Collected Thoughts

September 2016
September 1, 2016

You all know I’ve been on a long furlough from this web site. That has been mainly because of some personal problems.

I realize now I don’t want to give up the site entirely but that I doubtless do need to change its nature. In the past I tried mainly to write persuasive essays. I doubt I can write any in the future that will be of much use to you. Instead, I’d prefer to start sharing what might be called, simply, study notes, in the hope that they will stimulate interest in topics that might otherwise pass you by.

My first effort of that kind is generated by the next meeting of the Johnson Society, which I’ll be hosting here at my house on Liberty Street next Tuesday. The questions for our discussion have to do with “news.” What is it? What are our best sources for news right now? What does the future hold for each of them?

To start the discussion, I decided to work up a short “news reader’s profile” about myself that may spark comparison with my fellow Johnsonians, and thereby generate conversation about the news itself.

Here’s the sketch I’ll pass out to my friends when we gather next Tuesday evening:

A Single Reader’s News Profile

Web Sites With Some Pretension to Being News Sources
I Check Virtually Every Day:

New York Times
Huffington Post
Talking Points Memo
The Daily Beast
The Intercept
Slate Magazine
Mother Jones
Breitbart News
The Barre/Montpelier Times Argus

Other publications which are, at least partially, news sources, that
I read regularly:

The Atlantic
Harper’s Magazine
The New York Review of Books
The New Yorker

The amount of time I spend daily on these sources normally ranges between two and three hours. I can’t say I’m using my time most efficiently in this way. I would probably do better to give more attention to substantial books and less to this brand of journalism. Even so, the details one encounters through reading of this sort provide a fairly broad sense of who is doing what to whom, within the nation and internationally. But the questions that come to my mind every day about the state of the world are far more likely to remain unanswered than they are to elicit a confident reply. My reading in the, so-called, “news” leaves me more uncertain about where we are headed than it offers any assurance I’m “on top” of things.

I don’t find television to be of much use in covering news. Even the sources with the strongest reputations are far more directed toward entertainment than they are towards informing anyone. I doubt there has been any development over the course of my life more potent than the widespread demand to be incessantly entertained. It’s the driving force in the world today, and I see nothing on the horizon likely to weaken its demands.

September 2, 2016

I notice that Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf have published a new book about Thomas Jefferson titled Most Blessed of the Patriarchs. There were times, when I was trying to read everything about Jefferson I could, that I would have been eager to acquire such a volume. But that mood has long since passed me by.

Maybe two decades ago I decided we have as many books about Mr. Jefferson as we need. What are two historians, regardless of their skill, likely to be able to tell me that I don’t pretty much already know? Furthermore, how does the value of knowing about Thomas Jefferson compare to the worth of learning about other subjects that I’m seriously ignorant of right now? One does well to recall that life is both limited and short whereas the number of subjects worth investigating is almost beyond counting.

It may be that most who are famous are more famous than they deserve, so that giving them additional attention constitutes an act of blameable imbalance. It’s not that perfect balance is ever possible. But it is a goal worth pursuing.

All this, though valid, is however not the main reason I’m disinclined to spend time on this publication. The main reason, rather, is a word from the title. Gordon Reed and Onuf appear to be telling me that Jefferson was a patriarch. And I doubt that’s a description which informs me of anything. Does the word “patriarch” offer us any meaning here in the second decade of the twenty-first century?

There’s a connotation of veneration connected to it which doesn’t belong in serious history. Historians clearly have duties to their readers but telling them what to venerate is scarcely one of them. There has been far too much of that sort of thing in the stories about the United States which have been told to the people of America, and I suspect, strongly, that’s why they are as naïve about the past as any population on earth. When we get to the point of making veneration more significant than honest attempts at truth, we can be sure that the story of the past will be used to justify doing something nasty to some set of people somewhere.

Historians, however able in other respects, who tell me in their title that they are going to write about patriarchs, and how one is more blessed than the others, warn me that they’re going to be opening paths I have no need to follow and that may well have the scent of primrose suffusing them.

September 4, 2016

The U. S. Constitution is regularly praised as a document of grand political genius, yet it has never been able to cope with a population addicted to violence, seriously ignorant about public affairs, and ready to embrace horrible economic inequality. This trio of horrors has been with us since the beginning and it shows no signs of abatement. In truth, it’s just the opposite: two of the three appear to be on the rise, and violence, though the criminal variety has been diminishing recently, continues to be enhanced by the readiness of the national government to wage war incessantly all around the globe.

There’s nothing to say that a people’s governing document must reflect its character. So it may simply be the case that the American people are infected with bad thought beyond the cure of any political solution. Maybe Americans are simply ungovernable. But if that were so, it would be a very curious situation. Americans, to me, don’t seem seriously different from people anywhere else. Yet, they are desperate to think they are. Maybe that’s the problem.

There is one thing about Americans that strikes me as distinctive. They are less aware than other people that self-praise is a psychological disease. It leads those who practice it to treat other people badly.

When you think about it, you become aware that all three of the main terrors afflicting us -- violence, ignorance, and enjoying the sight of people lording it over others -- are delusions of self-praise. I’m better than you are so I have the right to injure you. I don’t need to learn anything because I’m inherently great. I deserve to have more than you do because of who I am.

Thinking that way leads to incessant conflict. It makes us want to conquer rather than cooperate. It leads to a form of war against all those who are not Americans. And it’s very tiring.

The notion that allegiance to a particular national state should be one’s principal identification is weird. There are so many other features persons can associate themselves with, that to choose the nation one happens to inhabit as the main thing deserves more scrutiny than it has received in this country. Or maybe just putting it out of mind altogether would be even better.

September 8, 2016

The United States is not the only country in which the poplar mind has been obsessed with the thought that nobility consists mainly in killing bad people. But it seems to have held on to that regressive idea longer than the other developed democracies. The result has been a split in the population, by which devotees of noble killing have come increasingly to scorn those like myself who are not made happy by the thought of killing anybody.

I have read dozens of commentaries decrying the division of the American people and calling for a reasonableness which would allow the great majority of Americans to agree. These have a nice sound but they don’t take into account the realities facing us. There are some disagreements susceptible to compromise and others that are not. The nobility of killing falls into the latter category. It presents us with a fundamental separation of value and character that can’t be bridged.

I’m aware that I’m now in a minority with respect to the question of whether we can keep our country healthy and safe by maintaining its status as the world’s premier killing machine. We have tried that theory for more than a half-century, and it has consistently failed. But we’re having a hard time learning from our failures. We appear to have adopted an official schizophrenia with respect to our recent past which allows us to say, for example, that our invasions of Vietnam and Iraq were hideous experiences, yet readiness to carry out similar operations must remain the principal aim of our policy and expenditures.

If one becomes convinced that massive military operations are unlikely to do the people of the United States any good in the world we now inhabit, he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. He is at odds with a majority of his fellow citizens and he has a very hard time explaining to them why he views things as he does. There seems to be no common forum where an explanation of that sort would be welcome. In fact, there are relatively few where it would be acceptable.

The problem returns to the notion of nobility. If one finds no link between that concept and large-scale killing, he’s likely to feel increasingly alienated in the current American nation-state. And I suppose that’s simply the price of maintaining his own integrity. In fact, the latter may be more difficult now than it has ever been before in the history of the nation. I wish it weren’t so, but I’d have to be extremely simple-minded not to recognize that’s where we find ourselves.

September 16, 2016

The current New York Review has an article by Michael Ignatieff about Mark Danner’s new book, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War. Ignatieff seems reasonably sympathetic that Danner knows what we shouldn’t do with respect to foreign military operations and what we should stop doing. But he chides Danner for failing to tell us what actions the U.S. should take to prevent violent terrorist attacks. This strikes me as a weak criticism. It assumes that America should be killing people in other countries who are suspected of planning attacks here but more or less admits that we don’t really know who should be killed or where these killings should take place.

One of the major problems with foreign killings is that they may be creating more enemies of the U.S. than they eliminate. Obama himself has said we shouldn’t do things that bring more enemies into being, even though it’s not clear that his actions have met that standard.

The difference between Ignatieff and Danner define for me the limits of reasonable policy towards people outside our own borders who speak of launching attacks inside the U.S. Ignatieff suggests that we’ve got to do something about them other than keeping a careful watch on them. Danner argues that we certainly shouldn’t go around killing them unless we’re sure their talk adds up to something more than just that, and that we can make sure that our attacks don’t kill people just because they happen to be in the vicinity of the targets. I admit that my opinions are far closer to Danner’s than they are to Ignatieff’s. I’ve been reading Danner’s books and essays for a long time now and I’m convinced that had we followed his advice since the Reagan administration’s craziness in Central America we would hold a far more respected place in the world than we do now. Killing just because you can’t think of anything else to do is the act of people who have dismissed habits of thought essential to decent international behavior.

Danner takes more account of human qualities, as defined by the Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul, as ethics, memory, common sense, and reason. Ignatieff, by contrast, strikes me as more of a technocrat, that is a theorist who believes we can base our behavior on data alone. If we have information that someone is thinking about something we don’t like, we have to take action against him, regardless of the results of such actions in the recent past or whether they comport with a broad sense of ethics. Technocrats, in truth, don’t think in terms of ethics at all.

The thought of writers like Danner have been excluded from policy-making in the national government for far too long, and unless it can be restored we’ll keep on making the same kind of mistakes that have marked our national behavior for the past four decades.

September 17, 2016

I have two rooms in my house in which I try to learn, and develop my thoughts. One, on the bottom floor, is quite large -- about 400 square feet -- and filled with my books, and archives, and inconsequential notes, and so on. The other, two floors up, is small --about 80 square feet -- and is much better organized. It’s where I read and write.

The big room is quite chaotic. When I go there to find something I fail more often than I succeed. I think I remember where I have put something, but when I go there to get it, it’s usually not there. But this doesn’t mean that the big room is useless. It’s a place of discovery, where I find things I barely remember having and notes I barely remember jotting. You might say the big room is a feeder for the little room upstairs.

Yesterday, rummaging in the big room, I noticed on the edge of one of the bookshelves a small stack of cards -- two and a half by five inches -- which were put there late in 2009 and not looked at since. They were all, in some way or another, related to my reading of Arthur C. Danto’s Nietzsche As a Philosopher.

There were just five brief thoughts strictly my own in the stack. As I read them now I see that they have a kind of coherence and that they provide one of the foundations for subjects I have taken up more recently. I’ll copy them here so you can see if you agree.

  • There is an impulse built into stupid men to say laudatory things about institutions they represent. This is the mask of corruption.

  • Many men -- I think a majority when I’m being pessimistic -- are extremely stupid. And in their unimaginative stupidity they are brutal. This is the basic fact of history. You might say it’s what causes history, as we have known it, to happen.

  • Christianity is a name that has been applied to many attitudes. Anyone who tries to make of all of them into an internally coherent system is either being dishonest or is refusing to think.

  • In religion the components which maintain and support life are symbols and music. Doctrine and theology seldom ever do. They are mostly trash, although at times interesting trash.

  • Nietzsche had an extraordinarily vivid mind. To watch it at play is an exhilarating experience. If a thinker doesn’t vivify our own thoughts he doesn’t deserve the name of philosopher.

September 21, 2016

For the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to digest John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. It’s certainly not an easy book to read but I’m pretty sure it will end up being one of the more influential books I’ve taken up over the past decade. It explains a good deal of what I’ve been trying to work into my own understanding of why American organizations, and especially political organizations, are descending into absurdity.

I’ll be posting more about it here in the future, but in the meantime I’ll offer a sketch of Saul’s main themes, which I hope will lay a foundation for subsequent arguments about the importance of his analytic stance. The following five paragraphs don’t begin to exhaust Saul’s ingenuity, but perhaps they might be enough to tempt some readers to take up the arduous task of reading Saul for themselves.

Over the past three centuries -- at least -- John Ralston Saul argues that we have been increasingly excluding from Western decision-making certain “humanisms” which are essential in devising healthy social and political policies. Principal among these are ethics, memory, common sense and imagination.

When they are left out, the determined application of rationally organized expertise is all that remains. The consequence has been that general understanding and coordinated action have become not simply impossible but widely despised and distrusted within our major institutions. It has become impermissible to think as we must if we wish to ameliorate the difficulties that are causing our dominant social miseries.

In the resulting “Scientific Management,” what is encouraged, above all, is an undisciplined form of self-interest in which winning is all that counts. In other words, the only thing that matters to our so-called leaders is the ability to climb up organizational ladders. Getting to the top has become, for them, far more significant than bringing about any particular results. Being “successful” has, throughout history, been a part of leadership motivation but it has not always obliterated all other motivations to the extent it has done recently.

Expertise and stability have become the two great arguments used by the modern man of reason to disguise his own incompetence. Robert McNamara is the best example of this process in recent American history. He failed at everything he undertook, as long as you leave out being repeatedly rewarded with a new, super-big job.

The degree to which men must be flim-flammed, even by themselves, in order to be seen as functioning competently in the modern technocratic organization has reached a condition that requires virtually all “successful” functionaries to be fools.

September 23, 2016

I don’t like to piggyback on other writers too much, but quite often, in skimming through my news sources, I come on statements I think deserve as wide a circulation as possible. Today for example I found two I find almost compelled to mention.

The first involves a report from a United Nations working group that will be presented to the U.N. Humans Council next Monday. The subject is the current relationship between American police and the black community. It's receiving more attention than documents of this sort normally do because it compares current killings of black men by police officers to the numerous lynchings that took place in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The statement that struck me most forcibly was a summary that is clearly true but which I suspect would be rejected by a sizable portion of the U.S. population:

“In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and
segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a
serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth
and reconciliation for people of African descent.”

Who can deny the truth of this? That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves and that I hope this report will raise in the American media. But guess what? I don’t have great hopes that it will.

The second statement comes from Josh Marshall, editor of The Talking Points Memo. It tries to put to rest, once and for all, what’s going on with respect to Donald Trump’s ongoing fluctuations about Mr. Obama’s birth place. It too is for me obviously true and yet one that would be dismissed by great sectors of population:

As I noted last week with video of the 2011 interview we did with Trump, at his most
candid moments Trump has been open about the roots of his birtherism: it sells. He
saw early that conservative Republicans had a rabid appetite for it and he meant to
feed it. Whether the whole idea was true or not, I suspect never really entered into
Trump's calculus. It's not a salesman or a con man's way of thinking. But with Trump,
once Trump says it, it's absolutely true and never won't be.

I had to reach the second half of my adulthood before I realized that there are people for whom truth is a concept that has no hold on them. When they speak, they are thinking only of their own advantage. Nothing else guides what they say. And I had to reach an even later stage of my adulthood to see that this condition -- that is being free of the truth -- is a principal element of sociopathy.

I hope the connection between these two statements will be clear to you. And if it’s not, I ask you to think about them a bit more.

September 27, 2016

A friend told me she suspected I might vote for Gary Johnson. I found this perplexing since I dislike every principle of government he stands for and besides that, I regard him as a moron. Why did she think this about me? Evidently, because I have expressed reservations about Hillary Clinton. My friend assumes I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump (and she’s right about that), so what else could I do other than vote for someone who would be worse than either of them?

The way people think about political motivations is strange.

It’s true that I do have reservations about Hillary Clinton. She is, or at least has been, a thoroughgoing member of the imperial leadership class. She has supported U.S. wars of aggression, unchecked corporate power, the carceral state, an increasingly intrusive surveillance state, and permanent war against anyone the U.S. national security state chooses to call terrorists.

All five of these things cause death, destruction and suffering. None of them will push us closer to a just and peaceful world. So I don’t think there’s anything weird about my having reservations about them.

Even so, I intend to vote for Hillary Clinton because I think her election is the only way to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. And Donald Trump is a sociopath. If I have to choose between a sociopath and a person who promotes the imperial leadership class, I will go with the latter. But I will be reluctant.

An attitude I’ve observed is the notion that once you have decided to support a person for public office, you are obliged to be enthusiastic about him or her. I don’t see that. I am not enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. I just think she would be better than the alternatives.

I do have hopes that she might change her mind about some attitudes she has held. Whether she can, or not, I don’t know. Some of the positions she seems honestly to have stood for over the years I do support, primarily the health and wellbeing of children. She has also gained a reputation for wanting to see black people treated fairly in the United States. Whether that reputation is deserved, I’m not sure. I am pretty sure it is not deserved with respect to her husband, and she has always been fairly supportive of her husband’s positions. He is as responsible as anyone for causing young black men to be sentenced to insanely harsh prison terms. Maybe she’s ready to turn away from that idea; maybe she’s not.

I think she will do well to separate herself from many of his policies, but whether she’s ready to do it, I can’t be sure.

So, I have hopes for her, but I also have reservations. I don’t think the latter are unreasonable. And I certainly don’t think they are a valid cause for thinking I might do something as idiotic as to vote for Gary Johnson.

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