Collected Thoughts

May 2016
May 13, 2016

Among my friends there’s a major difference in perspective between those who get their “news” from TV and those who get it from print sources. The dominant distinction has to do with foreign policy issues. Those who graze on TV don’t realize there are foreign policies which genuinely affect the health of the American nation. That’s because television doesn’t report on foreign issues in sufficient depth to give viewers a sense that they actually matter. Therefore, when it comes to electoral success -- or what’s generally referred to as horse race politics -- foreign policy doesn’t matter. This despite the undoubted truth that the U.S. government expenditures offer far greater room for decision in foreign areas than they do with respect to domestic distribution.

In other words, the well-being of the nation is controlled by forces which the people who get their news from TV scarcely ever think about.

This is the reason why continuing to refer to the United States as a democracy is farcical. And it remains this way because that’s the way that people who deal in foreign policy -- who control foreign policy -- want it to remain. In their minds, the idea that the general population of the United States should be mucking around in how the United States government treats the other people of the world is absurd. Only the experts should have anything to do with that. And the experts don’t want television news to be delving into our behavior towards the rest of the world. So, they keep it off TV.

May 14, 2016

More than half a year ago a U.S. warplane killed forty-two patients and medical staff at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Some Americans may remember the incident.

There was a furor of commentary, including fervid promises that thorough investigations would be launched to get to the bottom of what happened. Furthermore, pledges were issued that those who turned out to be responsible for the deaths would be held accountable.

A couple weeks ago the investigation was completed, though this announcement was accompanied by considerably less moral vehemence than the original commitments to take the whole business extremely seriously. After all, six months had passed, and no one can really expect a great and dominant nation to continue fixated on a mere forty-two deaths, especially since none of the people who had had their lives blown away were U.S. government employees and thus deserving of the rank of hero.

It turned out that that nothing seriously wrong had been done. A series of gaffes, yes, deserving of some reassignments and added training programs, but nothing that had the slightest whiff of the criminal wafting from it. It was the kind of thing that happens in war, fully to be expected from time to time, not actually preventable. After all, the people who had sent death from the sky were good and loyal servants of the finest nation that has ever appeared on earth. Surely no sane person could expect criminal punishments for that brand of behavior.

But now and then I ask myself, would we have to exact criminal punishment for slaughter of this sort? What if, instead, the government simply issued a statement that went something like: “We the people of the United States on October 3, 2015, unnecessarily, and wrongfully took the lives of forty-two persons who should not have been killed. Their deaths constitute a mark of dishonor on the record of the United States, and shall be inscribed on a board of dishonor in the nation’s capital which shall be displayed prominently in a public place.”

What about that?

Then at least we could testify that we as a nation don’t think that extinguishing the lives of forty-two persons is nothing. That, at least, would be something.

May 15, 2016

In America they’ll do anything for money. Anything! That’s the American story, and as long as it remains the American story, the American nation will continue to degenerate.

Concussion, the film about the discovery of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and the way it is destroying the lives of not-so-old football players, tells this American story in yet more one version. It turns out that when the brain is subjected to repeated physical shocks, as occurs in every football game, the effects build up to produce uncontrollable depression. Any kind of meaningful life becomes impossible. And in many cases this starts to happen when the players are still in their forties -- otherwise healthy, vigorous young men.

Bennett Omaluu, a coroner in Pittsburgh, played convincingly by Will Smith, got the job of examining the body of Mike Webster, a former Steelers star, and immediately discovered numerous anomalies which eventually led him to the conviction that Webster was the victim of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of head injuries over the course of his career. But when he began a campaign to publicize what had happend to Webster, he incurred the wrath of one of the most powerful money-making machines in the United States, the National Football League. And he learned quickly there were no lengths the NFL wouldn’t go to in order to silence anyone who attempted to interfere with their product. Pro-football in America, Omalu discovered, was a god-like process, and anybody who monkeyed with the deity was going to be visited by the vengeance of the Lord.

Omalu’s point was really quite simple. The players had the right to know what was happening to them. Obviously, right? But the NFL, exercising its near supernatural powers, didn’t see it that way.

It’s a good film, if a bit depressing. Acting by secondary characters Albert Brooks and Alex Baldwin added a good deal to the overall effectiveness. Yet in the end, it was the telling of the basic American story, yet once again, that gives the film its grip. Is that going to remain the American story, or not? That’s the question the movie won’t let us step away from.

May 23, 2015

A case can be made that the United States is the most peculiar society and the strangest nation ever brought forth on earth.

Consider this one simple fact. Within less than six months, the people of the United States may elect Donald Trump as their president. This is not a thing a sane people would consider doing. And yet the actual possibility lies before us. How can people who profess belief in American superiority contemplate placing an empty-minded egotist into the nation’s chief political office?  Why? How can one of its two viable political parties have selected such a person as its candidate for the presidency? This is not what reasonable, thoughtful people do. You can scarcely call a nation “great” when a considerable sector of its population is thinking like a batch of political loons.

Presidential politics, though, is not the only sign the American nation is sinking into degeneracy. Consider the American prison system which incarcerates a greater portion of its population than any other nation. One of our states, Louisiana, has an incarceration rate of 816 per hundred thousand. China, which is widely considered to be one of the most brutally penal states in the world, has a rate of 119. An American state, part of a system lauded by ourselves as the finest model of justice ever established, locks up a percentage of its citizens nearly seven times as great as a large country with a bad reputation for justice. How can Americans who limitlessly praise this country explain such behavior?

Severely damaging climate change is rushing upon us. There is no doubt about the data. Yet a large percentage of the country’s population continues to deny that such a thing as human-caused climate change is occurring. When a people refuses to take account of undeniable fact and instead luxuriates in falsehood in order to console themselves that nothing troublesome is underway, what does that tell us about the collective mind of that people? It surely doesn’t tell us that such people are unusually bright. It tells me, rather, that their minds are disordered -- severely disordered. In fact, I find myself close to being ready to say that a frightening number of the people of the United States are exhibiting mental sickness.

These three intellectual weaknesses are merely at the tip of a toxic clot which drives American society and the American state to react to the world in ways which do no one any good -- not America, and not America’s supposed enemies. It’s as though most Americans have lost the ability to imagine that the United States could benefit from an absence of enemies, or to imagine an enemy free condition as a possibility. Are Americans created with the notion of enemies as a necessity of life? And if they are, where did the notion come from? Why do we start off with the concept that powerful, unreasonable, and vicious enemies are an obvious requirement of existence? Why are we so obsessed with the idea that readiness and ability to strike at enemies is the prime requirement of life? Why is killing enemies considered the primary feature of heroism? Might we not, rather, adopt the conviction that an ability to collaborate is an essential feature of sane and vital people. Might we not put more of our inventiveness and effort into helping people rather than to killing them?

If, as I said at the beginning, America has become surprisingly peculiar, you would think we would start to ask ourselves whether we need to explore fundamental adjustments of attitude. Weirdness which leads automatically towards hostility and mayhem ought, at the very least, raise the question of whether revolutionary changes need to be explored. Yet at the moment we observe small inclination even to feel the slightest curiosity about why we have become an outlier society.

May 27, 2016

Reading the news nowadays is devastating business, so dismal in fact I find myself pushed away from my normal sources. If things are all going to smash, why do I have to wallow in the details? Yet even as the thought washes over me, I see that it’s pure cowardice. I can’t just pull the pillow around my ears and do nothing else.

This morning I read two articles that were particularly discouraging. Roger Cohen’s piece in the Times titled “Coral vs. Coal” lays out the situation in Australia that’s destroying the Great Barrier Reef. Great stretches of it have been killed over the past decade and the slaughter continues unabated. Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, surveyed the reef northeast of Port Douglas recently and what he found shocked even his informed sensibilities. This once vibrant bed of life for mile after mile has been turned into nothing but dead white stalks with no hint of life in them.

The U. S., of course, isn’t the only country with dead-brained politicians. There’s a cohort of climate change deniers in Australia, led by former prime minister Tony Abbot, who are tribally devoted to “the coal and fossil-fuel loving right.” Protecting their ability to pollute the world in order to pile up dollars has become their religion. These are people you can’t reason with. They are trying as avidly as they can to kill the world that you -- and more importantly -- your children and grandchildren will have to depend on. So how do you even feel about them? It’s an unanswerable question and yet one you can’t actually put out of your mind.

The second article was Bill Moyers essay about a recent pronunciamento by Andrew Sullivan in which he attempted to explain the rise of Donald Trump. Guess what? It’s not because of oligarchic Republican efforts over the past four decades. Rather it comes from an excess of democracy. Sullivan’s source for this is Plato which Moyers thinks is ridiculous. Plato warned us well over two thousand years ago that democracy was an inevitable prelude to fascism. Moyers’s critique is that Plato was commenting about a political environment so different from ours that his assessment about how one condition spawned another tells us little about what we’re facing. The idea that now we can count on rule by the best, when that best would have to be defined by somebody, strikes Moyers -- and me -- as ludicrous. We shouldn’t be wasting our time trying to apply timeless political dictates when there are no such things. We have what we have, and that’s what we have to work with. That we should be dealing with this sort of blather from a person, at times as discerning as Sullivan has been, is just more reason for discouragement.

So the news, wherever we seek it, is disheartening. We would like to get away from it, but we know we can’t. So what do we do? You must tell me because I don’t have the capacity of mind to tell you.

May 28, 2016

The people who are calling for Bernie Sanders to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination make no sense. Why should he? He has by all accounts run an effective campaign. He has activated a great many voters who formerly were alienated from the political process. He has introduced potent ideas that are going to be required for any genuine reform of the American political system. Everything he’s doing is positive. So why should he quit?

The only reason I’ve heard is to make it easier for Hillary Clinton to win. As long as Sanders stays in the race, she can’t turn her full attention to undermining Donald Trump. Nobody sane wants Trump to win, so it’s essential that Hillary defeat him. Sanders’s chances of taking the nomination away from her are slim, say the pundits. So she has to be anointed, not because she’s better, but so that Trump has no chance. Cleary she’s not better than Sanders. But that doesn’t matter. She’s better than Trump. We can’t have the best candidate, so we have to accept the middling one in o order to avoid the worst.

I find that grating. Particularly in this case where the middling candidate isn’t even close to the best.

Sanders says that if he finishes the primaries with a rush the 719 superdelegates ought to consider switching their support. And I say they should too, especially if the primary goal is to thwart Trump. There is increasing evidence that Sanders holds a stronger position against Trump than Clinton does. The polls all say so. In fact, in a Trump-Clinton race they are now trending toward Trump, whereas every poll shows Sanders with a strong lead when facing Trump. What if the Democratic establishment is throwing the race to Trump by insisting that Sanders be given no more consideration. There’s a strong chance that’s what they’re doing.

I tend to think that either Clinton or Sanders would defeat Trump. But I think Sanders has a much better chance. So why should we give up the better candidate in order to take a risk on the lesser one?

I don’t think we should. We should all encourage Bernie to stay in the race as along as possible. We risk nothing by doing it, and we increase our chances for the best of outcomes. There’s no reason at all for Bernie to get out now. None!

May 31, 2016

As I grow older, I feel ever stronger urges to establish basic positions about life. Why, one might ask? I guess it’s because I think a person has a duty to say who he was, and not just let life dribble away leaving uncertainty. I read something just a few days ago that offered me an opportunity to make such a declaration and I realize that here, right now, I should stop being unclear about something that I’ve probably been fairly clear on but maybe not perfectly.

In 2012, Mitt Romney announced that he favored the use of “enhanced interrogation” not just because it works but because he thinks persons the United States government applies it to deserve it. Enhanced interrogation, by the way, means torture. There should be no equivocation about that. So Mitt Romney thinks some people should be tortured because they deserve it. That’s one of his fundamental positions. It goes a long way towards establishing who he is. In fact, I’d say it does establish who he is. Once you know that about Mitt Romney, you don’t need to know much else. You know pretty much everything that counts. People who believe that other people should be tortured have defined who they are. They’re torturers. And if you’re a torturer there’s little else that one needs to know about you. That’s who you are. That defines what your religion is. It makes clear who you will always be --unless of course you sincerely change your mind. If you want people to be tortured, what else is there to be said about you? Not much I can’t think of.

Torture, by the way, means purposively inflecting suffering on another person. If you want it to be done, if you favor it, it means you have, in certain cases, a favorable attitude towards suffering. You like it. You enjoy it. You cheer it on. That’s what you do. That’s who you are. You are in my opinion -- though this is a lesser matter -- a foul, low human being. I would prefer never to have anything to do with you. The thought of being in the same room with you gives me a nauseous feeling.

It doesn’t mean I want you to suffer. I don’t want anyone to suffer. It just means I am very unlikely to want to know you.

For the most part people are afraid of making basic declarations. It will really let people know who you are. Most people don’t want it to be known who they really are. Mostly they want to keep it a big secret. But, as I say, lately, I have developed that desire. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s complete yet. But it is growing stronger. With Romney, for me, it’s nearly overwhelming.  I don’t want to know him. I don’t want to be in the same room with him. I would prefer never to hear his name again. And you know why? Because he’s a torturer. That’s it. He is said to love his children. Maybe he does. But that doesn’t change that he’s still a torturer.

©John R. Turner

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