Collected Thoughts

November 2016
November 4, 2016

In America, the inability to face who we are, as a people, has been fueled by the nonsense of American exceptionalism. Those who have been captivated by the notion that they are special among all the people of earth are bound to descend into moral monstrosity. We are now well on our way to that condition.


November 5, 2016

I wonder what percentage of the American people think of killing enemies as the ultimate heroic act. I suspect it’s frighteningly high, perhaps even a majority. If it is, I don’t suppose we should be surprised. After all, much of our popular culture -- TV shows and so forth -- is grounded in that proposition. When you think about it, you realize it is a monstrously influential attitude. It determines how one thinks about many other things and, in particular, about political virtue. I would guess that almost all Trump voters hold that belief.

How we’re going to cure ourselves of it is hard to know. Viewing the desire to kill large bodies of people as an emotional disease is not something that will come about quickly. Yet we need to work towards it as intelligently as we can, remembering the adage of what happens to those who live by the sword.


November 6, 2016

This election season has caused Americans, or at least decent-minded Americans, to have a hard time facing how vicious, ill-informed, and mean-spirited large numbers of their fellow citizens are. But we can no longer run away from the truth that the United States has a considerable portion of its population who are just as cruel as any people of history have been. Whether this is temporary condition or long-lasting no one can say for sure. We can simply hope that the situation we confront now is like a boil that will burst before too much longer, perhaps as a result of demographic transformations.


November 7, 2016

Tomorrow is election day. It seems clear that millions will be relieved to see it come. The campaigns of the past year have been so wearying, painful, degrading, and vile it appears that we couldn’t stand them for another day.

The main reason that’s so is that they have forced us to begin to see who we are. It’s view not only less gratifying than we thought it was, it is in many respects nauseating.

Now comes a period of fear. We don’t know how to reclaim the vision of who we thought we were. And we are terrified that we may never get it back. Yet we need to remember that never is a very long time. If we began to try to know what we mean by the words we use, an escape from our lowness could be closer than we imagine. When, for example, we praise ourselves by saying that the United States is the greatest country on earth — as we do so fulsomely — we need to ask ourselves if we know what we mean by “great.” That question alone, if regularly brought into public discourse, would set off a transformation. It is always healthy to replace pure emptiness with something of substance. It offers a foundation, however narrow, on which we could begin to build.


November 8, 2016

In the United States over the past forty years there has been no greater intellectual abomination than the absurd notion of equivalency between the two political parties. It is not only possible that people with greedy, selfish and cruel ideas should congregate in a single party, it’s entirely logical to expect them to do so. And that’s what has happened here, increasingly, to the point that now one of our parties has become a monster. That’s not to say that the other is glorious. It is a severely flawed institution. It has become more corrupt as it has attempted to win elections by catering to some of the emotions that completely possess its opponent. Still, there remains a difference.

Many people argue that the only way out of the bind we have driven ourselves into is a vigorous third party that will have none of the nastiness afflicting the main two, that will say, forthrightly that life is more important than money, and that the purpose of government is to provide structures that will help people — all the people — lead decent and meaningful lives. They may be right. Whether it’s more sensible to give oneself to a third effort or to attempt to reform the less cankered of the main two is hard to know. But what is not hard to know is that there is no justification whatsoever to give support, in any way, to the monster party. It is anti-human and there is no sign that it’s likely to change its direction in the coming decades.


November 9, 2016

This morning in the New York Times Paul Krugman suggested that with the results of yesterday’s election the United States may have become a failed state. It seems an extreme statement at first glance, but on reflection, maybe not. We are certainly a sick state if not a failed one.

The principal element of a healthy state is a generous supply of responsible citizens. This we don’t begin to possess. When it comes to our political situation, the people of the United States are exceedingly ignorant. And it is very hard to know how to persuade them to stop being that way. They are suffused with opinions which they have been flattered they have every right to hold. And they give almost no thought as to whether their opinions reside on evidence. My guess is that almost none of them ever ask about the factuality of what they believe. They believe what they want to believe and let it go at that. Such political behavior is not going to rescue us from the isolated position among nations we have assumed.

For more than two centuries we have prided ourselves on being blowhards. We’ve constructed such a mountain of self-delusion we’re in danger of dying up here, all alone. We can’t get down without bringing the mountain down with us, which can occur only by slicing it off a layer at a time.

We would do well to start with our assurance that when we kill people outside our borders it’s always done in defense of freedom and never as an act of pure viciousness. Examining that proposition sincerely would allow us to take a baby step towards political maturity.


November 10, 2016

Almost all of the persons to whom I spoke yesterday expressed a deep sense of threat. They feel as though their country has been stripped away from them overnight. It’s true that their country as they had perceived it was deeply flawed but, at least, they could experience some feeling of ownership. Now that sense has disappeared. They’ve become unwelcome outliers in their own land.

That view of things strikes me as thoroughly understandable. After all, people who will place the pussy grabber in chief in the Oval Office will do anything. There is no abomination, no cruelty, they won’t commit. It feels creepy even to walk down the same streets they do.

Perhaps this feeling of horror will subside somewhat as people become more used to living with it. I hope it does. But the feeling we had of being at home in America will not return for a long time. For many of us it will not return during the course of our lives.

I’m not writing here about what’s rational, or what’s justified. Many arguments can be made about that. I’m writing about what’s real. And that reality the country, whatever it has become, will be forced to confront.

It is one thing for groups of people to disagree. It is entirely another for them to come to loathe each other. And loathing is the principal force in the United States now.

How we can get beyond loathing I don’t know. But I know we have to if we are to return to a time when citizens can feel securely that they have an ownership stake in the country.


November 11, 2016

Now that the presidential election is past, I find myself encountering numerous articles pointing out just how rotten the Clinton campaign organization and the Democratic Party establishment were (for example see Jim Newell, “The Democratic Party Establishment Is Finished,” Salon, November 9, 2016 and John Stepping, “The Big Split,” CounterPunch, November 10, 2016). And I can’t say I completely reject those analyses.

Over the past several months there has been a torrent of commentary about settling for the lesser of two evils. That’s what I thought I was doing in voting for Clinton on Tuesday. At the moment, I still think I was right. I can’t imagine anyone with less respect for the character of Donald Trump than I have. He is, as far as I can tell, a thoroughly vulgar, viciously greedy ignoramus. I don’t want anyone of his nature wielding governmental power. Even so, it remains worthwhile to listen to arguments which contend that bad as Trump is, Clinton would have been worse. Here, for example, is Mumia Abu-Jamal: “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian neoliberalism — so be it.”

If I thought there were numerous voters who chose Trump because they considered Clinton an out-of-control warmonger, I could feel at least slightly better. But I don’t think that. What I do think is that the vast majority of Trump’s votes rose from racist sentiment. The validity of that motive I’m not willing to listen to. Virtually none voted for Trump because they want peace and revile war.

We may have escaped from some horrors because Clinton is not going to be president. But I think what we avoided remains less than what we’re going to get.

Now, however, that we can’t be free of a Trump presidency, we would do well to pay attention to the weakness that brought him upon us.

If the Democratic Party is going to be the principal agent for regaining political decency, it can’t be the party of the Clintons or of the current party establishment. It has to be a cleansed party that has cut itself off from the worship of enormous piles of money and dreams of ruling the world with a bloated military machine. These, indeed, were the cankered lusts that brought Ms. Clinton down.


November 12, 2016

I doubt that the average American recognizes the term “neoliberalism.” If you asked most people whether they favor neoliberal policies, they wouldn’t know how to answer. Yet it is neoliberalism that has stolen the political party that most Americans need to look to for defending their basic rights.

Neoliberalism has been an attempt over the past three and a half decades to meld two incompatible desires and to flummox the citizenry into believing that you can put two things together that won’t fit. It is simply one more version of the ancient attempt to have your cake and eat it too.

It clearly has been a complex movement engineered by hundreds of theorists, but the two persons that serve well enough for practical purposes as examples for the movement are Bill and Hillary Clinton. I don’t know if either of them believes sincerely that neoliberalism can accomplish what they have said it can. But it doesn’t much matter. It can’t, and that has been proved conclusively over the past twelve months.

What is neoliberalism? That too is a complex question. But just as you can simplify the leadership enough by pointing to the Clintons, you can simplify the definition of neoliberalism by pointing to three strategies.

One is that you can help the common people by cozying up to Wall Street, by making deals with Wall Street.

Two is that you can be a genuine democrat and still pursue aggressively a military interventionist policy abroad.

Three is that you can work out complex trade agreements that make multinational corporations happy and which at the same time ease the lives of most citizens.

Nobody can do any of those things. They are impossible. Pushing them rewards the rich at the expense of those who are content to live modestly and find their success in loving family relationships and in personal achievements of knowledge and understanding.

The latter are what a validly democratic party will promote, and it will have to do it, at least in part, by checking, and usually undermining, the propensities that go with the main three neoliberal impulses.


November 13, 2016

Now come calls for unity. We’re all supposed to come together. Some of my friends have even issued this plea. I have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m supposed to come together with Rudy Giuliani? With Newt Gingrich? With Donald Trump? What would that mean?

As far as I can tell it would mean committing a kind of suicide. I would have to surrender virtually everything that has made me who I am in the interests of some vague abstraction named unity. And what would I do with this unity when I had it? Would I march in parades led by Mr. Giuliani, by Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Trump wearing a flag pin on my jacket? Would I start using phrases like, “Thank you for your service?” Would I have to take an anti-nausea pill every morning to get me through the day?

I’m sure Mr. Giuliani, and Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Trump would enjoy seeing me destroy myself in this way. But is gratifying them worth all the work of reconstruction it would take? What would it do for my daughters? True, they could point and say, “That used to be my daddy.” But would the glorious rays of unity shining down on them compensate them for what they had lost?

When, by the way, did unity become a god?

I know people love to say anything’s better than the bitterness of this near-civil-war we’ve fallen into. But is it? How could we know?

Pumping up unity is, of course, pious. It falls in with the philosophy of sentimental greeting cards. But the calls for unity force me to admit I have never wanted to be pious. I have never coveted the sweetness of piety.

So, for the moment, I’m not going to take up the labor of personal transformation unity would demand. I don’t like the way things are now but I can easily imagine liking some things even less, actually, a lot less.


November 14, 2016

Those who aren’t willing to grant full humanity to those who differ from themselves in physical appearance or culture are the curse of history. We have been trying to hide from ourselves how many of the curse-bearing men and women inhabit the United States. Now no sane person can any longer deny that there are tens of millions of them, and perhaps well over a hundred million.

The first duty this recognition places on us is not to emulate them by giving way to the perhaps natural impulse to see the bigots as less than human. That would be a huge mistake. There can be no right to persecute them nor to deny that they probably have some genuinely human emotions. But there is a responsibility to resist them when they act out their prejudiced feelings as so many did in the past election.

Now the president-elect is promising immediately to round up two or three million people. He appears to be claiming that at least that number are vicious criminals, which is just one more of the lies that so endear him to his followers.

It remains to be seen how his bluster will play out. But if it becomes the pure police state behavior he is implying, resistance of some sort will arise. This is a dangerous situation which sensible people need to consider very carefully. There is no good in violence at the moment. But modes of peaceful resistance clearly are justified.

If Trump really is going to be a storm-trooper president, I suppose it’s best to find it out as soon as possible. Then, maybe, some of his supporters will begin to ask themselves if they are quite as clever as they have been telling themselves they are.


November 15, 2016

When I was growing up, and through most of my adulthood, it never occurred to me that I would ever have to worry about living in a fascist state. I knew the United States wasn’t a perfect country, and I never indulged in the sentimental patriotism many Americans find so glorifying. Still, I thought the country, at heart, possessed a basic decency. We, I assumed, would never have to be concerned about vicious police state tactics or military imperialism as a basic national policy.

Part of that was a naiveté about what was actually occurring around me. I didn’t dwell on what happened regularly in police stations to people whose complexions were less pale than mine. During the Cold War, I didn’t pause much to wonder if the story the press and the government steadily pumped out about the evils of the Soviet Union and the purity of the U.S. opposition to it was perfectly balanced. In short, I was a well-propagandized subject of a powerful state.

Yet flawed as conditions were in the 60s and 70s, they appeared to be steadily on the mend. They were getting better, which provided a sensibility we have now lost. Now the health of the state is headed downward and with it our civic spirit.

Fascism is no longer a threat that has passed us by. Rather, it seems to be looming directly in our future.

I’m not ready, yet, to say that Trump, himself, is a fascist. I doubt he’s smart enough to be one. But he has the kind of simplistic, impulsive mind that could well let fascism slip in under his protection.

The position of Steve Bannon in the new administration shows how that could happen. Trump may not be a fascist, but Bannon clearly is. He has all the classic characteristics, including a nasty anti-Semitism. Germany is not the only country that can generate a Joseph Goebbels, and Bannon, here and now, is ready and eager to take on that position.

We don’t know yet who’s going to take Trump over. But we know it’s likely that someone will. Trump doesn’t have the powers of concentration actually to function as a president. Someone will have to do it for him, trotting him out now and then as a figurehead.

If it’s Bannon, who is positioned pretty well for that function, it will be yet one more piece of evidence that what I thought was impossible when I was young, was always there crouching, ready to spring out when the opportunity presented itself.


November 16, 2016

I am beginning to be consumed by a loathing for commerce. I say that recognizing, of course, that a certain degree of commerce is necessary. It’s good to be able to go somewhere and get a loaf of bread or a pair of shoes.

The concept of commerce that disgusts me is of it as the overweening, primary, driving purpose of life, a lust that leaves no room for anything else, a greed that fills the mind every waking hour. That’s the monstrous wave washing over us with the advent of Donald Trump. His face, his gilded surroundings, are the visage of commerce as the only thing that matters, as everything that counts, as everything anyone should care about.

I’ve read that Trump has bragged that he’s never read a book in his life. I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were. I would be willing to bet that he couldn’t identify Jane Austen, or Gustave Flaubert, or Feodor Dostoevsky. Such persons, and their efforts, don’t figure in his universe.

It is the face of pure commerce we see sweeping into the nation’s capital, with the Republican hordes who now have decided they love and admire Donald Trump. It is their values they are determined to force on the nation. Think of Paul Ryan, with dollar bills spilling out of every pocket, and there you have the coming emblem of the United States of America.

There used to be a definition of “cheap” that had nothing to do with low prices. It, rather, was applied to people who had never given a thought to humanity’s worth or its destiny. They spent their lives scraping up every advantage for themselves, no matter how petty it might be. There was no tactic so low they wouldn’t leap at it if they thought it would give them some opportunity to exploit other people. That’s the cheapness we now need to be ready for with the new presidential administration. And if we thought we knew what cheap meant before, we’re likely to be startled to find how low it can actually crawl.


November 17, 2016

Over the years I’ve thought occasionally about what it must have been like to have been an elderly person in Germany in the 1930s and watch the country descend into Nazism. There would have been the sense of never again having the chance to see the nation behave decently, and that must have been a desolate feeling.

I’m pretty sure there are thousands now feeling similar desolation in the United States. I know, most would say it’s crazily exaggerated to make comparisons between the Nazis and the Republicans. Maybe it is. Still, there are eerie similarities between the white nationalist character of the Trump campaign and the racial purity of Hitler’s movement. A thing to keep in mind about such impulses is not only what they are at present but what they have the potential of becoming.

Ask yourself this: if Trump really did begin rounding up millions of Hispanic people and throwing them into camps preparatory to harsh expulsion, how many U. S. citizens would actually rise up in opposition. Some, yes, but enough? How many genuine American citizens would be caught up in such a sweep? When stuff like that gets underway, legal niceties often are set aside. And many of the people carrying it out would be happy to seize anyone who looked Mexican to them. To those who would tell me I’m out of my mind to worry about such things, I could respond with plenty of experiences from central Florida, where the “Americans,” as they call themselves, told me they would like to see “all of them” kicked out, regardless of their legal status.

We are childish if we ignore certain features of the Republican soul. Polls tell us, over and again, what they believe: that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States, that injurious climate change is not occurring, that biological science is all a great sham. People who believe such nonsense can be made to believe anything, especially in the hands of a Steve Bannon. So, if the Republicans are not to the point of considering gas chambers, which I’m willing to admit they’re probably not, that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of historic villainies.

So, perhaps desolation is not completely out of order after all.


November 18, 2016

In my town of Montpelier last week, Donald Trump got 492 votes for president and Hillary Clinton got 3,696. I remain surprised and dismayed that Trump got so many. Who are those people? I ask myself. I don’t know of anyone in Montpelier who would vote for Trump.

That just shows how far you’re outside mainstream America, many would say. To them I reply, “Thank goodness I am.”

If you walk down Main Street in Montpelier, it seems like an ordinary town. There’s a grocery store, a movie theatre, a couple of coffee shops, a drug store, clothing stores, and so on. Nothing shocking. But I guess it’s true, we Montpelierites are weird because we don’t want a racist, fascist government.

I guess you could say that most citizens remain unaware that’s what they have put in place. But as the days go by it becomes more and more clear. A country that will appoint a weasel bigot like Jeff Sessions to be its Attorney General can no longer pretend that it’s a respectable republic. Think of it: the official primarily charged with maintaining fairness in law has a record of prejudice that startles the mind. But, then, there’s no cause for surprise. After all, the white nationalist candidate for president has been swept into the White House. What else can we expect?

I’ve been musing, sadly, about the country we could have if all the citizens thought as the people of Montpelier do. We would have health care for all, a more generous pension system for the elderly, a vigorous program to combat injurious climate change, a well-maintained system of bridges and roads, an efficient electric grid, good schools, enhanced medical research so we could advance more rapidly on countering deadly diseases, active experimentation to produce less expensive energy. But we can’t have any of that here in America. What we want instead is a president backed by the K.K.K..

I’ve been saying for years that we were unaware of what the American people were becoming, under an insidious propaganda campaign waged by commercial greed and government lust for international power. But now it has become evident. There aren’t that many Montpeliers left any more.


November 19, 2016

The New Yorker came yesterday, and with it a substantial article about the Hebrew novelist, S.Y. Agnon, a Nobel Prize winner, who has not garnered the fame or readership that usually goes with the award. The explanation offered is not only that Agnon constricted the number of his readers by writing in Hebrew but also that he treated only intensely Jewish themes of a traditional nature which often have a hard time attracting the modern sensibility.

I’m not sure about that, but Agnon does call to my mind a condition I’ve frequently been puzzled by, the person who has to think about himself, or herself, primarily as a member of a group — as a woman, as a Jew, as a Jehovah’s Witness, and so on. It’s not the kind of association I’m attracted to, for myself, certainly.

I have never, for example, thought of myself as a redneck, even though I recognize that I am one. Yet that element of self strikes me as insignificant compared to the features of my life that constitute my individuality. When I think of myself, the first thing that comes to mind is my name — John Turner. That says more about me, or at least leads to knowing more about me, than anything else. When people ask me who I am, I don’t respond with my profession, or my ethnic group, or my religion, or my nationality. I simply answer with my name and let it go at that.

When Agnon moved the Palestine in 1908, his name was Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes. He changed it to S. Y. Agnon shortly afterwards. I can’t imagine doing such a thing. It would be denying who my parents were. I can’t claim that they were the most admirable people in the world. I have no filial sentimentality about them. But I would never obscure my relationship to them. They brought me into the world -reluctantly on my father’s part. He wasn’t ready to have a son, which I fully understand. But once he had one he took on the responsibilities of fatherhood. He and my mother provided me with food, clothing, and a warm place to sleep until I was an adult. Actually, growing up, I never felt I wanted for anything. If there were any deficit in the relationship between my father and me, it was more on my part than his. I should have learned much earlier than I did who he was and what his troubles were. I should have comforted him more.

The process of forming one’s identity is probably the most complex thing anyone ever does. Why I don’t want to be known as anything except myself I’m not sure. But I know I don’t. The thought of it nauseates me.

I would like to talk to S.Y Agnon about these things. He might dismiss me as a dope. Still it would be fun to try. But he died in 1970. So, there’s one more chance I missed.


November 20, 2016

That the world is such a cruel place is a perplexing thing. It doesn’t have to be that way. Humans have the means, and the ability, to do away with most suffering. They don’t do it because they don’t want to. In truth, a considerable percentage of people think there’s something grand, something heroic, about inflicting pain on others.

I have been told by persons who consider themselves experts on these matters, that cruelty, the desire to inflict suffering, is a part of human nature. If you asked them what human nature is, they probably couldn’t give a coherent answer. Nonetheless, they know cruelty is a part of it. People know a great many things for which the source of their knowledge is obscure.

I don’t know if cruelty is an element of human nature or not. But if it were, it wouldn’t cause me to dislike it any less than I do. I have never been a champion of human nature, mainly because I don’t know if it’s anything real. Nor do I know how I could ever find out.

This I do know: people ascribe behavior to human nature in order to get away with it. After all, if something is inherently human, you can’t sincerely blame humans for indulging in it. I confess that at times I have thought of human nature as nothing else than a gigantic excuse machine. And if there’s a chance that’s true we would do well to stop talking about it altogether. One thing, at least you can know: you’re never going to persuade me that something is acceptable just because it’s a supposed feature of human nature.

Whatever the reason people like to cause others to suffer, we’ll come to understand it better if we’ll start speaking of it more honestly than we do now. If we began to label the desire a psychopathology, or more simply, a sickness, we would approach honesty more closely than we’ve done so far. If everyone got it in his head that a desire to hurt other people — for whatever reason and despite any reason we might make up for it — is a mental illness, I don’t see how that could fail to make us a kinder species. But, then, we have to remember that kindness is not popular among many Americans right now. They think they can find their salvation in hatred. That’s the fascist way.


November 21, 2016

Our thoughts have to be mended before our society can be mended. The great difficulty for that process is that most of us have no concept of what it would mean to mend our thoughts. We haven’t given consideration to there being anything wrong with them.

The most prominent fantasy in the United States has to do with accumulating vast wealth. Most people see nothing wrong with a single person scraping up tens of billions of dollars. In truth, it’s just the opposite. That’s the ideal. That’s the definition of success. That’s the main ingredient of greatness.

I have asked people if they would be bothered to learn that a nearby neighbor had a large stock of bombs in his basement. Everyone to whom I’ve put the question has answered, "Of course,” as though the response were obvious. When I follow up by asking, why, the answer is always some version of, “Nobody should have that much power. It would be extremely dangerous.” It seems beyond them to recognize that ten billion dollars directed to a reprehensible end would be far more dangerous than a few bombs. We’ve seen that demonstrated conclusively over the past few decades as the rich have used their money to purchase the government and direct it away from being an instrument designed to serve all the people. It’s impossible to measure how many lives have been thwarted and lost because of those plutocratic efforts. But one would have to be severely deficient in imagination not to suspect it has added up to many hundreds of thousands.

A mind that doesn’t worry about enormous inequalities of wealth is a mind desperately in need of mending.

This is simply one example of cankered thought that is undermining the health of America. The notion that we can bomb our way to happiness and security is another. And the idea of eternal increase of material goods. And the belief that the things that serve us all, such as an efficient power system, are less productive of human satisfaction and meaning than the individual acquisition of an insanely overpowered pickup truck.

One could go on listing for a long time. But each item on the list would drive to the same conclusion, that our thoughts are out of order because they have failed to advance beyond the level of spoiled children.

We have to face the truth that we need to mend our minds in order to begin getting out of that trap.


November 22, 2016

It’s curious how easily, even quietly, a nation can slip into fascism. Just a few years ago, any hint of an association with the Ku Klux Klan would have been a political death sentence. Now the election of a presidential candidate, who six months ago was considered a farce, has the Klan out in the streets celebrating. And this formerly unthinkable candidate has announced that the next attorney general will be a man whose white supremacist connections have been evident for decades.

Did the people know what they were voting for? It doesn’t really matter, does it? When the people put a fascist government into power, whether they did it out of confusion, ignorance, or pure malice, there it is, and the people are responsible for it regardless of their motives.

Everyone who voted for Donald Trump will be as guilty of the miseries and deaths he causes as he will himself. The myth that the people can do no wrong because their hearts are in the right place has always been garbage and always will be.

Yet, the people didn’t really do it some will argue. Trump didn’t get as many votes as his opponent did, even though the Republicans drove as many voters away from the polls as they could. But everyone knew what the system was, or should have known. The Republicans count on not having the get the greatest number of votes to win. Even if it turns out that Republican polling officials threw out enough legitimate votes to shift the result, that won’t matter either. The Republicans are in power and they can squash any investigation of illegal suppression that comes to light. That’s how a fascist system works.

There will be some protests against Republican skullduggery. But there will be even more acquiesce. “Oh well,” people will say. “there’s nothing I can do about it. And as long as they say that, there will be nothing they can do.

I have said that Trump and his henchmen could start hanging people on the White House lawn and within three months it would become a normal government operation. Maybe that won’t happen, but if it doesn’t, you can’t give the great American people credit for preventing it.


November 23, 2016

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means it’s a day set aside to give thanks. Traditionally, the thanks were to be given to God for whatever blessings we might be in receipt of. The horrors that happened to be visiting us on this set-aside day were supposed to be forgotten, I guess, or maybe seen as blessings in disguise, which we couldn’t yet quite understand, and, perhaps, never would.

Now that God is out of the picture for many of us, I suppose we should be seeking others to thank. In my case, I have a loving family to whom I feel grateful every day. I have to confess, though, I don’t feel any more grateful to them on Thanksgiving than I do any other time. That would strike me as being a little silly. People who need a special day to feel what they should be feeling all the time have feelings that are in a state of disrepair.

I don’t know why it is but increasingly these days I’m seized by the impulse to say that things are what they actually are. I’m aware that for many people this constitutes an anti-social act, but even that potent restraint seems to be losing its power. When it comes to Thanksgiving, reality lies primarily in two situations; it’s a day when people regularly gorge themselves with immense amounts of food. Not only do they do it, they tell themselves they have done something wondrous. You would think we were past the time when almost causing your stomach to explode was an occasion for celebration. But every year Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and other days too, show us we’re not. We remain pretty much as we were in the times when occasionally the tribe would bring down a mammoth. One thing you can never accuse humanity of: learning too fast from changing conditions.

The second reality of Thanksgiving now is that it’s the predecessor to Black Friday. I didn’t even know what Black Friday was until a few years ago when it dawned on me that it’s a day when corporations decide to sell their products for prices slightly nearer to what they should be all the time. This induces in the public a near-insanity, in which they camp out in parking lots at 5:00 A.M., so as to be the first to rush through the store doors when they open, often receiving bruises from other customers driven by the same passion. I guess they are caught up in limitless gratitude to the corporations, who on this special day decide to fleece them to an extent slightly less than they normally do.

This gratitude for engorgement and a slight reduction in the degree to which we're being taken pretty well determines American Thanksgiving nowadays, and defines even more precisely the people and their overweening desires.

So, happy holidays Americans. Enjoy yourselves as much as you can.


November 24, 2016

I waked up this Thanksgiving morning and there it was. I don’t know where it came from. I didn't have anything of that sort in mind before I went to sleep. I don’t believe in omens or projections from otherworldly forces. But there it was: “The stench of Nazism is on the land.”

I can’t say it’s a perfectly rational fear. Yet I can’t say it’s perfectly irrational either. The funny thing is that the words bring up something close to a sensual perception. I tell myself I can’t really smell anything. Still, there’s something in my nose that won’t go away.

For decades now I’ve said to myself that national identity wasn’t an important feature of who I was. I had none of the illusions about the United States that you see promoted in hyper-patriotic demonstrations at football games where gigantic flags, supported by hundreds, spread almost all the way across the field. When I see signs posted in people’s yards proclaiming, “Support our troops,” the first response that comes to my mind is: “Support them to do what?”

I’ve tried not to be deceived about my country. I’ve known it is a gigantic power clot capable of doing anything one might imagine a nation-state doing.

So why am I being visited by this eight-word proclamation that leaves a sick feeling all through my brain? The stench of Nazism is on the land.

Maybe when I was a boy I saw too many movies with S.S. officers storming into a room, eager to torture someone, with no tincture of mercy in their frigid souls. Maybe my unconscious assured me, without my really knowing it, that I would never have to worry about anything like that.

In any case, something caused me to wake up this morning with that misery bedeviling my brain. I suppose I should simply try to put it out of mind, tell myself it means nothing. But I can’t quite convince myself that it was just a meaningless accident, a clot of food from last night that didn’t quite digest right. It was something, and perhaps something I should hold onto for at least a while.


November 25, 2016

This morning Paul Krugman has yet one more column about white people in Appalachia voting against their own self interests. It’s true that many poor whites do that but not for the reasons people like Krugman imagine. Krugman has a hard time grasping the nature of pure hatred. And the main feature of hatred he has missed is the absence of rationality. As soon as you start trying, rationally, to understand why the average guy in Clay County, Kentucky, votes as he does you’ve gone badly off course. Hatred has everything to do with it, and other motives virtually nothing at all.

What is it that the Clay County voter hates most vehemently? Anything different from himself. He has grown up being taught that anything different is the sperm of the devil — vile, nauseating, low, evil. He can’t imagine crediting anything different. He shakes with pure rage whenever he encounters it. And not because this difference has done anything to harm him. In fact, if anything, his hatred intensifies when he gets a hint a person different from himself might wish to be helpful.

When ask yourself about the persons of recent history, who comes across as most different from the denizens of Clay County? Hillary Clinton is a pretty good candidate. They hate her not because of anything she might do but strictly because of who she is. There was no appeal she might have made that could have caused Clay County to feel more favorable towards her. If she had announced a platform that fit exactly what Clay County had been polled in advance to want, the people of the county would have hated her all the more for it.

And why? Because she was about as different as one could be. She was said to be knowledgeable about foreign affairs, for example. The people of Clay County can’t imagine taking any interest in foreign affairs. They don’t even know where foreign affairs are occurring and they would automatically dislike anyone who does. Go down the list of Clinton’s interests and activities, and you could say the same thing about any one of them.

You might think Clay County would find Donald Trump different too. But not really. They know he wants to be rich, that he prizes riches more than anything else. And they do too. They feel the common bond of lust for money, and like Trump are contemptuous of anyone who says there are more intelligent goals than chasing money.

Hatred is in the saddle, and it will take considerable time to knock it out, regardless of any analysis liberal pundits like Paul Krugman might make.

P.S.  Trump got 88% of the vote in Clay County, the same percentage Hillary Clinton got here in Montpelier. Is the country divided? You tell me.


November 26, 2016

There’s a lot to criticize about college football. There’s far too much money involved, and a kind of inherent corruption, and hundreds of examples of kids being dragged through courses they couldn’t begin to pass on their own in order to keep them eligible to play. There are times I get so fed up with the mess I think it ought to be abolished.

But then, every year, on a Saturday late in the fall, I put all that aside because my school, Georgia Tech, is to play Georgia, and I want Tech to beat Georgia with all my soul.

Silly, you say, after all these years? Maybe. Yet you don’t remember what it was like to take your girl to Grant Field, and to scream at the Bulldogs when they came out of the tunnel, and to make jokes about their coach Wally Butts, and to feel the warm sun begin to fade as the last minutes of the game dribbled away, and you prepared to be either miserable or gloriously happy.

Nor probably can you know the sensation of having your daughter follow you to your old school, to play in the marching band all four years, to march twice into Sanford Stadium in Athens, while the Georgia fans yelled every imprecation they could think of, and pelted the Tech band with anything they could pick up around them. There is no more glorious feeling than to be hated by Georgia people.

When I was a freshman at Georgia Tech, I wore a rat hat with “To hell with Georgia” written on its brim. That sentiment has never gone away.

So, today, that time came round again. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Tech seemed thoroughly beaten. Georgia had mauled them throughout the third quarter and seemed set to do the same thing in the fourth. Tech was thirteen points behind. But then, somehow, Tech mounted a 94 yard scoring drive, and with just a few minutes left in the game intercepted a Georgia pass. They drove down inside the Georgia ten with about a minute left. Their first two plays from there went nowhere. It was third down and about six. Tech decided to try a trick halfback pass. But Qua Searcy, the player who was to pull it off, decided on his own that he saw a way to the goal line. He took off for the end zone, and two yards out launched himself into the clotted mass on the goal, at the last second jamming the ball forward with outstretched hands. The end of the ball penetrated into the end zone by about three inches.

Then there was the extra point attempt which went right down the middle. Tech was ahead, 28-27. There were still thirty seconds left, but the Tech defense held firm, intercepting Georgia’s final pass.

A minute or so later the phone rang. It was Elizabeth calling to share our happiness.

Tech beat Georgia and for the moment, at least, all was right with the world.


November 28, 2016

The coverage of Fidel Castro’s death in the U. S. shows how impossible a fair and open-minded press is in a strongly nationalistic state. The pressure to label Castro, overall, as a malign political figure is nearly irresistible. And, clearly, the reason is not a careful weighing of what he did during his half-century rule in Cuba. If that were to be done, you would be left with a highly complicated story, with much to be put in both the positive and negative columns. But that’s not the story the American people are being told. The overweening feature of the American press account is that Castro, throughout his reign, was strongly opposed to U. S. policy in Latin America. Therefore, he is tagged as having been bad. It doesn’t much matter that there was a great deal in U.S. Latin American policy that any sane person would have opposed, and that was obviously despicable. Castro was against the U.S., and that determined his character, regardless of whatever else he did.

It’s pretty widely agreed among impartial observers that during the Castro years, Cuba put in place one of the most humane and effective medical care systems in the Western hemisphere. The number of people who escaped hideous suffering because of that effort can never be measured. But in American press accounts, that process matters very little. Americans, and especially American journalists, don’t care that the people of Cuba now have pretty good doctors to protect them.

It’s also agreed that the Cuban educational system is one of the most effective in the Americas. Cuba now has a 99% literacy rate. It’s obvious that literacy, over the long run, is an essential of a functioning democracy. But in the U.S. neither the press nor the people care whether Cuban children can read or write. I have seen no mainstream journalist write seriously about the state of the Cuban schools, which is without doubt one of the primary indicators of the health of the society. The truth is Castro could have made Cuba into a near-paradise and it would have made virtually no difference about how he was treated by the U.S. press.

Obviously, he did not make Cuba into a paradise. People blame him for keeping Cubans poor, and depriving them of plentiful auto parts. But surely we need to remember he didn’t do it by himself. For half a century the United government did all it could to ensure that the Cuban people lived in poverty. And as far as I can tell the American press made virtually no effort to inform U.S. readers of the miseries imposed by the U. S. embargo. Again, there’s another instance where the American press gave not a damn about the human suffering imposed by its nation’s policies.

There have been no black and white relations in the U.S.- Cuban interactions since 1960. But the American press would much rather tell you about the latest smirk on Donald Trump’s face than inform you about behavior that has affected the well-being of millions of people.


November 29, 2016

If you ask what it’s like to be an American nowadays, the best answer might be that you’re similar to a person who grew up with the sweetest grandmother in the world — always comforting, always thoughtful, always the maker of the finest apple pies ever — who is suddenly revealed to be a Nazi, a woman who goes around calling for “all those people” to be rounded up and taken away somewhere.

I imagine that virtually everyone who has been shocked and horrified by the advent of Trump has relatives who voted for him. I know I do — people with whom I’ve had the warmest of interactions, whom I now discover to be political imbeciles. What’s to be done?

I confess, I don’t know. Is it possible to continue happy connections with people who want to turn your society into a hellhole? Can you just conclude that there are people who can’t be held politically responsible, that when it comes to social health their thoughts are black holes, and they simply can’t help it? You wouldn’t be angry at a four year old for admiring a loathsome politician, would you?

Maybe not. But if you conclude that a goodly percentage of your fellow citizens are naturally bifurcated into political loons on one side and otherwise responsible adults on the other, you have to make radical modifications in your thoughts about democracy. Can we keep on believing in one man, one vote?

I’m not sure how. I do know this: Trump and the horde of vicious thugs he is ushering into office can never, for me, be acceptable politicians. It would be like asking the sweet granny to stitch swastikas on the back of all my shirts. That I’m not going to do, no matter how much I might want to hold onto sweetie pie interactions with her.


November 30, 2016

In my remarks yesterday, I expressed doubts about democracy’s status as the ideal form of government. We have given democracy an iconographic position for so long now in our political discourse we forget that the word itself actually means something: rule by the will of the people. We tend to ignore that we have no commonly agreed upon definition of "the people.” Who are they? How do we know?

If 60% of the people are in favor of something, what does that say about that something’s moral character? Does it tell us that the something is more, or less, likely to be good?

After all, it’s good government we’re in search of through our political efforts, isn’t it? If we were asked to choose between good government and democratic government, we would pick the former, wouldn’t we?

How often do we recall that America’s foremost champion of democracy, Thomas Jefferson himself, warned that the will of the people was a desirable thing only if the people themselves were good. And where did he locate political virtue in the people? In their honesty and in their being well-informed.

He had a specific word for a people who were neither honest nor well-informed. They were the “canaille,” a term derived from the Italian “canaglia,” meaning a pack of dogs. Jefferson had no approval for rule by a pack of dogs, and one would think, neither should anyone else.

In other words, Jefferson was telling us that democracy is valuable only when the people its will expresses are worthy of our respect. But what about when the people of a political unit are not particularly honest and are woefully ill-informed? What do we do about our government then?

I have been known to argue that we can have decent and effective government again only if we can build a better informed electorate. But how realistic is that? When I think of the American public, as it is at the moment, and what it would take to get even half of them to read a single, well-reasoned book a year, the prospects seem so fantastic I couldn’t blame a critic for dubbing them little better than insane. So here I am, a person who wants desperately for my country to have better government, with a plan I have to admit myself may be insane.

When I consider American intellectual development over the past century, I see not a shred of evidence the American mind has improved. Yes, we have serious thinkers, and fine scientists, and courageous medical researchers, and intelligent novelists, and inspired artists. But the percentage of good minds among Americans as a whole is abysmal. Consider just one group as it is now and as it was a century ago: the members of the U. S. House of Representatives. If you drew a chart plotting average intelligence in the House against time, the slope would not only be descending, it would be crashing downward, plunging before much longer into hellish conditions we’ve not really begun to consider.

A conclusion is forced on me: we need something in addition to democracy to save ourselves from pure fascist degradation. What that something else is and where it might come from, I don’t think any of us know.

I’ve heard it argued that changing demographics constitute our salvation. I sincerely hope so. But I would warn everyone who is hoping as I am not to underestimate the malignancy of aging, stupid, white guys, like the ones who make up the majority of the U. S. Congress right now.



©John R. Turner

All images and text on this page are the property of Word and Image of Vermont

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner

Top of Page         Word and Image of Vermont Home
Archives
Books by John R. Turner
Click on the Cover