefit or glory to be derived from it.

I have no yardstick that can tell me, for sure, how the American electorate is divided among these positions, but if I had to guess I’d say that 30% fall into the first category, 60% into the second, and 10% into the third (the belief that we are good and they are bad may be the strongest faith there is). If during the rest of my life the third category could advance from 10 to 15%, I would feel very encouraged. It would show that there’s movement, and indicate movement in the right direction that’s likely to continue. It would also testify that our educational efforts have become more potent.

I don’t believe in miracles, but I do hope that there will be some evidence over the next several decades that it’s not idiotic to continue to work for betterment. To slip back into the belief that war is a natural procedure for humanity would be a very discouraging development.

December 13, 2015

Andrew Levine of the Institute for Policy Studies says that under the aegis of Donald Trump stupidity and vileness have fused. This implies that lately the relation of stupidity and vileness has changed. I don’t think that’s right. It seems to me they have always been allies.

A myth Americans love is the story of the innocent dolt who, precisely because of his simple-mindedness, arrives at virtues people of ordinary intelligence never grasp. Two decades ago that notion fueled the film Forrest Gump, which has turned out to be one of the most quoted movies of all time. Perhaps one can say that Gumpism is a sweet idea, but it doesn’t stand up well in the face of reality. If we can distinguish stupidity from pure innocence -- which is possessed only by children or people whose minds never develop beyond the state of childhood -- it becomes clear that stupidity is a reflection of meanness. In fact, it may be that stupidity and a vile attitude are pretty much the same thing.

It has become a journalistic cliché to claim that reprehensible GOP presidential candidates are also quite intelligent, and to emphasize it in the cases of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But that’s simply sloppy diction. “Intelligence” in its fundamental definition is clearly distinct from shrewdness or skill in cheating people -- making good deals as Mr. Trump would put it. The latter ability is what drives people to think it’s clever to ask, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

“Intelligence,” rather, connotes taking in all pertinent factors in a situation and assigning them their proper weight. Its definition, accurately understood, incorporates virtue into it. So to say that Donald Trump, under his public façade, is actually quite intelligent is erroneous. It’s either stupid in itself or an ignorant usage of terms (the latter not an uncommon occurrence in journalism).

Voters can support Trump, or Cruz, if they wish. But if their endorsement flows from a wish to introduce intelligence into the direction of the nation’s affairs, they are duping themselves more thoroughly than the candidates themselves could hope to do.

•  •  •

In The Closing of the American Mind -- that famous book become an even more famous controversy -- Allan Bloom proclaimed that modern students are lost in a no-man’s land between the goodness of knowing and the goodness of culture. He was trying to help them recapture the goodness of both which he said modern notions of education were destroying. Although he honestly pointed out that these are two different kinds of goodness, one of them based on universal principles and the other based on personal experience, he doesn’t offer much guidance as to when the one should prevail and when the other. To be fair, I suppose he can be seen as saying that kind of judgment can emerge only though vigorous dialogue, but he tends to hold out the promise that some “right” answer can be found. But can it? That’s the most serious question bedeviling us now.

Let’s say that someone loves his mother and wishes never to cause her distress, but also sees that she has attitudes he can neither adopt nor tolerate. What does he do? I would answer that he can’t do the same thing all the time. If, at Thanksgiving dinner, with all the family assembled, she makes some nasty political remark, it would in most cases not be sensible to challenge her. But if in another instance she was about to do something based on her prejudices which would clearly hurt someone else, then he might feel driven to behave differently. These kinds of decisions can’t be made abstractly. There are no formulas to resolve them. So what do they require? I think they demand casting oneself into uncertainty with no way to guarantee, in advance, that one is making the “right” decision. One has to act knowing that he might be wrong, that he might be mistaken, that he might not be weighing the consequences accurately.

This is what it means to be human, and trying to escape such inevitable tension is the surest path to inhumanity. Telling yourself that you’re certain about such decisions is a very dangerous business.

Remember E.M. Forster’s famous remark that if he had to choose between betraying his country or betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country? I generally resonate favorably to that opinion, and I suspect I would follow it in most cases. But to say I would always follow it would be looney. It would be to surrender my humanity to a rule book.

I sense that Bloom leaned towards thinking a proper intellectual tradition, along with a careful education in it, would prepare one to achieve something close to certainty in such decisions. And even if he didn’t, I’m pretty sure that a goodly percentage of the people who have made him a philosophic hero, do feel that way. It’s very hard to decide how much responsibility a teacher has for his students’ conclusions. It would be absurd to blame a teacher for everything his students think. But I tend to be reminded of this statement by Bloom about education:

Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might
yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them
autonomously to seek that completion.

I confess I’m not eager to spend much time with people who think they are complete.

December 15, 2015

I discovered an interesting political study this morning. Crowdpac, a data analysis organization, has compiled ratings for all cities in the United States with a population above 6,000 -- there are 4,994 of them -- measuring their political orientation based on the campaign donations of their residents. The measures reported tell whether a city is liberal or conservative and how it ranks compared to all the others.

The results are close to what one would generally think, though there are a few moderate surprises. I checked the figures for twenty-five cities I know something about, either by visiting them frequently or having lived in them. My home town of Montpelier, Vermont is, as most would expect, fairly liberal. It has a liberal rating of 6.3, which makes it the 39th most liberal city, out of the total of 4,994.

Crowdpac confirms something I’ve tried to explain -- with not a lot of success -- to my friends here in Vermont. Although the South is generally conservative, it is not uniformly so. Decatur, Georgia, for example, where I grew up and went to elementary school, has a liberal rating of 3.3, and is the 511th most liberal city in America. That might not seem super liberal, but out of five thousand, it puts Decatur right at the ten percent level of the most liberal American bastions.

Tampa, where I was dragged unwillingly as I moved out of grammar school, is also a bit of a surprise, sporting a rating of 0.0, which puts it in the middle, with 2,986 cities being more conservative than it is.

On the west coast, Los Angeles, as most would suspect, is strongly liberal; its rating is 4.9, making it the 168th most liberal city. But just a bit over a hundred miles to the south, San Diego has a liberal rating of only 0.7, making it the 1,653rd most liberal. That’s a bigger difference than I had anticipated.

Denver, which most think of as a fairly liberal place, has a rating of 3.3, and consequently is not quite as liberal my old Georgia hometown; Decatur edges it out with the 511th liberal standing compared to Denver’s 525.

If you study the Crowdpac listings carefully you see that the U.S, is a more politically variegated place than is commonly thought. Though there certainly are Red State and Blue State regions, many towns in those regions go against the regional leaning. That, for me, is an encouraging sign. We are not destined always to be as stuck as we are now. There is a possibility for change. Since I think we need to change, that opportunity outweighs the threat that we might change for the worse. The latter possibility is hard to imagine.

•  •  •

We seldom see any discussion in the mainstream media about whether Americans are bothered by the mass killings carried out by the American military in other countries. David Swanson in Counterpoint several days ago highlighted this by mentioning Brandon Bryant, an Air Force drone pilot, who received a commendation for having killed 1,626 people. This sort of thing tends to be whitewashed by saying that Brandon was trying to kill bad people, but trying or not, that’s not all that he did. He killed lots of children, and people at weddings, and so forth. What he actually did bothered him so much that he went to a chaplain to ask about it, and, evidently, was assured that mass killing is a part of God’s plan.

What a God! What a chaplain!

My point here is not to castigate Brandon, or his chaplain. They have to be responsible for their own character. I’m asking what citizens, in general, think about this. Do most Americans think it’s all right to kill people who have done nothing against the United States in order to get the chance to kill some people who presumably have? The answer to that question, it seems to me, would tell us a lot about who we actually are.

When I think about 1,626 slaughtered people, that strikes me as quite a lot. Is it okay just to forget about them? Or never to take account of them in the first place? Does the average guy not ask whether that kind of killing might produce far more retaliation than the targeted figure could ever have brought about?

Simply to ignore these questions impresses me as being monumentally stupid. When your tax dollars are being used to blot out lives, and you just don’t care, it’s hard to see how you can avoid being seen by people outside this country as a monster. Even if you care about nothing other than practicality, you need to consider that being viewed as a monster by millions, and maybe billions, of people is likely to have repercussions.

You’re worried about terrorists? Then maybe you should worry a bit about what’s creating them.

Your government is telling you, in effect, just not to think about this. That should cause you to wonder whether the government is killing these hundreds, and thousands, of people strictly to protect you, or if it may have other motives.

December 17, 2015

One of the more telling observations, Allan Bloom makes in The Closing of the American Mind, comes after he has related a classroom experience in which he asked students how it had happened that parents had pretty quickly transitioned from being horrified at the thought of pre-marital sex for their daughters to allowing boyfriends to spend the night with them in their own bedrooms (I suspect that degree of parental laxity remains fairly rare even today but I guess Bloom was exaggerating to make a point). One young lady responded, “Because it’s no big deal.”

She was exactly right, Bloom says, and then adds, “This passionlessness is the most striking effect, or revelation, of the sexual revolution, and it makes the younger generation more or less incomprehensible to older folk.” He probably was exaggerating again to deem modern sex passionless, but he was getting at something that is important. Sex, particularly for the young, has become less monumental than it was before the middle of the 20th century. Something later was lost, and the question to be debated was whether any presumed gains more than made up for it. Bloom clearly doesn’t think they did. And that judgment on his part marks him as a thorough romantic.

The romantic temperament is perhaps the most complex thing there is requiring judgment. It can lead to glorious experiences and to behavior that goes, perhaps, even farther in the opposite direction. How to keep it on the healthy side of thought and action is a problem we’re far from solving, maybe because it’s not soluble.

The idea that we can’t sort things out as to right and wrong is a concept most people reject. Yet it well could be -- if the human race is to persist -- we will have to conclude that our reckoning about right and wrong can never be complete, and our task is to work out how to manage the process rather that setting it in stone. Conservatives love to call that “relativism.” In fact, that’s what Bloom calls it in his famous book. Yet, when you read it carefully you see in the author, himself, the seeds that might sprout into a recognition of our limits. As he tries to be fair to the arguments he wishes to reject, they take on qualities it is very hard to dismiss completely.

“Relevatism” is a puny word for getting at the conditions people attempt to apply it to. That why when I see anyone using it as a derogation, I immediately have doubts about the depth of their intellect.

December 18, 2015

I just caught a glimpse of President Obama dancing with a bunch of little kids, and it came through to me why Republicans hate him so much. Obama is what is now called “cool.” And no Republican, not a single one, is cool. It is impossible for a Republican to be cool. For a Republican to be cool would be like a cat ignoring a mouse that ran right in front of its face.

If you want to identify cool by its total, complete opposite, think of Kentucky’s senior senator. Mitch McConnell is so completely uncool that you might take him as model of perfection.

Here’s how I understand the depths of Republican uncoolness. I am not cool myself, and the idea of being cool never enters my head. Even so, I, in my pathetic deficiency of coolness, am still  cooler than any Republican on the face of the earth. A Republican could go to North Korea and amaze people for being as uncool as he was.

I’m not saying that coolness is the grandest virtue going. I would even entertain the argument that it’s not of much worth at all. Still, some people have it and it generally adds to their attractiveness. When a Republican sees Obama, it’s like sticking a big sign in his face which proclaims, “You are so uncool, you miserable dweeb, you make people want to retch.” They know this, and not only do they know it as a fact of the moment, they know, in addition, that they will never be cool, no matter how long they live. It’s condition completely beyond them. They can’t even reach out towards it. If they should try, it would make them more uncool than they are already.

Considering what the appearance of Obama does to them, it’s understandable why Republicans hate him. They can’t help it. So I think we should stop denigrating them for not being able to overcome an impossibility, and accept their reaction as a law of the universe.

•  •  •

In a world marked by chaos and foolishness it’s easy to forget we have some things to be glad about. Just think how happy we should be that Eric Bolling, the Fox News commentator, does not have much influence in setting U.S. foreign policy.

He says that the answer to difficulties in the Middle East is for the U.S. to carpet bomb Raqqa, the city in northern Syria that is now the main headquarters for the ISIS leadership. And by that Bolling makes it quite clear that he means killing everyone in the city. Recently he announced that if anyone is stupid enough to stay in Raqqa, near ISIS fighters, they become legitimate targets for slaughter.

Raqqa is a city of about 225,000 people, and Bolling wants to kill them all. He doesn’t seem to have given the first thought to what the consequences of such an action would be. The idea of a terrific blowback seems not to have entered his mind. He’s completely convinced that the killing is the thing to do.

You could, of course, write Bolling off as a strong candidate for being crowned the dumbest man on earth. But that wouldn’t change the number of hours he’s on television each week pumping out absurdities to a large audience, most of whose members probably think he’s a pretty smart guy. But here’s another happy thought. Most of the people who see Bolling that way didn’t arrive at their conclusions because of him. They would be just as foolish as they are if he didn’t exist. It’s a mistake to believe that Fox News is the creator of the Yahoo mob in America. It supplies them with talking points, of course, but they actually have come to be as they are through a myriad of influences which are endemic to the country we are, and have been. So asinine as Fox News is, we don’t need to think of it as adding greatly to the problems we face. It’s simply a reflection of them.

I know that’s not a big happiness, but given the way things are now, any happiness we can acquire is a thing to be treasured. And that this one can help us write Eric Bolling off as being more amusing than influential is also a soothing thought.

December 19, 2015

In the comment section after an Aljazeera article about the increased number of beheadings in Saudi Arabia this year, “Don” offered this opinion:

The Saudis know this is the only way to rule the savages. Many Americans wish
they would bring their brand of justice to places like Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago,
Atlanta, Camden, Newark, Baltimore, L.A., etc. The Saudis could clean up the
country in no time. Just roll a few heads at the savages and they will fall in line.

I don’t know how many Don’s “many Americans” are, but I suspect there are more of them than polite conversation usually allows. I suppose much talk like Don’s is merely bluster, and that if anyone actually started carrying out the policies he recommends, many of the many would back off from their bravado. At least I hope that’s the case. But I can’t say I’m sure. Don may well be right that there are lots of people who would like to see more government executions in this country, and would take satisfaction from hearing about them on TV.

We have good reason to ask who actually is a savage in today’s world.

When we consider our government’s continual praise of Saudi Arabia, which is a leader in behavior which the U.S. government condemns as unspeakable and evil elsewhere, we pretty well have to conclude that our government is unspeakably hypocritical. Defenders argue that this is the price of “real” politics. But what they ought to say is that it’s the price of real oil and the profits that go with it. What we have done in the name of democracy and freedom which was actually done to keep the price of gasoline low, and the oil companies’ profits as high as possible, will be one of the major themes of future histories, if there’s anyone left around in the future to write them.

The funny thing is, everyone knows this, probably even Don, but few take it seriously enough to give it much attention.

I suppose it’s a deep philosophical question as to whether praise of governments who have something we want, but who regularly behave in ways that are normally denounced as evil, is evil itself. But, then, Americans have pretty well decided that deep philosophical questions are not their cup of tea.

•  •  •

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the investigations that are launched when the U.S. military kills a bunch of people it presumably didn’t want to kill. As far as I can tell they just disappear into a giant void from which nothing can ever be retrieved. Or else they just go on forever, always open but with no one actually working on them.

Ashton Carter announced another one yesterday. U.S. warplanes killed nine or ten (often they can’t even get the number right) Iraqi soldiers, evidently the first ones the U.S. has killed since it started bombing again in Iraq last year. Mr. Carter says it was a mistake that involved both sides, but I guess that’s preliminary to the report of the investigation that’s unlikely ever to be concluded. After all, once a year or so goes by, nobody important is going to care much about -- or even remember -- nine or ten dead Iraqi soldiers. I guess the involvement of both sides sort of takes the edge off it.

The into-a-black-hole investigation I have been most interested in lately is the one promised by President Obama about the U.S. bombing and strafing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, which on October 3rd killed thirty people. The president pledged to Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, that a thorough investigation into what happened would be concluded within thirty days. If you check your calendar you’ll see that more than thirty days have passed since October 3rd, but, so far, no conclusions.

Forgetting is a powerful force in international affairs. It used to be called sweeping some dirt under the rug. Since there’s a notable international organization pushing the United States in this case, I dare not predict there will never be any report on why the hospital was bombed. But neither would I be surprised if the thorough investigation simply faded into that foggy land where investigations long to go, and after a while receded so far into the past nobody could see any sense in a conclusion, and particularly nobody in the system that did the killing.

After all, there are bound to be new investigations just down the road which will divert our attention away from those a great distance behind us.

December 22, 2015

After Barak Obama completes his term of office, someone ought to compile a list of the bizarre things said about him. It would be an important document in the history of American pathology.

Last night, combing through one of my notebooks from 2014, I came across a comment by Gordon Klingensmitt, a former Navy chaplain and currently a member of the Colorado House of Representatives. Mr. Klingenschmitt said that Obama deserved to be put to death because he had been taken over by demonic spirits. Exactly how Klingenschmitt knows this I wasn’t able to ascertain, but I have to confess I have not been a careful student of his thought.

I did notice that he had got into some difficulty earlier this year when the minority leader of Colorado House removed Klingenschmitt from one of his committee assignments because of remarks he made about a recent crime in the state. A pregnant woman was attacked and her near-term fetus was ripped from her womb. She managed to survive but the fetus did not.

About the cause of this crime, Klingenschmitt announced:

This is the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent
children in the womb and part of that curse for our rebellion against God as a
nation is that our pregnant women are ripped open.

One of his fellow house members protested the minority leader’s action, saying that although he did not agree with Klingenschmitt’s point of view on this matter, the voters of Klingenschmitt’s district were well aware of who they were electing, and had the right to have their opinions voiced through him. I guess that’s true, but the truth of it is exactly the point that Klingenschmitt’s career raises. He has for years been making absurd statements, but even so, district voters in Colorado selected him to represent them in the state legislature. Why? What does this mean?

Klingerschmitt is simply one of hundreds -- actually thousands -- of Republicans who have attacked the president not so much because they disagree with his policies but because of who he is. I don’t always agree with Obama, but to say that he’s a demon moves into a mental realm I have no access to. We Americans, or at least a considerable portion of us, are not who we were thought to be. There’s probably no better way to identify that portion than to collect what they have said about the current president and to analyze, seriously, what it means.

If we do that though we’ll have to face honestly the national culture we have created. And that, I suspect, is something most Americans, crazy or not, do not wish to do.

•  •  •

In the Atlantic, David Frum has a fairly sane analysis of what has happened to the Republican electorate since Obama took office. It’s a complex rundown but the principal thesis is that the so-called Republican base has become increasingly alienated from what has been considered the Republican establishment, or to use a term Frum seldom uses, the plutocracy. This is the main force behind the rise of Trump to the top of the polls. Frum thinks the establishment is so separated from the ordinary Republican voter it can’t comprehend what’s really going on in the country.

This is interesting but also pretty obvious. However, stuck into his analysis is another factor Frum just mentions but doesn’t much follow up on: the number of unsettling events the nation has experienced over the past fifteen years. He lists seven:

  • the dot-com bust
  • the Bush vs. Gore recount
  • the 9/11 attacks
  • the Iraq War
  • financial crisis
  • the bailouts and the following stimulus
  • the Affordable Care Act

When you think about these in themselves and also the way the media has made a fear-fest out of them, it’s easy to see why ordinary people -- in American parlance that means people who pay virtually no attention to public policy -- have become unsettled. This is true not only of Republicans but of most other citizens also.

During most of the 20th Century, Americans were propagandized into believing that American exceptionalism was undoubted and that the United States was the greatest country there has ever been. This left people assuming they didn’t have to worry about anything, and that included not having to think about anything. They were Americans; what more could they want?

When things began to fall apart there was a feeling of huge betrayal. Who had done this? Who had taken away our cocoon outside the trammels of history. Other people lived in the trammels, not us. We’re not other people. What’s going on? And, finally, who’s to blame?

When the world you thought was settled forever, with you riding comfortably on top, is taken away, it’s common to start feeling that some evil force is at the bottom of it, and that it has to be done in.

All the events listed above created enemies in some people’s minds. But not everybody picked the same enemy. With everybody thrashing around to get at the right enemy, is it any wonder that a phenomenon like the Trump movement would arise?

Americans pretty much lost the ability to ask themselves what kind of country they really wanted, and instead concentrated on identifying and crushing the enemy. When they did, they concluded that lots of people inside their own country were the real enemies.

I don’t know how we’re going to escape this frantic divisiveness; in fact, I don’t know if we ever will. What I do know is that if we want a peaceful and decent country we have to start concentrating more on who we want to be and less on enemies and how to destroy them.

December 23, 2015

It may be slowly dripping into the thinking of the world’s largest nations, i.e., those with populations of more than fifty million, that any sort of armed conflict among them would be absurd. If that’s the case then it’s a great blessing because there is nothing more horrible, or more idiotic, than for huge nations to wage all out-war against one another. The miseries inflicted by such lunacy exceed any others the human race has experienced, with the possible exception of the Black Death of the 14th century.

Even so, the posturing that always precedes such conflicts continues to hold on. One of the worst cases in the early 21st century is the bombast U.S. officials and the U.S media direct against Russia. It’s hard to imagine anything more criminally silly than a war between Russia and the United States. What reasoning could possibly justify such a disaster? What conflicts of interests could conceivably make it either inevitable or honorable? As far as I can tell, there are none. Consequently, treating Russia as though it were some sort of evil cloud on the horizon, instead of as a country with interests of its own, is pure stupidity.

Over the past several months U.S. officialdom has been aghast over Russia’s decision to get involved in resolving the conflict in Syria. “How dare they?” has been the principal U.S. response. No one seems to wonder why it’s more daring for Russia to do it than it is for the United States to assume that it is the obvious choice for settling everything there.

Now the U.N. Security Council has passed a resolution providing for a process by which the conflict can be ended. And guess what? Its major provisions are almost exactly the same as those put forward by the Russian foreign secretary Sergei Lavriv more than two months ago. John Kerry is now going around popping off that he brought the various parties to accept this resolution, even though just a short while ago the U.S. wasn’t much in favor of it at all because our government was still holding onto the proposition that the first, and most important, thing to be done was to get rid of the Assad government. That Vladimir Putin had said that wasn’t, at all, the first thing to be done, was considered outrageous.

You’ll recall that last Saturday night Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a disagreement about what needs to be done in Syria, a disagreement that didn’t receive much attention in the mainstream media, probably because the position that Sanders took was in line with the resolution the U.N. Security Council was hammering out at about the same time, whereas Clinton’s argument was in favor of continuing to concentrate on getting rid of Assad. The media, of course, is committed to portraying Clinton as being more astute and thoughtful about foreign policy than Sanders is. But the evidence might lead one to a different conclusion.

The main reason for all this fumbling is that the U.S. establishment wants to portray Putin as a really bad guy. And the U.S. establishment does that because it can’t give up Cold War thinking. And, evidently, neither can Ms. Clinton.

Painting Putin as an evil man rather than the political leader of a nation with interests that don’t fit snugly into the American plan for the world doesn’t help get anything resolved. U.S. officials clearly don’t want any sort of military conflict with Russia (a good thing, certainly). Yet they continue to talk as though such an occurrence might be necessary. It’s a dated tone which needs to be dropped.

Bernie Sanders knows that it is, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t know it. That’s one of the reasons why I support him over her. To be fair I doubt we would fall into a war with Russia, or any other major power, even if Clinton did become president. But I do think she might make moves that would involve new military ventures, which would heighten tensions between us and other big countries. I don’t see how anyone would benefit from that. I want to see the tensions lowered steadily rather than heightened.

It’s childish for the U.S. leaders to continue to assert that we are going to direct all the affairs of the world, particularly since we can’t do it. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t posture in that way, and that would be a good thing for all of us.

December 24, 2015

On January 13, 2016, I have a date at the Randolph Library to talk about The Education of Henry Adams. I have discussed the book at other libraries, and on each occasion I discovered that the library patrons didn’t much like Adams’s autobiography nor Adams himself. It’s likely I’ll get the same response in Randolph. That’s okay, of course. I’ve had as many good discussions with groups who didn’t like a book as I’ve had with those who did. On occasions I’ve even managed to change the dislike to at least a grudging respect, and I may have a better chance with The Education of Henry Adams than I do with most disliked books because I like it very much and I also like its author.

I have a rule which I don’t think I’ve ever broken in my thirty years of book talk discussions. No matter how many times I’ve read the book earlier, I read it again in the period just before the new discussion. I’ve read The Education of Henry Adams at least four times, so this reading will be the fifth. With all good books, the latest reading is the best, so I’m expecting to enjoy Henry Adams’s thoughts about the process of education even more than I have before. As I go along with this perusal, I may post a few thoughts here about particular sections which held me more tightly than I remembered from previous readings.

The theme of the first chapter, which covers the first ten years of Adams’s life -- 1838-1848 -- is the battle between Quincy and Boston, or the battle between the 18th and the 19th century. The young boy discovered, surprisingly early in his life, that he had been born into that battle and that his side in it had somehow been chosen for him. Furthermore, he came to see that the choice thrust on him would continue to direct his concerns for the remainder of his days.

And what exactly was this choice? It was the preference of placidity, constitutionalism, and intellectual integrity over the bumptious, super-ambitious, materialistic drives of the 19th century commercial mindset that was in the process of conquering the entire nation. We now understand the victory of commercialism -- or capitalism as we tend to call it -- more fully even than Henry Adams was ever to allow himself to imagine. He found the 19th century world vulgar but I doubt he ever conceived of a phenomenon like Donald Trump.

When you think about it, you see that the battle Henry Adams found himself devoured by was a much wider conflict than could be contained by the borders of Massachusetts. You might say it was, and is, universal. At some point in almost everyone’s life, he or she has to decide what counts most: wealth and crass power or something else. And the decision made shapes and forms the existence that follows. As Adams presents it, this choice for him was not actually free; it was ordained. He saw it as occurring at the beginning, right in his own family: “His brothers were the type; he was the variation.”

Adams’s first decade set the stage on which he was to play out the drama of his life. And he suggests that his drama was also the drama of the nation, laid out in a play that moved faster, and ever-faster towards a kind of disintegration. Perhaps that sounds a bit over-dramatic, but when we think about the national development over the century since he died, I don’t know that we have overwhelming evidence to prove him wrong.

December 30, 2015

I see that the New York Times editorial board posted a column this morning about the Tamir Rice case titled “Cleveland’s Terrible Stain.” I was glad to see it, mainly because it clearly pointed out, yet one more time, the basic facts involved in the killing of a twelve year old boy for doing nothing more than playing in a public park.

The basic fact is that there was no justification for it, whatsoever, yet the city’s judicial system has concluded that no one was responsible for it, and so, now, there is nothing to be done. Two policemen drove their car right up to the boy and one of them jumped out and instantaneously shot the boy to death. And there’s nothing to be done.

The excuse offered was that the killer didn’t know the boy was a boy, and didn’t know that the object he was playing with was a toy gun. And since he says he feared for his life, there is nothing to be done.

In America we have a system in which, if a policeman says he was afraid because he thought a person possessed a real gun, or a knife, he is authorized to kill that person even if there is no knife or gun. He has no responsibility to ascertain what it is the person has in his hand or in his pocket. Under that system, if I were walking down the street, in sight of a policeman, and took out my pen to note a thought, the policeman would be authorized to kill me because he thought my pen was a gun -- and he was afraid. Presumably intelligent and responsible people get up in court and regularly argue such tripe.

Our criminal justice system is a morass of stupidity. It seems that virtually none of the people responsible for managing it have sufficient imagination to think up any way to make it less stupid.

One of the main problems is that the system’s response to misdeeds has to be purely punitive. A person who does something terribly asinine -- which was certainly the case with Timothy Loehmann, the policeman who killed Tamir Rice -- must either be let off completely or punished so severely his life is likely to be ruined. There can be no intelligent response because none is available in the system, and, evidently, no one with authority to get anything done can think of anything other than what we have now, or is so morally callous he sees no reason to think of anything.

If one is on a jury and has only two options, either do nothing or ruin someone’s life, it’s not hard to see how ordinary human sympathy could be pushed towards doing nothing, even if one thought the event in question reflected severely cankered judgment, or indifference to human life.

Suppose if instead of the kind of prisons we have now, which many have said are little more than universities for crime, there were anti-stupidity camps, where persons who had done something seriously harmful to others were required to report each year, over ten to twenty-five years, for a rigorous education program, lasting, say, two full weeks. And suppose, also, these camps operated as research institutions charged with studying redemption processes and reporting on them publicly.

Wouldn’t such places offer a better response to someone like Timothy Loehmann than either saying simply that what he did was okay, or than throwing him into a system where he would almost certainly be brutalized?

The point is that what Loehmanm did was not okay. He killed a little boy for no good reason at all. A society which says that such behavior is acceptable is so rotten the decay is bound to spread into many other realms of community life, It is a society on the way down, steeply. And it’s the society we have now.

America’s addiction to violence and vicious punishment is a serious disease. If we can’t find ways to cure ourselves of these addictions, life will inevitably become more crass and vulgar as we try to cope with the inevitable problems of the coming century. It’s going to take our best, most intelligent, efforts to manage the destructive forces that have already been set loose. If we are held back by a judicial system which regularly evinces pure stupidity, which was the case with the killing of Tamir Rice, the chance for a decent future will be diminished dramatically.

©John R. Turner

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