Collected Thoughts

January 2016
January 2, 2016

I unearthed another notebook today, from perhaps twenty-five years ago. It was titled Education: Gestures Towards a Definition. Reading over the preface to it, I discovered that my thoughts on this topic have remained remarkably steady. If I were to read something I wrote on politics from a quarter-century ago, I’m pretty sure I would find considerable difference from the way I think now. But by the time I cobbled this this booklet together, I seem to have reached a firm conclusion that wasn’t susceptible to much modification. The truth is, I probably had this form in mind quite a bit earlier than that, though I might not have had the rhetorical command to lay it out in words.

At any rate, here’s the preface I composed sometime in the early 1980s:

During the past half-century, the part education plays in schooling has declined.
When we consider the principal aims of schooling, the buying and selling of
credentials, training, development of expertise, enhancement of self-esteem,
acquisition of reputation, along with education, it’s clear that credentialism has
been on the rise, training has been moved to the center, and education has been
falling away.

A critic might say that this judgment involves a particular definition of “education.”
Perhaps it does. But there is no better word for signifying the ability to weigh the
significance of facts and use them intelligently. This is a denotation that has been
traditionally related to the term. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example,
has as its fourth definition of “educate”: “To stimulate or develop the mental or
moral growth of.” That close to what I have in mind when I use the word.

It’s not surprising that schooling, which after all is a public process, would
downplay the importance of education, especially during a time when material
and technological growth is the dominant social religion. Growth of the sort talked
up by the average politician requires functionaries, and functionaries are
produced by training and expertise. There is almost no education involved in
bringing them forth.

To argue that society needs education more than growth is, probably, an eccentric
contention. That’s why you see relatively few people engaged in it. It’s also a fairly
complex understanding. Even to say what education is, and have a fighting chance
of making oneself understood, requires more than cocktail party chatter or the five
minute conversation. There are few occasions in the way we live now which offer
an opening for explaining grounded concepts.  And comprehending the nature of
education, demanding as it does a knowledge of human history, requires laying a
more extensive foundation than almost any other lesson.

There are, naturally enough, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of works which attempt it.
Some of them have succeeded reasonably well. I suspect anyone would benefit from
reading Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University or Alfred North Whitehead’s The
Aims of Education, to mention just two that come close to an adequate definition.
Yet we don’t always have time to read long books, and so could occasionally make
use of something shorter, something more suggestive, that would at least point us
in the right direction.

It came to me that if, over a month or so, I would write down all the characteristics
of educated people which came to my attention I would end up with a list that
would not be comprehensive but that might convey a sense of how I distinguish
education from the other aims of schooling mentioned above. So, that’s what I did,
and the results you can read below.

I’m not now going to list all the characteristics I complied under the heading, “Statements in Search of a Definition of Education.” I jotted down forty-two before I wandered off to other projects. Maybe I should start adding to the list again, but I can’t be sure I will.  Here I’ll stop after the first two, which may be as important as any of the others. Then -- who knows? -- perhaps I’ll post the other forty later.

An educated person will have the right relationship with words -- a relationship\
concentrated on truth.

An educated person understands that imagination is the chief delight of life and,
therefore, will grasp that developing the imagination is a serious goal for all
serious persons.

January 15, 2016

The presidential campaign is teaching us something we should have known for a long time but which has now become indisputable: the United States has a great many people who are cruel and vicious. And when I say a great many, I mean not just millions but tens of millions. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether the percentage of cruel people in the United States is greater than it is in other countries, but I suspect it is larger than the percentage of such people in countries which are seen as similar to us, that is, economically developed nations with systems presumed to provide a decent standard of living for most of their inhabitants.

Why this should be the case is a question which can be answered only by careful historical investigation. The two most obvious causes are the near genocide of the people who inhabited the continent before the European invasion, and the reliance on slavery and the aftermath of legal slavery to produce great heaps of personal wealth. Both taught the American mind to create an image of the “other” who were not to be considered fully human. Killing and subduing them became not just a matter of practicality, but transmogrified into a perverted morality based on the notion that heroism is mainly a product of command and slaughter. Americans, thereby, became persons who in their self-image possess the right to tell other people what to do.

We can see the attitude promoted on our TV screens continuously. Just three days ago we had a comical example, when American gunboats motored into Iranian waters near a large naval base and were taken into custody by Iranian naval vessels. On CNN, with Wolf Blitzer approaching hysteria, this became an aggression by guess who? Certainly not the Americans. In Wolf’s mind it seems to be a dictum of the universe that American naval vessels have the right to go wherever they wish, and if anyone interferes with them he has committed something approaching an act of war. Wolf didn’t bother to speculate about what would have happened if two armed Iranian ships had appeared a couple of miles off Norfolk, but we can be fairly sure that, in his case, it would have been a conniption fit.

Among the Republican candidates the principal contest involves what they would do to countries which don’t agree with American policies. Ted Cruz has become the great advocate of carpet bombing, and causing grains of sand to glow, presumably with radiation, and Donald Trump is big on killing all the family members of men who forcibly oppose American policies. The most interesting feature of these assertions is the glee with which they are pronounced. One is left with the impression that Republican leaders, along with their followers, can’t imagine anything more enjoyable than incinerating the two-year-old child of someone who dares to oppose the U.S.A.

The U.S. now has about eight hundred military bases outside its own borders, hundreds of them near the border of Iran. Iran, by contrast, has no military bases outside its borders and spends only 3% as much as the U.S. does on military activities and facilities. Still, as we all know from watching TV, Iran is always the aggressor in its relations with America.

Exactly what it is that gives Americans the right to ignore the worth of non-American lives is never explained. That’s the point. It doesn’t need to be explained because the vast superiority of American lives to other lives is self-evident.

Cruelty is always the practice of dismissing the desires, hopes, and suffering of some people as insignificant. Eviscerating, incinerating, decapitating, and TT 1.15.16 mutilating them is far more a matter of humor than of concern. Many American politicians excel in that humor, and win plaudits from wide swathes of the American public for cheerily joking about such behavior.

I’ve gradually come to see that choosing among political leaders is mainly a process of figuring out who you can understand. Disagreement is less a reason for opposing someone than complete inability to grasp what motivates him. The current slate of Republican presidential candidates fall outside my comprehension. I can write them off as cruel, of course, which is generally what I do. But that’s not enough. I’d like to know what makes them tick. Yet that’s an aspiration I doubt I will ever achieve.

January 16, 2016

The media, as usual, are performing abysmally in reporting on the race for the Democratic nomination. Either they don’t know how, or are unwilling, to tell the public what the actual differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are. The reason for their failure is the same as the cause of their ineptitude in explaining what the real issues in politics are. They view politics primarily as a game, and consequently care little about political contests as the process of shaping public policy. In the mind of the media, whoever wins is the successful politician, regardless of whether his or her policies might lead to public disaster. The show counts; the results, because of their complexity, have small effect on ratings and therefore don’t count very much.

The media approach emphasizes Clinton’s inability to win the trust of major sections of the Democratic base, as though her problem were simply one of personality. But that’s not it. Clinton’s weakness -- if it is that -- is the same as Sanders’s. There’s a potential danger for each of them attached to his or her goals.

In Clinton’s case, her goal is to get what she can get from the system as she perceives it. The danger in that motive is that she will have to compromise with the system so much that many voters will see her as being a captive of it, and maybe even, secretly, its champion.

Sanders’s goal is to get the best results for the American populace sensible people can devise.  There is, for example, no benefit for the population at large in allowing insurance companies to suck profits out of the medical system. So why not create a system where there are no profits for private persons other than for those who actually provide the medical care? Other countries have done it, and have shown that what they have done works better than what we do. Why can’t we have as good a system as other people have? The danger is that propagandists hired by the insurance companies can say this is all pie in the sky, and thereby paint Sanders as nothing but a dreamer.

The choice for the voters is whether they want a president who will work as hard for their well-being as possible, while running the risk of falling short, or a president who may be able to manipulate the system with the skills acquired by being a part of it, to gain some improvements, while running the risk of turning out to be no more than a spokesman for the system we have already, and which few people like.

It’s not an easy choice, and there are valid arguments to be made for either candidate. And the choice is complicated by uncertainty about what’s in the candidates’ hearts. Here Sanders has some advantage because throughout his career he has been more steady about what he stands for than Clinton has been. One would have to be fairly gullible not to wonder what Clinton really feels about Wall Street.

The choice is clearer when it comes to foreign policy. Clinton is more ready to kill people than Sanders is. Since I think the long-range blowback from slaughter usually outweighs any benefits it might confer, I view Sanders as the more attractive candidate in that respect. But in the matter of using of military force (a euphemism for killing), I’m probably in the minority among Americans. There is, though, a growing concern which pushes back in Sanders’s favor. The majority of Americans don’t much mind killing people, but they are distressed over how much it costs, particularly given the wildly expensive way the American military goes about it. If you calculated the price tag for killing all the people many Americans would like to see eliminated, you would see you’re courting national bankruptcy.

Thus the distinctions between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more evident than we normally find between two contending candidates. The media would best serve the American people by broadcasting those differences clearly and steadily so as to help the citizens cast their votes on a rational basis. But we have slight evidence the media cares much about rational decision-making. What they want is sensation, and making the situation murky is one of the more effective ways to get it.

January 17, 2016

The Republican presidential candidates think they have discovered a grand new weapon. It does seem to be of some immediate advantage but I wonder how durable it is. They believe they can tell blatant lies without damaging themselves in any way in the eyes of their supporters. Actually, it seems to be the case that a certain portion of the electorate think it’s cute; it provides them with talking points for vanquishing people who prefer more staid modes of discussion.

It has become a truism that most politicians lie. They think they can get away with it because the public is not very attentive. But lies, like all tactics can be graded. Some are more egregious than others, and when one reaches the point of assuming that there are no limits to effectual falsehood he is pushing into new territory. I suspect one reason for this conviction is that pundits have done it for decades with little retribution, leading Republican candidates to ask themselves, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

There may be a reason even more basic than opportunism for the Republicans’ readiness to lie. Psychologist friends have told me that a considerable number of people can’t recognize falsehood. They are so concentrated on immediate advantage the concept of accuracy simply deserts their minds. They lose the ability to recognize whether a statement is false, so there’s no way it can register with them. I’m not sure what to think about this analysis, but it is curious that on almost every political issue Republicans dismiss long-range considerations as being kooky. They don’t care, for example, about climate change since they don’t think it will affect them tomorrow, and tomorrow is all that concerns them. Indifference to climate change might well be no more than an element of overall indifference to accuracy, or some would say, reality.

There is, of course, another category of persons for whom no future beyond the next couple hours enters their minds. Republican rule would probably resemble what the country would be like if two-year-olds were in charge.

When Donald Trump, or Chris Christie, proclaims something that’s the exact opposite of what he said a couple months ago, I doubt that either stops to reflect what effect the two statements-- both recorded on video -- will have several months later, when they’re played side by side in TV ads. Republican candidates get so caught up in the euphoria of Republican crowds they fall to telling themselves that the people who flock to applaud them make up the great majority of Americans. They also tell themselves that anyone who doesn’t cheer them on isn’t a real American, and so, doesn’t count. Unfortunately for them, voting machines aren’t yet equipped with scanners for invalidating the ballots of those who fail to project the real American vibes. All sorts of unreal Americans manage to get their votes recorded, even those so unreal as to have noticed the flood of inconsistencies in Republican campaigns. These are occurrences which enrage real American minds but, so far, they haven’t figured out what to do about it. Daydreams of incarceration camps for un-American voters have, so far, not managed to be transformed into bricks and mortar.

The most amusing thing to have happened in American politics over the past decade was Mitt Romney’s certitude in November, 2012, that he would win the election against Barack Obama. It actually seems to be true that he was stunned by his loss. Who were these people who would dare to vote against him? He had never talked with one. Where did they come from? He probably couldn’t imagine that anyone would be persuaded by his numerous flip-flops not to vote for him. And if we could place politicians on an imaginative ability scale, it’s pretty clear that Romney would score well beyond any of the current crop of Republican aspirants.

Old-fashioned as accurate and consistent statement might be, I suspect it still has the force to undermine the new truth that truthfulness doesn’t matter. That’s the way it is now. What the future might bring I can’t predict. A Trump or a Cruz might wait around long enough for accuracy to become completely obsolete. I hope I won’t.

January 22, 2016

The privilege of defining “freedom” is what all large enterprises want because almost all people desire freedom regardless of whether they have a clear view of what it is.

Any organization that can convince the majority of people that its definition of freedom is the only proper one can get them to do much of what it wishes. In American capitalism, which is the most serious imperial force in the world today, freedom means the legal right to sell the public whatever the “entrepreneur” wants, no matter how false his advertising may be. There is no other freedom that even approaches this one in the capitalist mind.

No large capitalist enterprise in America today cares much about freedom of speech, freedom of thought, or freedom to criticize prevailing attitudes, much less the freedom not to worry about starving, or the freedom to have a decent place to live, or the freedom of access to competent medical care. These latter freedoms are as nothing compared to the freedom to sell people stuff by deceiving them.

Advertising, capitalism’s principal tool, exists not to inform but to mislead. If you don’t think that’s so, sit and watch carefully the drug ads that dominate the messages on network news shows from five till seven every evening.

If we want American freedom to give us a boost towards a healthy society, then we need to work towards changing the definition of freedom that prevails among our leading institutions at the moment.

Remember when George Bush declaimed that they hate us for our freedom? The irony is that he was right, if you define freedom the way most Republicans do. The brand of unrestrained capitalism our so-called conservatives advocate is recognized all round the world as a poisoner of the environment and a promoter of a neurotic mode of life. To keep pushing in that direction as hard as possible -- defined spuriously as growth!, growth!, growth! -- is clearly not sane. Is it any wonder that ever larger numbers of people around the globe come to see the United States as the greatest threat among the nations to their own well-being?

At times I grow so discouraged by the way “freedom” has been twisted by private economic interests I think we ought to retire the word. Let it go on furlough for a decade or so, and then it might return to meaning the right, and ability, of ordinary persons to live their lives as they wish, rather than being controlled and propagandized by those who sit atop enormous piles of wealth.

The underlying problem in a completely capitalistic society is that words stop functioning as a means for conveying meaning or sharing information, and begin to be mainly tools for gaining advantage. People talk, and write, not to tell the truth, but to take other people in. Thus we drive towards a flimflam society.

I know this is unlikely to happen, but it would be an interesting and valuable project for some large, sufficiently funded, organization to try to find out what Americans mean by “freedom.” Would a general answer emerge? Would there be so many answers it would be difficult to put them in categories? Would a majority of the electorate simply be flummoxed by the question? If I had to bet, I’d wager my money on the third possibility. And if it became clear that most people don’t know what they mean by the word, what effect would that have on our political discourse?

I’ve often sensed that “social science” is a fairly inept endeavor because the institutions that engage in it are either afraid to ask the serious questions or are not imaginative enough to formulate, and follow up on, questions that might help us to reform social thought.

We remain a long way from knowing ourselves well enough to set goals that would actually benefit whole societies. We are mostly floundering now, and the question of how long we can continue to flounder without running into gigantic global disasters, that will set us back immeasurably, looms ever larger. Our insistence on using “freedom” as a manipulative tool may insure that we’ll never achieve it as an actual mode of living.

January 28, 2016

The consolidating charge against Bernie Sanders is that he is not realistic. But why should we assume that those making this charge have any grasp of realism themselves? Do we have evidence that they have ever seriously asked themselves what reality is?

Here is Hillary Clinton’s basic statement on these questions: "In theory, there are a lot of things to like about [Sanders'] ideas. But in theory isn't enough. A president has to deal in reality.  I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in real life."

Are you confident Hillary Clinton knows what real life is? Why should she? Has she lived in the reality you experience every day?

You might answer that no prominent politician has lived a life like yours, which is doubtless true to an extent. But some have come closer to your reality than Hillary Clinton has.

Reality, after all, is not a single thing but many things. No single person’s concept of reality encompasses the totality of it. Reality is lots of small bubbles floating in one gigantic bubble. And the people inside one particular bubble often fall into the delusion that their bubble is all there is. I think that’s what has happened to Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to find evidence that she is imaginative. So if you’re supporting her on the basis that she will step outside her bubble and try, genuinely, to find out what’s going on in yours, you’re taking a very long shot.

I’m not saying there are no good reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton. I am saying that her superior grasp of reality over Bernie Sanders’ is not one of them. If you’re supporting her for that reason you’re being led down a primrose path.

I see no reason to think that Hillary Clinton has ever dreamed about getting out of her own bubble in order to experience the reality of another one. If there’s anyone who might head the list of those committed to, and satisfied with, her own bubble, Hillary Clinton would be a strong candidate. She doesn’t want to make substantial changes in her world; she just wants to tidy it up a bit. Tidiness, all is all, is a virtue, but a fairly small one.

The issue of this election is whether small, modest virtues are enough, or whether we should reach out for something more serious. More serious reforms are more difficult to achieve but is that a reason not to try for them? The answer depends on how fouled up, and even corrupt, you think the current political system is. If you think it’s okay but just needs a little sprucing up, then Hillary Clinton might be your candidate. But if you think that after four, or eight, years of her presidency conditions will be notably different from what they are now you’re fooling yourself. The big bankers will still be raking in four hundred times as much as you’re paid for your efforts. The number of problematic, and hideously expensive, military adventures will not have declined and may well have increased. The national infrastructure of roads, electrical grids, emergency services, and flood controls, will be farther behind what they are in other modern democracies than it is now. The criminal justice system will not be notably more fair. Access to the nation’s serious colleges and universities will not have become more widely available.

Keeping the national machine clunking along, pretty much as it is now, will continue to be Hillary Clinton’s idea of realism.

Hillary Clinton is not a bad person. Within her bubble she’s probably among the most decent ten percent. But what about the overall virtues of her bubble’s reality? Is that the best we can do? If you think it is, then I guess Hillary is your candidate. I admit she’s better than Ted Cruz. But if you’re not willing to settle for the status quo, you should take a more careful look at Bernie Sanders. Study up on what he is actually proposing, as contrasted with what his opponents are saying about him, and open your mind to the possibility that his perspective on reality is more in line with yours than Hillary Clinton’s is.

January 30, 2015

A serious deficiency of American political discourse is that we generally ignore psychology. Political pundits assume that people, pretty much, respond to interests and to grievances, i.e., that they are who they are because of their response to outside influences. But that’s not true of most of the people I’ve observed. They are more driven by their internal psychic makeup than by rational response to what’s affecting them.

It’s a complicated subject, of course, because there are obvious interactions between outside influence and internal motive. It’s difficult to say precisely why a person feels as he does. For most people there will have been a multitude of occurrences in the past that shaped their personalities. All I’m saying is that in America right now one’s current psychic profile, and political stance, is unlikely to arise mainly from what’s happening at the moment.

However it happens, there will be in any national population a goodly percentage of people who are fearful, angry, suspicious, and prejudiced. Their political behavior flows mainly from those moods and attitudes and not from an analysis of what would be of benefit to them and their fellow citizens. As a consequence, such people are highly manipulable. For a variety of historical reasons there is an unusually high percentage of them in the United State now. I tend to think it’s about 30%; it could be more or less, but it’s big enough to sabotage healthy political relations.

Starting about thirty-five years ago, one of our national parties decided to round up the disgruntled swath of the population and to use them for its purposes, primarily to increase the wealth of those who were presumed to be in charge. The plan worked pretty well for a time. The party held the presidency for twenty of those years and did well in increasing their control of Congress. And their main goal was certainly attained; the richest 1% got wealthy beyond anything most people would have imagined in 1970. That the well-being and health of the whole country declined meant nothing to them, because they regularly told themselves they were the country, or the only part of the country that mattered.

Now, however, the strategy is falling apart. In order to keep the 30% in the corral, it was necessary to make them angrier and angrier. As their anger and hateful feelings swelled, they decided to support only politicians whose rhetoric fully matched the 30%’s emotions. And to do that it was necessary for the politicians to lie incessantly, and finally to give up any connection to the truth whatsoever. Hence, now in 2016, none of the party’s numerous presidential candidates can muster even a mask of sanity. To grab the support of the wildly resentful, the candidates have to propose policies that would be disastrous for everyone. So that’s what they do.

Here’s the problem: the 30% can’t run the country but they can block the majority from adopting measures that would permit the country to respond intelligently to difficulties in an evolving world.

If we had a political discourse in which the crippling emotions of the populace became part of the dialogue, sensible thoughts and attitudes could begin to circulate more widely. The media could lay out explanations for why so many people believe falsehoods and an even greater number have given up trying to know anything about public policy. But we can’t have such a discourse because the strategies of the recent past have demanded that that political leaders do nothing but flatter the people. They have to be told they are the greatest people who have ever lived, that the people of all other countries fall far short of them, that they are, in short, exceptionable in some sort of transcendent fashion. None of that, of course, is true, and the falseness of it provides the grounding for all the other falsehoods that canker American politics. The United States has become the country that really cannot stand the truth -- about itself or about anything else.

If you and your group are near-perfect and, yet, conditions are clearly far from perfect, what’s the explanation? Somebody else is fouling them up, somebody or something that’s bad. We go in search of monsters rather than taking a hard look at ourselves.

This, clearly, is more a psychological problem than it is the ordinary labor of politics, where the task is to sort out collectively the ordinary give and take of group relations.,

People who believe that all their difficulties come from somebody bad down the road, or over the hill, are on the way to a psychotic breakdown. I don’t know, precisely, how close we are to that condition -- and neither does anybody else. But I do know that over the past generation we have been approaching it rather than moving farther away.

The first step in solving our problems is to straighten out our heads. And at the moment we’re not even talking about how to do it.

January 31, 2016

Lately as I scan the political news my thoughts turn more and more often to the four lines Samuel Johnson supplied to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller:

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find.

The current presidential campaign is sickening. We know that. So why should we give it enough room in our lives to make us sick?

If Johnson was right the wise thing to do would be to tune out the political blather and go about working on the things we know we might affect. Let the politicians devour one another with their lies and nastiness, but don’t let them devour us.

It’s an appealing notion and at times I think of trying to take it up. But then the thought creeps back on me that Johnson was a man of the 18th century and we live in the 21st. Different times call for different efforts.

It’s not that Johnson’s couplets are entirely obsolete. There remain areas of private life where politics don’t obtrude and we should make the best of them to discover as much felicity as possible. Still, political activity and the institutions it creates touch on our daily rounds far more frequently than they did on Johnson strolling down Fleet Street to his favorite coffee shop. Probably the greatest discovery of the century and a half after Johnson died was that unchecked commercialism in an urban and industrialized society leads to filth, sickness, and misery for a great portion of the population. The main force we have for alleviating the cruelties of dog-eat-dog commerce is beneficent government. The principal difficulty with that thought, however, is that governments often are not beneficent. They can be as cruel as the most rapacious corporations, even as cruel as Goldman-Sachs.

The proper goal of politics today should be to diminish the cruelty of government, and strengthen its beneficent properties, while protecting all citizens from criminal and vicious behavior. It’s a complicated business, obviously, but that doesn’t change what it needs to be doing.

We have a political party in the United States today which argues that the only beneficent thing government can do is kill or punish bad people. Anything else it tries to do will turn rotten because of some inherent quality in the nature of government. That a lie, of course, and I suspect those who push it know it’s a lie, but they don’t care because getting the majority to view government that way enhances their private goals.

The contrasting argument to the inherent vice of government is the inherent virtue of the market. It’s not that the market wishes to be virtuous; it just happens to work that way. How the latter should have come about is scarcely ever explained; we’re just supposed to take it as a self-evident truth. When you meet someone who tells you that self-evidence doesn’t need to be supported by real evidence, be sure to keep your hand on your wallet.

Actually, the characteristics imputed to government and the market are the reverse of what this party is telling you they are. It’s not government which is destined to behave in a single way but rather commercial activity. The one overriding goal of the latter is profit, whereas the goal of government can be whatever the people in control of it wish it to be (I recognize this statement is a bit simplistic but it remains basically true).

I am not saying that commerce is essentially harmful. Working within a sensible political system it can offer widespread benefits. But it cannot replace beneficent government because it is too narrow in its impulses.

What the people of the United States need to learn is that they cannot have well-being for all citizens without a government that is concentrated on supplying widespread well-being. And as societies become more crowded and more complex that will become even more true.

At the time Johnson brought out his great dictionary, the population of the world was about eight hundred million people. The population of the world now is well over seven billion. That’s an increase of 900%. An increase of that dimension not only matters, it matters tremendously.

People often ask what notable thinkers of the past would have said about current conditions. The answer is, we don’t know and have no way of knowing. The men and women of the past did not have the chance to reflect on everything that happened between when they died and now. If they had been able to take post-mortem events into account, it’s unlikely they would continue to speak exactly as they spoke in their own contexts.

We can continue to find use in what Johnson and other intelligent persons of the past said. But we have to adapt their thoughts to current circumstances. It’s good always to recall L.P. Hartley’s warning: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

We can’t isolate ourselves as easily from Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, et cetera as Johnson could from the fools of his time. That’s one of the ways the 18th century was better than ours. But ours is all we have right now.

©John R. Turner

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