Collected Thoughts

December 2016
December 1, 2016

Back when he was at ABC, Mark Halperin put out a daily political gossip sheet called “The Note” which was essentially addressed to "The Gang of 500," that is the political insiders and journalists who determine the daily media narrative in U. S. politics. To carry out their function of determining the narrative, the Gang had to know what they thought. Hence, the driving necessity for "The Note.”

As far as I can tell, there was never an official listing of the membership. The only person you could be fairly sure was a member was Halperin himself. To be assured of membership may have been the reason he created the conceit in the first place.

When you think about it, the idea of there being a group of five hundred persons who decide what is to be said about politics in a nation of more than three hundred million people is a fairly fantastical concept. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it does seem highly unlikely. It would mean there was one voice determining the political attitudes of about 600,000 people. But that just points to the genius of the Gang of 500. It doesn’t have to exist to be seriously influential. Since there is no way, officially, to get into the Gang, there is no way of knowing who’s in it — with the exception of Halperin himself, that is.

Yet, since everyone wants to know what the Gang of 500 thinks, being supposed to be in it confers immense prestige. Consequently, there’s lots of competition for membership.

You can see how the Gang of 500 becomes the perfect metaphor for American political reality: the unreal thing is the only way we have to know what reality is. The thing that’s made up becomes more actual than what has evolved among the existing population. The United States, for example, may not have become a fascist country, but if the Gang of 500 says it has, the heart of the nation won’t matter much when the storm troopers show up on your porch. That’s what the Native Americans and the black people have been telling us for centuries. When it comes to reality, the storm troopers really can make you dead. And their behavior at the moment derives more from what made-up groups say than what an actual group, brought together, would decide.


December 2, 2016

Roger Cohen in the New York Times this morning decided to wax philosophic. That, where he’s concerned, is usually a mistake.

This year for him has been bad not only civically but also personally, with much illness afflicting his family. For this he deserves our sympathy; he does not deserve our acquiescence in less than meaningful thought.

Somehow, he has decided to make death the opposite, and foe, of immortality, and therefore a kind of blessing. He proclaims that “immortality does not interest me,” and goes on to announce that “death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life.” But does death do any of these magnificent things? Of course not.

What death does is to bestow oblivion. It projects one into non-being.

Cohen is trying to make it a savior by contrasting it with immortality, a rather horrible abstraction. He says he’s not interested in immortality. Neither am I. But I certainly am interested in tomorrow. And I suspect Cohen would be too if he were honest with himself.

There will always be a tomorrow. And who would not choose it over death if it could be full of life?

There is scarcely anyone so loathsome that someone would not wish him to be alive rather than dead. His death will hurt the living. So why is it right that they should suffer? As for those who claim to celebrate death, and to be filled with joy by it, their desires have sunk so low, have become so degenerate, they deserve not fulfillment but treatment.

Rather than trying to make death some glorious outcome in the overall scheme of things, we should be trying in every way we can to help tomorrow win out over it.

Cohen says he is not interested in immortality. But might he be interested in a hundred years of life? And if he reached that mark, might he not then become interested in a hundred and twenty?

As long as tomorrow can be secured, I say let death go to hell, which is pretty much where, and what, it is already.


December 3, 2016

Gail Collins had a clever column yesterday when she posited — perhaps jokingly — that Donald Trump’s problem is the same as Dew Barrymore’s character in the film 50 First Dates, in which a young woman wakes up each morning having lost all memory of what happened the previous day. When Trump denies having said something he obviously said, he’s not lying in the ordinary sense because he has no recollection of anything he said prior to the present day.

If I were going to try to project that into a serious analysis, I’d say it’s not a matter of failing to recall what he said prior to today. It’s rather a matter of losing all knowledge of what he says from the moment words leave his mouth, even if it were only five seconds ago.

I don’t know if there’s an official disability which fits that symptom, but, clearly, we the people have selected a man to be our government’s chief executive who’s afflicted by mental weirdness exceeding any that has ever before come close to major political decision-making. We are not only not close to understanding it, I’m not sure we’re capable of understanding it.

If we were to convene a panel of the most eminent psychologists and put to them the question, “What’s wrong with this guy?” I doubt we would get an answer.

Failing to decipher Trump, as I think we have, we are left with a question about the American people. What does it tell us about them that they would choose to project such weirdness into the White House? What do they expect to get out of it?

Might we be in the presence of mass mental illness? Might it be that the American people’s memory is no better than Trump’s is? Are they incapable of holding him to account because they can’t remember what he has said any better than he can? Might this be a marriage of vacancy with vacancy to produce a vacuum more toxic than any other that has been brought forth in the political world?

I know. I know. You think I’m running off the rails. And yet the strangeness of these times can’t help but spew out strange theories.

If we are going to be attaching labels of strangeness, surely there is nothing that deserves it more than the notion that what has just taken place in the United States is simply ordinary jockeying for power, with one interest contending against another.

If you think that then you're weirder than anything I’ve just discussed here.


December 4, 2016

When I was a boy I noticed often in certain sorts of roadside restaurants signs which asked the question: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” The people who put up these signs, and those who took glee from them, considered them to be exceedingly clever.

The notion that the primary function of intelligence is the accumulation of wealth marks those who have a hard time imagining non-narcissistic goals of any sort. If it’s not going to benefit me directly then I can’t see the use of it has been the sentiment of a great many people in all time and places. But the genuine significance associated with it is the percentage of a population who hold it as their main rule of life.

If the percentage is about a third, a society can assimilate it without dire consequences. If it reaches a half, trouble is clearly on the horizon. If it gets to two-thirds, then the society is seriously ill. At that point a people is well into a culture of narcissism, which Christopher Lasch described so provocatively almost forty years ago. The importance of Lasch’s analysis was not so much in the details of social breakdown he listed as in the conception of fear-burdened narcissism which deepened the determination to think only of oneself. People who are paralyzed by fear lose the ability to think about inhabiting a just social order. They can’t think of fairness for everybody because terror rips their minds away from all generous impulses.

It doesn’t matter whether their fear is justified or not. If it’s working in their minds as something real it tends to transform them into very bad neighbors and atrocious citizens.

It ought to be have been obvious to us for decades that this anti-social fear was growing out of hand. The history of the Republican Party laid out that process unmistakably. If you compare Dwight Eisenhower with Donald Trump, the direction of the Republican trajectory cannot be escaped. Eisenhower was a warrior against fascism. Trump has now become its leading champion. It doesn’t matter that Trump fails to know himself for who he is, or that he’s too empty-headed to know what fascism is. In the shift towards totalitarianism the led are often more dangerous than the leaders.

I don’t suppose it’s feasible for a democratic republic to pick up all the signals of where it’s headed. I knew, for example, when I first encountered the restaurant signs about smartness and richness that they were nauseating. I wish I -- and others -- had been perceptive enough to understand fully why they had that effect.


December 6, 2016

I suppose most of us have favorite quotations which convey particularly insightful perspectives about things that have a powerful influence in our lives. One that has come to my mind frequently over the past year was part of a letter Harry Truman wrote to his wife early in the 20th century: “I think one man is as good as another so long as he is honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.”

I bring this little passage to your attention not to denigrate Harry Truman, who I think had one of the better records on civil rights among major American statesmen. I refer to it simply to bring out something about our country that has always been an important feature of who we are and is nowhere near to being erased from our character. We are a supremely bigoted people.

If you are in any way shocked to find that Harry Truman said this, then you’re exhibiting another of our distinguishing characteristics. You are supremely naïve.

Bigotry and naiveté, stirred together as they have been in the American soul, is a toxic swill we can’t keep on drinking if we expect to become an honorable country.

If one thinks we’re an honorable country already he’s helping to confirm the points this little commentary is making.

It’s not, of course, that there are no honorable people in America. There are millions. But as many as there are they can’t come up to the number who are ill-informed, blank-minded, indifferent, or pridefully narcissistic. With recent political developments, the latter are probably the most rapidly growing contingent in America. To be as they are has become the thing to do.

Harry Truman never got past all his racist attitudes. But he did reach the point where he thought it was wrong for black American soldiers returning home to Mississippi after the Second World War to be seized by local policemen and have their eyes gouged out. That was a considerable advancement, one that Mr. Truman was able to make but not one that considerable portions of the white population have as yet reached. The behavior and attitudes that were celebrated in 1945, not only in Mississippi but throughout major sections of the country, are still lurking all across the land.

Until we face honestly who we have been we will not begin to take steps towards who we ought to be. I don't see that turn around taking place at the moment. We have many good histories now. We have relatively few who read them.


December 8, 2016

I don’t suppose we can say the United States is in a civil war now because organized groups are not contending violently against one another. But we are as close to it as we can get without stepping over the line. I don’t know an English word which describes a country as intensely divided as ours is. I wish we had one.

When things get this bad, some of us turn to wondering how we can get away from them. Obviously, no ready answers present themselves. The first resort of soft minds is to praise compromise, usually without stopping to consider that no compromises are available.

When we have a nation half of which is committed to promoting a corporate fascist state because that’s their only vision of prosperity and another half that’s determined to protect the environment and distribute relatively equal benefits to all its citizens there are virtually no avenues to compromise. It is also quite hard for one side not to think of the other side as some version of evil.

So, we have a nation embroiled in hatred — we might as well admit that’s what it is — with no obvious means of dissipating it.

We need, more than anything else, a vigorous debate about a sane definition of prosperity. What is the maximum amount of money anyone could need to pursue reasonable personal goals? Ah! “reasonable,” there’s the sticking point. If one would say five million, I doubt he would find many opponents. Ten million would be all right with most. Even twenty-five million could be accommodated. But if you push on far past those numbers into the billions or even tens of billions, then you have entered the realm of sociopathy. If you set gigantic sums of that dimension as sensible or healthy goals then you have destroyed the possibility of an equitable, cooperative society. You have ensured the brand of hatred and vicious opposition at work among us now. We can’t have a society where one man has a million times as much as another — and right now we have differences even greater than that — in which there is anything at all to professions of equal rights. One man cannot be worth a million times as much as another in any system that even approaches humanity.

This is a simple truth. If there were any way to have each citizen examine it dispassionately for even a single evening with other fair-minded citizens it would become obvious. But this is something we cannot do. So, as an alternative, we probably will pursue our near-civil war until real blood begins to flow and real lives begin to be extinguished.

This is who we Americans have become late in the year 2016.


December 9, 2016

A curious occurrence I’ve noticed lately is people discovering they voted against Hillary Clinton because she is a warmonger. On November 8th, they had not given a thought to Clinton's foreign policy, but now a month later they know they rejected her because she would have led us into additional foreign wars. It’s a kind of retroactive knowledge, a psychological phenomenon we don’t fully understand but which clearly operates to determine actions that happened before it came into being. The world is full of wondrous behavior.

I’m not sure if knowing, on November 8th, that people’s motivations for their votes didn’t yet exist -- had not entered their minds -- would have eased my response to the outcome. Somehow, I doubt that it would. I don’t think it would have altered Trump’s decision to appoint racist bigots and corporate fascists to head the major divisions of his administration. That came about not so much out of conviction as because of temperament and a willingness to flatter. And that remains the main thing I regret about the outcome of the election now.

I could conceive before November 8th that a Trump administration might be no worse with respect to foreign policy than one headed by Clinton. I could even imagine that Clinton’s long-term and probably unalterable policy of seeking world dominance for the U. S. government could lead to more hideous results for the world than Trump’s policies of hatred. But what captured my support for Clinton was the conviction that she would be better for the whole population of the United States. There would have been at least some decent and intelligent leaders in a Clinton administration. I can’t see that in a Trump administration there will be a single one. Decency and intelligence are disqualifying characteristics for the Trump leadership.

So here we are now with something that’s indubitably bad, and something that might have been, that would have been questionable at best. What should that tell us about our future behavior?

Surely it tells that we shouldn’t go back to striving for that questionable might have been. We’ve tried that. Clintonism is over. Forget about it.

It should also tell us that there is nothing to be gained in being soft about what we know is healthy for the nation. We can’t sell out our children and our grandchildren for the temporary illusion of moderation, for the supposed virtue of getting along.

We need a government-supported medical system which makes sure that everyone, regardless of financial resources, has access to first-rate medical care. A person in distress is a person in distress, no matter how rich or how poor he is.

We need a support system which guarantees that no one goes hungry.

We need a similar system which eliminates homelessness.

We need a criminal justice system in which there is full equity for everyone, regardless of ethnic or religious identity.

We need active government programs to reduce the pollution of the natural environment and to free everyone from toxins in the air, earth, and water.

Once a political party acknowledges these needs as necessities, then there is room for negotiation. But not before.

Those who reject any of these requirements are professing they favor human misery and suffering. They would do well to consider what that tells us about them, and how they will be seen by their progeny.


December 11, 2016

John Shelby Spong is in the business of rescuing religion from itself. The former Episcopal bishop seems to believe that religion needs to be rescued because we have to understand the evolution of the stories which make up the religious traditions. We have to grasp what they were in the minds of those who created them and not to expect them to be similar to accurate journalistic accounts. They were not grounded in literalism. There was no claim that these stories were true in the same mode of truth we expect from modern, evidence-based historians. They were, rather, tales pointing backwards to the experiences of a certain people, which could then be used to offer present people an avenue for rich and developing interpretation.

I don’t know how much credence to place in Spong’s argument. There are features of it I find attractive, but there are also features I find sentimental, perhaps because I’m a bit sentimental myself. But though I can’t cure myself completely of sentimentality, I do think it’s generally an error-prone mode of trying to work out one’s own stance towards the world. The experiences from childhood we remember as warm and loving need not be rejected. But the intellectual underpinnings for them need not be affirmed either. Let them be what they were, and move into the future from there.

I can’t be sure, either, about Spong’s interpretation concerning the absence of literalism in the past. What people more than two thousand years ago thought about reality is beyond what I can decipher. It requires, at the very least, a tangled reading of earlier literature which is very hard to pin down securely. I know I can’t do it.

Considering the rather jaundiced view Spong has about the history of the Christian Church, I have a hard time understanding his belief in our need for it in the future. Just think of this statement, for example: “The church doesn’t like for people to grow up, because you can’t control grownups. That’s why we talk about being born again. When you’re born again you’re still a child. People don’t need to be born again. They need to grow up.”

I agree with Spong there. But if people need to grow up, what need do they have for a church which has always told them, and continues to tell them, that they should remain children?

Children are delightful, yes. A world without them would be bereft. But that means we need a world flavored by children, not one directed by them. A world with children in charge would be one in which we ate little but candy, and spent our lives squabbling over candy. When you think about it, the latter is pretty much what we do now, and it’s not making for a healthy environment.

So, if I had Spong with me at the moment, I’d ask him, why hold onto this church which has always wanted to keep us children, and promotes a world in which people kill and torture one another to amass candy?

He would probably have a fairly complex answer; one I would need to attend to. I wish I had the chance to hear it.


December 13, 2016

I just watched a clip of an interview with a guy in Mississippi who was explaining that he didn’t want half-breeds to hold public office. The interviewer followed up by commenting, “So, you don’t like half-breeds?” The man acknowledged that he didn’t. The interviewer continued, asking why not. The man didn’t know. “I just don’t like them," he said.

That, to him, appeared to be a more than adequate reason. “I just know it.” If you were to suggest to him that many people find such an answer pathetic, I doubt he could grasp what you were saying. That he just knows something without knowing why is, for him, self-evidently validating.

If you were to suggest to him that such a reason for disliking another human being is unfair and cruel, he wouldn’t care. He simply dislikes half-breeds. That’s all there is to it.

We are in the habit of saying that people with this kind of attitude are stupid. It’s not a completely unreasonable judgment. They are stupid. The problem is that designating them as stupid doesn’t do us any good.

We have assumed that people this stupid make up such a small portion of the population we don’t need to pay them much mind. That’s where we have been mistaken. Nobody can say for sure what portion of the population they do constitute, but it’s pretty clear it’s a larger segment then, until recently, we thought was possible. Certainly, it’s a portion that’s causing much social dysfunction, and promises to cause even more.

We have to admit the intellectual pedigree of these people is longstanding. There have been times in history when they didn’t cause a great deal of dysfunction. If the whole human universe were a valley, and no one ever went over the mountain wall, then the wu-wus, who hated the ju-jus, could live at one end and the ju-jus at the other. They could even meet every couple months or so, somewhere near the center of the valley, and hurl insults and spears at one another. That arrangement could continue for centuries without causing terrible discombobulations. The wu-wus could have a meaning in life in hating the ju-jus, and the latter could derive similar benefit from the wu-wus.

But now, everyone doesn’t live in his half of the valley. People live all over the place. So, knowing who you hate, without knowing why, doesn’t offer a satisfying system of meaning without producing chaos.

I’m afraid, despite the undoubted nostalgia for knowing what you know without knowing why, that we can’t keep on validating this form of stupidity any longer. The price of it is going to become hideously high — already has become hideously high.

This is all highly obvious, so obvious one might conclude there’s no need to express it. I have a suspicion, though, that we don’t remind ourselves of the obvious often enough. That’s why it hangs on among us despite the crazy cost it often exacts.

The good old boys, who know what they know but don’t know why, have been a staple of American melodrama for a very long time now. I suspect most of us have some hidden affection for them. Yet, there come times when certain things become too expensive. And we’ve reached the time when we can’t afford thoughtless heroes any longer. But knowing we can't afford them doesn’t tell us how to get rid of them. We may need more help from the half-breeds than we recognize. Miscegenation may turn out to be a necessity of life.


December 15, 2016

Yesterday I went to Barnes and Noble in Burlington. I don’t go there nearly as often as I used to because the book inventory has declined so radically I seldom find anything interesting just by browsing. But yesterday, in the philosophy section, which also has shrunk horribly, I noticed a gigantic orange book I had not seen before, or heard of. It turned out to be Anthony Kronman’s Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.

The first thing I noticed as I thumbed through its pages was that all the sentences I read were quite clear. That’s not what I would have expected to find in a fat book on neopaganism. I’m one of those who think that clarity, leaving other virtues aside, is a desirable characteristic. It’s not enough to ensure that a book has anything worth saying, but it is a feature more likely to keep me investigating than if I could make nothing of the first trio of sentences I read.

Now, after several hours, though, I remain uncertain whether Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan is a book that deserves the energy it would take to digest its message.

Kronman isn’t unusual in that he finds attractive characteristics in Christianity but is repulsed by certain of its otherworldly impulses, whereas he’s strongly drawn to the paganism of ancient Athens but can’t find the warmth in it that full humanity requires. I’d go so far as to say that anyone who doesn’t, to some degree, share those sentiments with him is probably nuts. Yet it’s in the details of the attracting and repelling that we find the worth and the originality of a text like this, one that seeks to deepen our understanding of human meaning.

It’s no new idea that the world, being everything, has to be identical with God, if there is anything deserving of being seen as god-like. That’s the primary notion of pantheism: you have to find a way of worshipping the world, or else you’re done for.

So far, so good. But is there anything going on in that sort of palaver that rises beyond playing with words? That’s the question I can’t yet answer about Kronman’s efforts. And I won’t be able to answer it without putting in a lot more effort than I’ve invested so far.

Through reviews and articles, I chanced on two sentences which offer me flecks of evidence, one of them in favor of ditching Kronman forthwith, and the other intriguing enough to keep my curiosity alive.

The one of negative flavor is this: “Although we cannot be immortal, the world is, and every increase in our understanding of it, and in our power to sing its song, is a further, deeper experience of the deathlessness of the world.” Sentences of this nature irritate me because I can’t help suspecting they’re a play to shallow sentimentality. Our power to sing the word’s song? Who says the world has a song? And why, necessarily, does learning something about the world constitute an experience of the world’s deathlessness? I hope that’s true but what evidence do we have for it? What is “the world” anyway? This earth? This galaxy? This universe? All the countless universes some physicists think are already in existence? None of this tells me anything. But, then, maybe that’s my fault.

The positive sentence comes not from Kronman himself, but from his mother, from when she was on her death-bed. But since he picked it, I’m willing to give him credit for it: “The world comes back.”

Kronman took this to be a suggestion that we go out of the world when we are born and return to it when we die. That’s a stimulating notion. And though it may not, ultimately, make any sense, it remains worth wondering about.

Consequently, I remain uncertain about Kronman. I wouldn’t want anything I say here to turn you away from reading his book. I would like you to remember, though, that it’s more than a thousand pages long.


December 19, 2016

We’re past the “Oh my God! I can’t believe it” stage now. We have to turn our minds to how we’re going to live with it. And I suspect that most of us don’t know.

I don’t go to the news now automatically every morning as I did before it happened. Before, I was worried, yes. But the news didn’t make me literally sick as it does now.

I had realized there were two basic relationships to the nation, and that these attitudes determine everyone’s political identity. I also realized they were shifting towards the attitude I find unhealthy.

For some citizens, the nation’s power to harm and kill people is its primary value. It’s what they glory in. It’s what causes them to cheer when war planes screech over football stadiums. That power to destroy forms almost the entire content of their patriotism.

Another set of citizens views the nation as a gigantic organization of the whole population, dedicated to promoting the well-being of everybody. This too requires power but of a different sort from the kind that’s concentrated on bombs, planes, and missiles. The former sort requires attention; the latter cheering.

As I think about these two forms of political identity I realize they set the two fundamental possibilities for government, which are fascism and democracy.

Sure, there are many strains of fascism just as there are variable strains of democracy. That’s why we have so many fancy names for political units. But all of them are devoted either to serving the great majority of the people or to serving fairly small groups whose interest lies in wielding military and corporate power, along, of course, with promoting the privileges of those who direct these power clots.

Right now, whether you recognize it or not, you are essentially a democrat or a fascist. Lots of people tell themselves that they have no time for any of this nonsense, that they care nothing for politics. It may not be perfectly accurate to call such persons fascists, but they are certainly fascist enablers, which is close enough to the real thing for practical purposes. One doesn’t have to wish for cruelty and harm to perpetrate it. Being absent-minded serves these ancient blights about as well as signing on formally in their ranks.

At the moment in America it appears we have more fascists than democrats. It’s not a huge majority, and, probably, the main part of it is unaware of what it’s doing. But guess what? The suffering caused by absent-mindedness hurts just as much as if it had been decreed by a cabinet officer in the upcoming administration.

You can’t be a democrat absent-mindedly. It requires thought. That’s why it’s harder than fascism to put in place. But it’s sure not as hard as what’s coming if we give up on it altogether.


December 20, 2016

The 60 Minutes segment last Sunday about the bomb rescue squads of Aleppo was heart-wrenching. To see small children trapped under tons of wreckage caused by the indiscriminate bombing of residential neighborhoods is enough to make one think that Assad and his ally Putin are pure monsters. And I guess they are to an extent. I wish there were not such men in the world (which does not mean that I think we can get rid of them by killing them). I’m befuddled when I ask myself how they got to be that way. They would laugh at my befuddlement, I suppose, writing me off as just one more weakling of the world, whereas they are the strong men.

They aren’t my favorite guys. But, then, I need to remember that if strength is to be measured by willingness to bury children in the debris of their residences, Assad and Putin have many companions in being strong.

In July of this year, for example, the U.S. coalition dropped its 50,000th bomb against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Nobody knows how many people were buried in wreckage in those countries because of the 50,000. The United States compiles numerous statistics, but it doesn’t try to keep account of the number of people it kills with bombs, or leaves lying in the debris of collapsed buildings. That’s not the sort of thing strong men are interested in.

A quaint little irony about this 50,000, of course, is that they were dropped in an attempt to kill people who are trying to destroy forces supporting Assad, which is the same thing we’re trying to do. So, we are attempting to kill our allies as fast as we can. That’s the sort of thing strong men do. They don’t take much account of irony because they don’t normally have the ability to recognize it.

In the year 2015, the United States dropped 23, 144 bombs on Islamic countries. As far as I’ve been able to determine, no one knows precisely how much damage they did, or how many lives they took. Still, 23,144 is quite a number of bombs, so you have to figure that millions of pounds of debris was created, with numerous human forms mixed thoroughly and deeply in the piles.

After all, the only purpose of bombs is to kill people. That’s why we keep making so many thousands of them. We have much future killing in our plans, so the bombs have got to be ready. That, of course, is the sort of thing weak men like me are concerned about, whereas strong men aren't. I just want us to keep in mind that there are plenty of strong men to go around. They aren’t all named Assad or Putin. They are out there, every day, thinking about what to do with their bombs, whether they’re heroes or villains. On the U.S. strong-man side they’re coming up with usages for more bombs than we can currently make. But I don’t think we have to worry about it because it’s only fair to consider the makers of bombs strong men just as we do the droppers of them. And, as I say, we have plenty of strong men to go around.


December 21, 2016

Now and then I have time-travel fantasies in which I’m able to visit the scenes of my childhood, not as I was then but as I am now. I would like, particularly, to have a conversation with my grandfather in the 1940s, when he was in his sixties. He was considered to be quite the patriarch, the wisest man in Floyd County, which when you consider northwest Georgia in that era, would scarcely have involved first-rate competition.

J. Roland Turner, in his sixties, and I, as I am now, would not have agreed about much. For one thing, he was an arrant racist, as were all the men I knew at that time. Seeing black people as inferior creatures was a uniform practice in Floyd County among white people then. So, when I told J. Roland that his views were vicious, as I would be bound to do, he would have considered me sick in the head. Even if I were able to convince him that I had returned from the future, and that I was the later version of the child he had seen playing in the yard just that morning, it would have had no influence on his convictions about black people. They were irrevocable.

So why do I have this sort of fantasy desire to tell him how wrong he was? I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was the arrogance. I have it in my head that there is an inescapable moral duty to confront arrogant people — and especially arrogant men in their sixties, which is the age when arrogance flourishes most fulsomely -- about their cruel prejudices. It is as though the universe is screaming out for them at least to hear from someone that they are bitter fools, and that the cosmic order will be thrown awry if they don’t. I dislike the thought that J. Roland made it all the way out of his life being praised every day as a wise man and never having to confront a critical thought.

Obviously, one might say that my desire, my fantasy, is just as arrogant as my grandfather’s views were. Maybe. Yet I do think there’s a distinction to be made between arrogance devoted to cruelty and arrogance slipping into moral pride out of hopes for a less miserable life for large groups of people.

I don’t want to leave the impression that J. Roland was cruel in all respects. He could be kindly. I did, however, sense that his interest in me was far more as a thing to be instructed than as a thing to be loved. Perhaps, in his mind, loving was a duty to be fulfilled by women.

After all, we need to remember that J. Roland was once a little boy with a grandfather. Goodness knows what that relationship did to him. I can’t make out for sure how much responsibility we have to free ourselves from the less than glorious pressures of our youth.

I have no business judging J. Roland.

That doesn’t, in any way, however, reduce my desire to meet him as he was in his sixties and tell him what I now think of his attitudes.


December 24, 2016

We are about to finish a year many people think is the worst in the United States since the Civil War. I realize there’s no proper measurement for such a thing. The best we can do is resort to human feelings. But by that yardstick, 2016 seems to be a fairly nasty stretch of days.

We are experiencing rhetoric that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, at least when it comes to public pronouncements. A prominent member of the Republican Party has said he wants the president to die of mad cow disease and for the president’s wife to return to being a man (whatever that means) and then to be let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe. He later held a press conference to reaffirm this statement, describing it as entirely appropriate humor, and then babbled on about the president’s being solely responsible for the deplorable state of the schools in New York, and no New Yorkers having any responsibility for them at all.

When he was reminded that many people regard such talk as racially prejudiced, he brushed it aside as what people always say when they have nothing substantial to contribute, as he did with his humor.

We can wonder how such venom gets into a person’s head. He appears to be consumed by a limitless hatred that’s based on no evidence at all. What does he mean by saying that Mrs. Obama used to be a man? Is this implying anything, or is it simply filth gurgling up out of a totally dirtied mind?

One can say, of course, that there will always be deranged kooks, and that we shouldn't let a single example of one lead us into thinking he represents what’s happening. That might carry some weight had this presumed humor been universally renounced. But it hasn’t been. There has been little negative reaction from his fellow Republicans. Does this mean that a significant percentage of Republicans share his wish that President Obama die from mad cow disease? How many? 30%? 50%? 70%? Maybe we should conduct a national poll on the question to tell us exactly what sort of people we have become.

Is it possible for our political rhetoric to get any worse than this? It’s hard to imagine how. So, if we look to Carl Paladino to let us know just how degraded the passing year has been, it seems no exaggeration to agree that 2016 in America has been a strong candidate for the vilest year we’ve experienced in more than a century.


December 25, 2016

I enjoy having friends who will talk with me about social, political, and philosophical issues. I’m grateful to them, and I doubt there are many people more avid for that sort of conversation than I am. Yet, I have to confess, I sometimes feel frustration when my companions try to drag me into their systems by treating their abstractions as realities. I understand why they do this. They have a hard time conceiving that their abstractions are not realities. But when they turn on me because I won’t agree that they are, I have to struggle to keep my combative instincts under control.

Nothing sets that struggle going more actively than when someone tries to equate a position along a spectrum with an actual stance. If someone falls to arguing that a center-left, or a center-right, position is the wisest or most moral stance, I have to point out that such advocacy is no stance at all. It’s merely positioning for personal advantage. What the center-right supports one month may be markedly different from what it works for a month later. We saw that demonstrated in the early part of 2009, when virtually all Republican politicians began to detest what they had backed six months earlier, simply because Barack Obama had been elected president. Positions they would have adopted as their own had John McCain been in the White House now became the spawn of the devil. And yet most of them continued to claim to be moderate conservatives throughout the process. So much for the reality of moderate conservatism.

A truth we need to get through our heads is that most politicians are poor political thinkers. We can say with a fair degree of assurance that a majority of them have never had a political thought in the lives. They are opportunists who happen to have dropped into a certain line of endeavor.

So long as we follow their lead we can’t have sane political discourse. And lacking sane political discourse, we can’t have sane government.

The basic definition of insanity is an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. And the most serious form of insanity is to have committed oneself to abstractions because they are the only mental constructs we can conceive of as real. That’s the condition we find ourselves in at the moment.

We can’t get reality into our political discourse. It’s forbidden; it’s locked out. We are committed to things that don’t exist, such as conservatism, because not only do we believe they’re real, we believe their reality carries with it the only moral way of life.

On the basis of that belief, we turn to stabbing one another in the back. The stronger the belief the more society becomes a hellhole. Abstractions are aides to thought. They are not descriptions of reality. Until we get that straight, there’s no direction for us but down.


December 26, 2016

The teachers of the purpose of existence are always popping up, says Nietzsche. They are not to be mocked argue those who insist that existence does have a purpose. But how they know, or what they mean by that, remains a cosmic mystery.

People who stand in the midst of this mystery and fail to ask questions, and who don’t tremble with desire and delight from the questioning, are contemptible. But that’s just Nietzsche’s opinion, of course. Something becomes contemptible by having someone scorn it. But not by that alone, but also by drawing the scorn of people who are imaginative, inventive, and original.

If you consider Carl Paladino, for instance, whom I mentioned here a few days ago, you see pretty quickly that his scorn is not imaginative but perfectly imitative. He is scornful of Michele Obama’s appearance not because of anything he conceived himself but because he’s drawing on a long train of nastiness, made up for the purpose of justifying injustice.

The attempt to justify and glorify the mistreatment of other human beings, to turn cruelty into heroism, is perhaps the most stultifying behavior the world has known. It has no sparkle. It is a reflection of ugliness. If you look in the mirror and see Carl Paladino peering back, that may be a punishment exceeding anything Dante imagined.

If we find Nietzsche at all persuasive, which I do much of the time, we need to pay attention to -- or maybe watch out for -- those who know the purpose of existence without trembling in desire and delight over the mystery of it.

Since I was a child I’ve been bothered by people who claim to know things I can’t, for the life of me, see how they know. And their most frustrating feature is that they won’t explain. They won’t tell me how they know these cosmic truths.

Am I being unfair to say I doubt they know what they say they do? One could certainly say so, and if he were to say it to me, about all I could reply is, “Okay.”

All Nietzsche is saying when he finds people contemptible who won’t question the purpose of existence is that he takes responsibility for disliking them. He’s not claiming to have anything universal on his side. He’s simply telling you who he is. I suspect we would have a happier and healthier world if we would all take responsibility for ourselves in this way. It’s when we claim to be servants of forces we know about, but can’t explain how we know, that we become seriously threatening to other people.

When someone tells me he supports things I detest, I may get a little bothered. But when he tells me he is doing it because God told him to, that’s when I really want to get the hell out of there.


December 29, 2016

Nationalism is primarily defined as devotion to the interests and culture of one’s nation. In the United States, it is generally considered to be not only a good thing, but as something that reaches beyond ordinary goodness to a form of grandeur. That sense of it has, until very lately, been so taken for granted that not to be an eager element of it is viewed not only as peculiar but as a kind of evil. Everyone has to be a patriot. It would be unthinkable not to be one.

A complement to this notion is the belief that one should always wish to see his nation growing in power compared to other nations. The ultimate goal for a real patriot is for his nation to be the most powerful in the world, so powerful, in fact, that no other nation would dare challenge it in any way.

This, of course, is an irrational desire. Yet it is held by a large percentage of the officials of the United States. So, what that means is that the nation is pretty much in the hands of less than sane people. We observed that condition demonstrated markedly by Barack Obama, an otherwise decent and civilized man, who, falling into the presidency, fell thereby into extreme nationalism and began, almost immediately, to do things he had denounced while campaigning for the office.

Such a radical change is generally explained by the notion that once in office a president acquires knowledge he had never thought of before.

Think of it: a well-educated, well-read man discovers a new reality as the result of attaining a political office. It seems magical, doesn’t it.

What the president gains, of course, is not new knowledge. It is, rather, a new intellectual environment, so powerful, so controlling, that it causes most men who enter the office to lose whatever independence of mind they had built for themselves over decades of vigorous striving. Their imaginative grasp of a healthier world is swept away. They lose the ability to conceive of reality as anything other than a frenetic obsession to scramble to the peak of a power pole.

If you were to remind them of Lord Acton’s famous aphorism about the corrupting influence of power, it’s unlikely you would get any other response than an expression of blankness. And should you ask whether they actually do want to corrupt their country by the unthinking pursuit of power, the blankness would probably assume a tinge of malignity.

This is the political structure we have trapped ourselves in, one that propagandizes and takes over even our strongest political aspirants. I wish I knew how to get out of it. But it’s for sure we can’t escape so long as we don’t recognize the cage we’re in.

Stephen Walt published a book recently, titled Taming American Power, in which he suggested that the other nations of the world might be able to rescue us from ourselves through a strategy of delegitimization, by portraying the United States as selfish, capricious, and cruel. This, Walt says, could encourage self-doubt among the American people themselves. It sounds like stiff medication, though some self-doubt among Americans does appear to be on the rise.

In any case, the inability of American officialdom to imagine the dangers of overreach is a serious difficulty, holding us, at the moment, away from intelligent self-restraint.

I hope the practice of unthinking nationalism can be undermined sufficiently that we, in our arrogance, don’t drive the entire world over a terrible cliff. That really would get all the other countries down on us, maybe so seriously it would take decades for us to recover any sort of reputation for decency.



©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