January 1, 2017
I’m beyond being weary of comparisons and rankings based on no discernible measures and have reached the stage of detesting them. After all, they have only one purpose: to elevate the egotism of some people by making others feel inferior. Also, when something becomes a mania, as such comparison has in the United States, you can be sure it’s a source of ill-health. What is there about it to embrace other than slovenly boasting?
There has scarcely ever been a more loathsome slogan than, “We’re number one!” And when it’s chanted in unison by a mob, it takes on a threatening tone which can raise fear in the soul. The lesson Americans most need to learn -- and right now are far from learning -- is that there’s an utter difference between cheering on one’s side in a competition and desiring to humiliate one’s competitors. Humiliating anyone is a nasty business, and though we may all feel at times that those contending against us deserve it, we need to keep in mind the likely fruits of any sort of humiliation.
When it comes to something as contemptible as feeling above someone else because we think the schools we attended are superior to his schools, then we really are dealing in foul nonsense. Scarcely a week goes by when I don’t notice posted on the internet a list of the “top” twenty-five colleges, or the “top” ten public universities, or so on. What’s the use of such lists? Almost never do they say specifically what this elevation is based on. And even if they did, it would be of scant aid to anyone trying to choose an institution to attend. The purpose of these lists is to put down rather than to raise up. After all, most of us could not have gone to Harvard, which is widely reputed to be the very best. Are we supposed to feel diminished because we didn’t? Are we supposed always to be cowed in the presence of someone who did?
My main universities were Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia. I think they served me fairly well and I recall them with fondness. I suppose they’re reputed to be better institutions than some and inferior to others. But there is no reason for me to feel either grander or lesser than anyone else because I attended them. They were, for me, choices in life. And like other choices they blended into a life experience. They don’t, by themselves, either lift me up or drive me down. I’m happy enough with both of them. So why not let it go at that? I certainly wouldn’t change them with any others if somehow magically I could do it now.
The ultimate abomination in the sort of comparison I’m discussing here is rating one’s very personhood in relation to others. The complete foolishness of such an attempt ought to be obvious within seconds of thinking of it. There are so many factors to be taken into account and so many weights to be assigned to each factor that setting one person above another on any universal scale is hopeless. It ought, also, to fall well outside anyone’s personal desire.
Obviously, we can admire or respect one person more than another for individual reasons we’re not obliged to explain. But that doesn’t mean we have the right to place anyone on an ultimate scale of comparison. The quicker we get away from that attempt the more likely we will be to fashion a society with a character that will help everyone work towards the person he or she genuinely wishes to be.
January 2, 2017
During a question and answer session on December 5, 2016, after giving an address on the meaning of Trump’s election, journalist Masha Gellen remarked that when we lose language we lose almost completely the ability to manage our problems. By losing language she meant being no longer able to confront the distortions and falsehoods of power seekers by holding them to a standard of fact. Autocrats become dangerous, she said, not so much because they lie as because they insist on the right to say whatever the hell they please regardless of what facts tell us. Destroying factuality is the characteristic tactic of autocrats. Without it, they would descend to nothing other than blowhards on the way to becoming pure bores.
So who, or what, is it that gives them the ability to sweep facts off the table into obscure, dusty corners? The principal culprit, says Gellen, is an unimaginative media, who think they should cover politics just as they do sports. The problem is that most journalists have lost the ability to see what it means to win.
The media take for granted that the contests, whether political or athletic, are governed by rules which insure the winners have skills which count, skills pertinent to the functions for which the contests are waged. But that’s true in only one of the arenas.
Shortly after the great pro-linebacker Sam Huff retired from the Redskins he decided to run for Congress from his home state of West Virginia. Though very popular as a sports figure, he was unsuccessful as a political candidate. After his loss, he was asked by a reporter which he liked best, football or politics. He answered, instantly, football. And to the follow-up question of why, Sam said, “Because in football the best guys get to play.”
I thought it was a clever retort at the time but not until recently did I realize how sagacious it was. Sam was right: in politics, being able to perform well has nothing to do with being selected for the job. It has now reached the point in politics that being allowed to play is the strongest sign one will be unlikely to carry out his duties.
In football, winning means scoring more points than your opponents do. And that does require some skill. In politics, winning an election means nothing at all with respect to having the skill necessary to carry out the duties one has been selected to take on.
Yet we have a journalistic media that treats one form of contest as though were identical to the other. Masha is right in saying that the media failed completely in reporting on the recent presidential election. Everybody who examined media behavior knows that. But like the politicians, few journalists give attention to the duties they’re supposed to perform. They want to play the game, they want to occupy the limelight, but they don’t want to devote a smidgeon of intellectual energy to thinking about what the public needs to know in order that a genuine victory for the nation might take place.
January 3, 2017
Richard Seymour has a long review in the December 15th of The London Review of Books of four works on trolling, the new phenomenon associated strongly with the internet, from which people appear to derive hilarious pleasure from gratuitous cruelty.
The four books are:
- Whitney Phillips, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture.
- Karla Mantilla, Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral.
- Benjamin Radford, Bad Clowns.
- John Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History.
One popular form of this practice, which may point to its nature more directly than any other, has taken on the title of “RIP trolling,” in which the trolls discover families sunk in grief because of recent deaths, and do everything they can think of to increase the misery by directing torrents of ridicule at them for committing the grievous sin of caring too much.
In one instance, for example, after a twelve-year-old boy committed suicide, the trollers got an iPod identical to one the boy had been sad about losing, and posted shots of it leaning against gravestones. They found that immensely humorous.
As Seymour reminds us, every joke calls for a public of its own. You can ask yourself about the character of this particular public and wonder about its social utility.
A majority of the trollers of this nature appear to be young, male, white, and privileged. They remind me of the boys I met when I was thinking of trying to join a fraternity in college. A few weeks among them persuaded me I would just as soon remain an independent, as we non-fraternity guys were invidiously called. Think of it, what could be worse, what could be lower, than to be an independent?
The greatest joy of the trollers comes from what they call “lulz,” which means gathering to laugh uproariously at other people’s anguish. This is the ultimate insider privilege, I suppose.
Whether trolling is actually something new or just a slightly different version of older obnoxiousness and cruelty, I can’t say. The ubiquity of comment threads following opinion essays has certainly made us more aware of it. I confess I’ve often been startled by the venom I’ve come across in this recent form of a letter to the editor.
Where does this pure hatefulness come from? I have to admit I don’t know for sure. It’s as though legions are sitting around doing little more than projecting bile, and then praising themselves for being clever. A desire to be devastatingly clever is often a driving desire of those who can’t recognize cleverness when they hear it.
Seymour’s authors don’t seem to have any general overall explanation. Maybe they’re just as astonished by this eruption as anyone else.
Emerson used to say you could tell the difference between a Calvinist and a Unitarian by the color of his liver. If you were to autopsy some of our recent trollers, you might find a darkness around their livers that would put any of Emerson’s Calvinists to shame.
January 5, 2017
Whenever there is a significant social or political event, there will be numerous causes that led to the outcome. Almost nothing happens for a single reason. Consequently, it generally happens that arguments break out over what was the main cause, the one that really mattered, the driving force behind the outcome.
That process has been underway for two months now with respect to the November election, and the three causes which have emerged as the leading contenders are white, working class anxiety, a general sense that the establishment needed to be thrown out, and racial bigotry pure and simple.
In Salon today Chauncey Devega argues for the enduring power of racism and sexism in American society. It drives our political behavior more dominantly, he says, than most of the mainstream media are willing to admit. The reason for the reluctance --my thesis more than Devega’s -- is that the media want desperately to hold onto the notion of American moral exceptionalism. They are committed to telling us that Americans operate on a higher moral plane than people anywhere else in the world. Just think of Chris Matthew’s chilling innocence and you have the perfect objective correlative for that thesis. That’s the reason why you can’t rely on the major media outlets to inform you honestly why the American people or the government behaves as it does. Media flattery of the people has become an addiction.
In fact, the evidence about Trump’s victory is startlingly revealing. Look, for example, at Michael Tesler’s Post-Racial or Most Racial, in which he assembles large sets of voting patterns which establish beyond any reasonable doubt that pretty near half the American electorate cast their votes out of anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiments. Here is simply one result cited by Tesler which makes the bigotry perfectly clear. When asked if the average American had been treated unfairly over the past several years, 65% of Trump voters said yes. When asked the same question about blacks, only 12% of the Trumpites said yes. That’s an astonishing gap, and can’t be misinterpreted by anyone with an intellectual conscience.
It you haven’t resided in a thoroughly racist society, it’s hard to get into your mind how deeply staining racial bigotry can be. Even those who, on the surface, want to tell themselves they have got past it, often harbor sentiments that portray black people falsely, the most ingrained of these being that blacks are always getting more than they deserve.
As long as such views are at work in a major sector of the American electorate we are going to have a corrupted political system. There is nobody more manipulable than a racist. That’s what Nixon discovered when he launched the Southern strategy, which delivered the entire South into Republican hands. Play up to their racist attitudes and you can get such voters to believe anything, even something as fantastic as that you’re on their side and are going to work to make their lives better.
If this election is to offer the chance for a turn in American history, and begin after two and a half centuries to free us from the curse of slavery and racial bigotry, we’ve got to establish one truth: Trump won because he relied mainly on racist appeals. The other causes for his victory were puny compared to that. If you don’t believe it read Michael Tesler’s book, and come up with a refutation you can respect.
January 6, 2017
Within a year after beginning graduate studies at the University of Virginia, I had started to learn the most important lesson I’ve encountered so far with respect to America’s past. There is no greater intellectual gap than the one between what the most careful historians conceive the American story to be and what the American people think it has been.
The people who look seriously at evidence see it as an account of partial prosperity created mainly by exclusion and exploitation. The majority have been led to view it as the greatest triumph of liberty the world has ever known.
How has this gap come to be? Since the beginning of the nation the country has been led by people who knew a story had to be concocted that would allow them to remain on the top. Anybody who has paid the least attention to the news over the past four decades -- or since the election of Ronald Reagan -- knows that the super-rich have been propounding a tale of opportunity, equality, and fairness which has very little to do with what’s actually going on. What the relative fairness and equality of the generation after the Second World War has done is build a wall which obscures the degree to which the current reign of the 1% is very similar to greater part of the nation’s past. In fact, the very beginning, the time of the so-called heroes, set the tone for what happened for much of the next two centuries.
We’ve had many studies which point to this truth, but perhaps none more potent than a recent work by Robert Parkinson titled The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. It too is based on laying out the production of a story. Here’s how Annette Gordon-Reed describes it in her account of the work in The New York Review of Books:
Effective war stories were definitely required because despite the colonists’ complaints about tyranny and being reduced to -- of all things -- “slavery,” they were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest land owning, arguably the most prosperous people in the western world.”
How could such fortunate people sell the notion that they were being threatened and mistreated? They had to convince their fellow citizens that they were in danger from odious others, who were being used by the king -- all by himself -- to put not only their liberties but their very lives in danger. There has always been an “other” in American history to motivate us to sacrifice our blood and our treasure, but the others that were always with us, right up through the end of the 19th century, and to a certain extent right up through the present, were the people who had been here before us, and the people who were brought here in chains as slaves. They were never “us;” they were always “them.” Read the Declaration of Independence carefully, and you’ll see the skill with which Jefferson painted these others as devilish pawns in the hands of an evil monarch, whose use of them necessitated the political break with an empire which had protected the colonies for well over a century.
That was the story the colonial leaders pushed unceasingly for at least the first half-century of nationhood. We had been tyrannized by George III, personally, one of the least tyrannical monarchs ever to occupy any throne.
This is the story Robert Parkinson tells persuasively in The Common Cause. It won’t win over many Americans because it’s based on carefully assembled evidence, and that’s not the kind of thing many Americans are in the habit of reading. But next July, when the politicians are bloviating, give a thought to George III and whether he has received exactly the story he deserves.
January 7, 2017
About a month ago, a friend mocked me for taking the threat of neoliberalism as both real and serious. I took his warning under advisement but didn’t give up my concerns. And, I have to say, the month since hasn’t caused me to be any more dismissive of my worries.
Reading recently in the first essay of Jason Hirthler’s The Sins of Empire: Unmasking American Imperialism, I came on this quotation from Shamus Cooke, a writer for Workers Action:
The essence of neoliberalism can be reduced to the following: government should be used exclusively to help big business and the wealthy with tax cuts, subsidies, privatizations, anti-labor laws, etc., while all government programs that help working and poor people should be eliminated. It’s really that simple.
Is it really that simple? My friend would say no. And maybe the champions of neoliberalism do have somewhere in their minds the idea that greater profits for American corporations and gigantic financial institutions will translate into more and higher paying employment for the majority of American workers. I have to say, though, that I can’t see that they’re relying on sound evidence that anything of the sort will take place. So, whether they’re innocent or malicious, the neoliberals aren’t going to do 90% of the American people any good. And enriching only the top 10% doesn’t strike me as a worthy political goal.
Consequently, neoliberalism as a policy and a plan of action does exist, and it does present a threat to the well-being of most of the people of the United States. I’ll grant that it may not be as vicious or as immediate as the dangers facing us because of Trump’s election. That’s why I favored Hillary Clinton over him. But had she won, the duty to pull her from the clutches of neoliberalism would have posed almost as great a challenge as protecting basic human rights under Trump will be. I have no assurance about how it would have gone. I don’t know how capable Hillary Clinton is of learning anything new. It would have been for me more a matter of hope than of confidence. And the people she surrounded herself with during the campaign didn’t strengthen my confidence in any fresh thinking coming from the elite core of the Democratic Party.
Although the immediate task will lie in preventing Trump and his alt-right buddies from carrying out their insane desires, that doesn’t mean neoliberalism is going to disappear. So even if we can survive Trump, neoliberalism will still be there, ready to push us in the direction of what we used to call third-world countries.
January 8, 2017
One thing every U.S. citizen should keep steadily in mind is that people of the country and the government of the country do not want the same things. Poll after poll makes that manifest. And in that contest the government almost always wins. In other words, the people do not control the government, the government controls the people. Whether it’s justified to call this situation a tyranny depends on rhetorical temperament. But call it what you will, the issue of who’s in charge should not be in question.
There is an argument to be made, of course, that the government should be in charge. It concentrates more intensely on what’s going on than the people do. It is better informed. There’s little doubt that both those assessments are true. The people, as a whole, know virtually nothing. As citizens, the people of the United States are pathetic. Even so, the people being remiss in their duties does not mean that practicality dictates a preference for government as an advocate for justice and well-being.
If the government wants different outcomes from what the people want there is no assurance the government will care much about the general health of society. Indeed, at the moment, we have almost no evidence that the government is seriously concerned about the quality of life of the general population, and we have one political party, now dominant in the government, which for nearly a half-century has consistently demonstrated that it is contemptuous of a majority of the population. All of its policies concerning the majority are punitive.
All of this might seem to present us with a hopeless situation. I don’t think, though, that’s the case. There are ways out of the seeming dilemma. And some of them may not be as difficult as we generally presume.
We do, though, need to be intelligent about priorities. There are plausible reforms that can’t become possible until other things have happened, and the first of these other things is learning how the mainstream media are serving us, and forcing them to change their ways.
I think pretty often of a maxim that was shoved at me when I was a young army officer and was required to take courses in instructing the troops. It went: “If the student hasn’t learned then the teacher hasn’t taught.” We might well adapt that to our current situation and announce: “If the people don’t know then the media haven’t performed.”
In his book, The Sins of Empire, John Hirthler makes this point: “In practically every country that comes to mind, an elite class of neoliberal ideologues own the mainstream media.”
That’s true, and if people could begin to see how it’s true, change might come rushing on us faster than we have previously imagined possible.
It’s not that publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and network news systems like CBS, NBC, and ABC, don’t offer us much factual information. It’s that they mostly offer it in ways that won’t register. They bury the important news through infrequency of notice and obscure placement within written articles. The people aren’t learning what they need to know, and that’s the fault of the media. The ignorance of the people ought to be driving sincere journalists crazy. That they are mostly impassive about it shows that they don’t really feel their responsibility.
They need to be made to feel it. And that means that those of us who try, in any way, to bring certain conditions to the people’s attention have got to concentrate on media failure even more intensively than we have heretofore.
We’ve got to explain that the media are not on our side right now; they’re on the government’s side. If that began to penetrate the people consciousness, the contempt it would generate toward the media could well force some changes. It might even begin to narrow the gap between the government and the people -- though that certainly won’t happen overnight -- which is the end reform all of our preliminary reforms should be aiming towards.
January 9, 2017
It’s to be expected that the average citizen of any country will side with his own nation in quarrels with other nations, though there’s nothing logical in his doing so -- unless you consider “my country right or wrong” logical. After all, the major media in every country serve as propaganda systems for its national government. And the major media for the great majority of citizens are their only sources of news.
One might argue that good citizens should seek alternative sources of news. But that’s setting a pretty high standard considering how the world works at the moment. Most people don’t learn even what they could from the propaganda-driven news sources, much less try to go beyond them.
The situation is so bad most people don’t bother to learn their nation’s stated reasons for its behavior in a conflict. They just assume that their country is right.
If you were to ask the average American, for example, why the United States is trying to destroy the existing government in Syria and replace it with something else, I doubt the U.S. citizen could come up with a single explanation.
That’s scarcely surprising since the Obama administration hasn’t been at all clear itself about who it wishes to put in Assad’s place. There’s just the general insinuation that Assad is a bad guy, and that’s supposed to be taken as a more than adequate excuse for the havoc we have wreaked on his country.
About the havoc, though, there’s no doubt. In 2016, the United States dropped 12,196 bombs in Syria. That’s well over one, every hour, day and night.
Just think what would happen if for just three hours in a row a bomb were dropped here in the United States. The country would go berserk.
Probably the typical person knows that bombs are fairly expensive. Actually, their costs range widely depending on the sort of guidance system they employ. But it wouldn’t be way off the mark to estimate that the average bomb dropped in Syria last year cost $10,000. So, that would mean that bombs alone, leaving aside the cost of the planes and the personnel to operate them, cost more than a hundred and twenty million. This kind of stuff adds up when you begin to look at the details. But that’s precisely what most of us don’t do.
The bombs, as far as we know, cost Assad no personal discomfort. But you certainly can’t say that for the thousands of other people who had brains blown out, arms and legs ripped off, bowels separated from their bodies, and similar unpleasantries. Is there anywhere in the U. S. government where careful analysis is conducted to assure us we have the right to do that to those people? If there is, I haven’t heard of it. But then, the citizenry doesn’t ask about the right of the details. It’s just our country versus that other country, and in that case, we know we’re bound to be right.
It’s only if you imagine the details visiting you personally that they begin to concentrate your attention.
January 14, 2017
Over the past decade, I’ve gradually -- and reluctantly -- come to recognize something that seriously modified my view of social life. If you are a strong partisan of a large group, you can’t hold to a moral code that will very much affect your behavior. And the larger the group to which you have given your loyalty, the weaker your morality will be.
This ought to have been obvious to me for most of my adult life. But the hymns to loyalty, patriotism, our heroes, and so forth are so ubiquitous, incessant, and outright deafening that they pretty well wash away any careful thought of what morality is. It is actually quite simple in its basic definition. It is concerned with being fair to everything, giving everything its due. Partisanship, by contrast, means giving support to a part of the whole, and pretty well dismissing the needs and concerns of those who live outside your emotional range.
A major element of the human intellectual story has had to do with extending the range of morality, and thereby restricting the grasp of partisanship. We have made some progress in that effort, but not nearly as much as we think we have.
It may be that no one is completely a partisan or a moralist. But most people are far more one than the other. And at the moment the numbers remain heavily on the side of the partisans. It may even be that recently we have turned a corner such that the percentage of partisans is increasing and the percentage of moralists is going down.
In discussing this subject, we need to take account of a connotation of the word “moralist” which carries with it the notion of a rigid prude. Nobody likes a rigid prude, right? Unless it’s one just like yourself.
If, however, we return to the basic definition of moralism, which is that everything gets its due, the concept takes on a more positive light. And that’s the light I want it to be seen in here.
If we restrict morality to a sense of how humans should treat other humans, regardless of their partisan memberships, we can simplify the problem considerably. Then it just means that all persons should be treated fairly and humanely. If Americans shouldn’t be tortured, then no one should be tortured, and so on. This is a view partisans consider soft-headed.
Another aspect of morality that needs to be recalled if we’re going to think about it sensibly is that it cannot be a code handed down by some trans-human entity or force. It is strictly a human thing, a human decision to be more precise. It’s a thing humans can decide to take up or not.
I confess I wish we had more moralists -- in the valid sense -- and fewer partisans. That’s because partisanship leads to humans treating one another badly whereas morality leads to people treating one another fairly and humanely (that’s by definition).
I prefer fair and humane behavior to nasty behavior, even if the nastiness is never going to get at me personally. It could be that most people would agree with me if we could get them to think about it. But there’s the rub. It’s hard as hell to get people to think about anything -- except, perhaps, money in a certain light.
January 16, 2017
The U.S. empire has long since become suicidal. That’s the story of all empires, of course. It’s their nature to push their boundaries beyond sustainable limits. But another feature of the empire story is that each one, in its turn, thinks that it is fundamentally different from the ones that preceded it.
The U. S. empire is different, but not in the way it thinks it is. It’s the first one whose power of wastefulness is great enough to set off a crisis of resources which threatens most human life on the planet.
Did you ever wonder how much oil it takes to keep a drone in the air over Afghanistan until it is able to kill someone the Pentagon has decided just has to be killed? And when you consider that the number of such targets is virtually limitless, the gallons of oil required to keep on chasing them add up to an astounding number. Yet, there is nothing in history to suggest that an empire, once addicted to a certain mode of killing, can be persuaded to give it up, regardless of the cost.
Obviously, the oil required to keep the drone assassination program going is only a tiny portion of what the U.S. military uses. As long as eight years ago, the Department of Defense was squandering 360,000 barrels of oil every day (that’s barrels, not gallons). I’m not sure what the use rate is at the moment, but we can be pretty sure it’s considerably greater than it was in 2009.
Everybody who pays careful attention to how the U.S. military behaves itself knows that we can’t maintain its wastefulness for more than another generation. But few do pay careful attention because another form of wastefulness the empire has to employ is the greatest propaganda machine the world has ever known. It works incessantly, every day, no weekends off, to make sure you don’t think about such things as how much of your nation’s treasure you -- employing your own judgment -- are willing to spend to kill a peasant leader somewhere in southwest Asia, who has been persuaded by his own propaganda machine that the U. S. is the great Satan, by concentrating on the children the drones inevitably slaughter.
You should ask yourself, sometime, how much you are willing to see spent to snuff out that life. $25,000? $50,000? $100,000? You can be pretty sure any figure you would come up with would be quite a bit less than what it actually costs. And then you should step back and remember that the number of such persons the Pentagon thinks we have to destroy is far beyond the number we can kill before resource depletion takes over. Forget about the morality of it. Just think about the money.
Philosophers have been telling us for centuries that the human race has something suicidal built into its makeup. I don’t know about that. But maybe the reason we haven’t done ourselves in before this was that we lacked the dimension of effort required. But now, it seems, the scale of things has shifted.
January 21, 2017
Now that Donald Trump has assumed the presidency, I find I’m more disheartened than I thought I was going to be. I had anticipated a sense of bleakness but nothing quite as empty and cold as I felt this morning.
For years now I have observed that the United States, as my political home, was being disassembled. But I kept thinking -- or at least hoping -- that something would happen to turn the process around. There were so many intelligent books delineating the horror of current developments that I thought the word was bound to spread. There were Naomi Klein, Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, Morris Berman, Jane Mayer, Michael Glennon, Thomas Frank, Jason Hirthler, Alan Weisman, Anatol Lieven, Langdon Winner, Mike Lofgren, Godfrey Hodgson, and dozens of others like them -- Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald and on and on and on. They were all perfectly clear; they all backed their theses with ample evidence. How could the American populace remain unaware of what was happening? But they did remain unaware because they don’t read books. They don’t read anything with analytical heft.
I honestly don’t know how they get their sense of what’s occurring in the world. But their sources must be a strange conglomerate in order for them to decide to place Donald Trump in the White House. What is it that they expect him to do that will be good for them?
A friend recommended to me Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land as a means of grasping why the people who support everything I find sickening (and I mean that literally) behave as they do, even when it harms their own interests. Hochschild is a California sociologist who decided spend several years in Louisiana in order to figure out why the people there vote as they do. I haven’t been able to read the book yet, but I have taken in several reviews, and yesterday in my local bookshop I picked up a copy and read a dozen pages or so. Nothing I found in it surprised me. The people she describes are pretty much like the people I grew up amongst. They are, as Hochschild said, “likable as people.” But being likable doesn’t adequately explain toxic political decisions. They live, says Hochschild, on “the other side of the empathy wall.” Yeah. I guess so. But what can we do about that? They can be as likable as they wish, but if they still support Donald Trump in the destruction of the democratic republic I thought was my home, what good does their likability do me? When it comes down to the actuality of policy, what they support will be just as bad as if they were monsters with blood dripping from their fangs. All the sweet hellos and biscuits and gravy in the world won’t change that. In a way, I would rather be done in by foreign storm troopers than I would by neighborly people who may well root for the same football team I do.
The women’s march today in Montpelier drew the largest crowd to the capitol grounds we’ve had for the past forty years. That was comforting. To know you live among people who share your concepts of decency casts a small beam of light into this dark day. But the surrounding gloom persists.
I hope it doesn’t have the power it seems to have at the moment. The future will have to tell us about that. It certainly will show us the price of recovering what we once thought was assured by our history. It seems to be the case that history assures nothing.
January 24, 2017
We need an English word for a person who can’t recognize simple fact. It has become increasingly obvious that there are such persons and that many of them gravitate towards politics, an arena in which distorting and denying the truth has become a common tactic in electoral success.
I suppose people have always tended to believe what they want to believe. Yet there was until recently in American political discourse a recognition that one was obliged to acknowledge obvious and discernible fact, such as the number of people in a room, or a field, or what someone said clearly a week ago. Now that fundamental duty of honesty is under assault. If you don’t like the number of people who showed up in a certain space, as determined by counting them, then you simply pick another number you find more agreeable and announce it as the official tally, regardless of clear-cut contravening evidence. And if you can get your alternative number repeated enough, and written down in enough newspapers, it becomes the authorized number to be entered into the tables of history.
The curious thing that occurred in the past decade, or so, is that the people who manufacture the official number gradually lost the ability to distinguish between their construction and the number we used to call fact. And, then, what’s even more curious is that they lost the ability to imagine what might be meant by such a distinction. These are the people I think we need a new word for.
Some of you may have seen the interview Chuck Todd of NBC did with Kellyanne Conway, the Trump advisor and former campaign manager, about why the administration would send Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, out to push an obvious falsehood about the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration. This was the occasion when Ms. Conway introduced the now famous new metaphor, “alternative facts.”
I suppose Ms. Conway might have known what was going on, and that she was aware Spicer had been directed to deal in falsehood. But something about the expression on her face made me wonder. It was robotic. It was as though she had so thoroughly internalized what the administration wanted the public to believe about the crowd at the inauguration that any other story based on truth had become impossible for her to conceive. She knew what she wished people to believe and anything else was simply not to be thought about. It had to be “disappeared” as we say now.
Ms. Conway might be seen as a valid candidate for the eponymous source of the word I’m seeking. But to call such truth-deprived people “conways” would be slandering the many more Conways who support the traditional notion of truth and take pride in standing up for it.
If there is such a word in the English vocabulary already, which I’m ignorant of, please let me know it.
January 25, 2017
Many Americans are now facing a challenge they have not had to face heretofore. What does it mean to discover that you are not living in a basically just democratic republic but rather in a power-obsessed empire whose behavior is frequently unjust and vicious? What does it mean that the American nation has little to do with the well-being of the people who inhabit it and mostly to do with the ambitions of the power clots that have taken control of its institutions?
David Brooks yesterday published one of his typically flaccid columns in which he argued that the extensive marches on the day following Trump’s inauguration had little to do with the nation’s basic problems but were concentrated on the relatively insignificant issues of “identity politics” -- such as climate change. Brooks has a genius for misperceiving what’s going on and this was perhaps his most flatulent misperception. The marches on Saturday were directly concerned with the most fundamental question we have ever had to address. How do we get our democratic republic back from the money-crazed imperialists? Brooks doesn’t much care. He seems happy enough with capitalist imperialism. But it’s becoming clear that a majority of Americans do care. They want a more just society than what we have now. But the belatedness of their recognition of how the nation’s power is being used means they haven’t yet formulated a coherent plan for restoring what they innocently thought they had.
The most serious issue in the nation’s existence is whether they can summon the staying power to cast imperialism aside and install a government directed towards the health of the entire society. I wish I could attest to perfect faith in them but the truth is I don’t know whether they can or not. I do know it won’t be easy.
Certain changes will be required, the first, perhaps, escaping the naiveté about the nation’s past that has been pushed on them by jingo propagandists. The United States has never been what we are in the habit of telling ourselves it was. Since the beginning, there have been powerful strains of bigotry and vicious behavior toward minorities. These have woven themselves into the nation’s character. They remain at the foundation of our tolerance for -- and even celebration of -- plutocratic inequality. The notion that there are lots of people who don’t deserve anything, not even simple justice, is a genuine element of the nation’s personality. We have to get rid of it if we actually want to achieve the decency that people assembled to support last Saturday. We can’t have the distribution of wealth we have now and expect also to have a nation dedicated to justice. The two systems can’t live side by side. It’s impossible.
This is not abstract philosophizing. This is the reality we face. A move away from inequality is required for a move towards fairness. That’s a simple enough proposition, but it’s not one most Americans have even begun to think about.
There are many other changes we have to establish in our minds if we seriously mean to shift our country towards justice. Who has the right to medical care? Everybody or just a few? What kind of prison sentences should characterize our criminal justice system? Does it make sense that ours are far more severe than those of other Western countries? How should we spend our public resources? Is it wise to lay out more for killing poor people in Afghanistan than for curing cancer here at home? Which is more to be desired, pure air or extreme profits?
These are not questions you should merely notice in the news every month or so. These are questions that all of us should have in our minds every day. We can’t have a noble nation unless we have citizens with noble habits. And the primary habits of civic virtue are to know what your government is doing and to work to change what you don’t like, installing something finer in its place.
If we can make these changes in our minds, we can have a just democratic republic. If we can’t, we’ll continue down the slope we find ourselves on now.
January 27, 2017
If we are to speak truthfully about the new president and his administration, we have to modify the vocabulary which comes to us from our current journalistic culture. And that, in and of itself, might be a good thing.
Journalists, for the most part, like to think of themselves as hard-nosed practical people who have no use for subtleties. Their audience, it is claimed, won’t pay attention to anything that strikes them as fancy. Maybe so, but reality is complex, and if you always try to pretend that it’s not you’ll end up failing to address what’s actually happening. There has been a great deal of that from the media over the past few decades.
The most serious consequence of this shying away from the reality of politics is the pretense that character has nothing to do with political loyalty. The truth, of course, is that character determines the nature of political grouping more than anything else.
One of Aristotle’s most provocative teachings was that not all persons can be argued into virtue. If virtuous arguments are going to be effective, the recipients of them have to have something in them, a certain character, that will allow these arguments to take hold. Otherwise they will simply be dismissed as fluff and impracticality.
It makes sense to assume that people lacking the ability to recognize virtue would form political alignments. They would push the idea that only those who look out for themselves, regardless of the effects on others, are smart and savvy. They would reject the judgment at the heart of our most telling moral philosophy that virtue is precisely the ability to feel for others as well as for ourselves.
If we consider the current political organization in the United States we see exactly that form of political party coming into power. If we were honest we could admit that we always have an anti-virtue party contending for power. But, of course, we are not honest with ourselves. We never have been.
Those who are opposed to the policies and the nature of the new administration need to start using terms relating to virtue more frequently than we’ve been in the habit of doing, and far more frequently than our journalists do.
In particular, we need to start talking about fairness, and to point out as emphatically as we can that if one has no love of justice he has no ability to contribute to a healthy society. He will always be tearing down the very conditions that give him a chance to enter noble associations with others. He will, therefore, be constantly cheap. He will have no kindness towards which others can gravitate. He will be, in essence, alone.
From the dawn of Western civilization our strongest thinkers have told us that the good man, the great, man, is he who gives, not he who is striving always to take away.
We now have a president who brags incessantly about outdoing other people, about entering into negotiations with them in such a way that they will lose and he will win. He appears to have no concern about whether the outcome will be fair. It could be that the concept of fairness doesn’t come into his mind.
It may be that the reason many people fail to think about fairness is that they never hear it mentioned. It’s not an element of their intellectual universe. But I suspect that there is somewhere in their psyches an ability to respond if they were given a chance. And this chance is what a revived and revisionary vocabulary might bring into being. It’s a chance we ought not let slip through our fingers.
January 29, 2017
Among people with the ability to think about such things there is solid agreement that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Now we have a leading psychotherapist who says there is no doubt that Mr. Trump is afflicted with “malignant narcissism,” a severe and incurable form of the disorder.
John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University has announced that “Donald Trump is dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president. We’ve seen enough public behavior by Donald Trump now that we can make this diagnosis indisputably.”
That leaves us in a pickle, doesn’t it? What is our resort when the president is mentally ill? The most frightening feature of Dr. Gartner’s diagnosis is that malignant narcissism is incurable. Mr. Trump is not going to get better. Even if there were any chance of it, the White House is scarcely an environment for tamping down narcissism. Given the development of the imperial presidency over the past several decades, you might well say it’s a prime breeding ground for the disorder.
Probably the most dangerous aspect of Mr. Trump’s affliction is the conviction that he doesn’t need to learn anything. He already knows more than anybody else -- in the world presumably. That he has made frequent statements backing up this delusion is probably the strongest evidence that Dr. Gartner knows what he is talking about. Can any sane person conclude that anyone, regardless of his background, is beyond the need of learning and that there is nothing another human can teach him? We have heard of god-complexes before, but this seems to be one that puts any other god in a puny light.
One doesn’t need to be an expert in malignant narcissism to recognize that it forms an impenetrable barrier between a person who has it and a realistic assessment of the world. It’s similar to the wall Trump thinks he is going to build between the United States and Mexico, the difference being that malignant narcissism actually works.
The challenge now for the people of the United States is whether they are going to allow the illness of a single man to cripple the concepts on which he nation is presumably based. You’ll notice that nowhere in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence do we find the phrase, “America first.” It’s hard to imagine the contempt with which Thomas Jefferson or George Washington would have greeted such a concept.
The techniques for reigning in the effects of delusions of grandeur in the mind of the president have yet to be worked out. But the spontaneous acts of resistance that have already greeted Trump’s most bizarre presidential acts are encouraging. The language used to comment on Trump’s falsehoods has stiffened considerably, even in the mainstream media, which I feared had surrendered the ability to speak blunt truth.
So perhaps the people will wake up to where we are and decide this is no place we want to be. Yet, if the hope we can feel now is to be realized, a goodly number of people who have supported Trump and the Trumpites are going to have to recognize they don’t want narcissism as their guiding philosophy.
It’s not only Trump who is afflicted by it. The nation, too, has had it to some degree.
January 30, 2017
I wonder if it’s possible, anytime, anywhere, for a general population to gain an accurate perception of its government’s motives. Certainly, there are immense barriers to that’s happening.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty is the nature of the general population itself. It is composed principally of people whose interests are far more personal than they are social. Am I going to get a raise? Can I buy the new truck I want so desperately? Can I afford a vacation in the south of France? Is my son going to be admitted to Princeton? These are the sort of questions that occupy people’s minds. Relatively few worry about whether the Department of Justice is carrying out its duties responsibly. It’s a rare person who has even a vague conception of what the Department of Justice ought to be doing. Or the Defense Department, or the Department of the Interior, or the State Department, and so on.
If the people don’t care what the government is doing -- unless it pinches directly on them -- why should government officials pay much attention to what happens in the lives of a majority of the people?
There is a field of study called the psychology of work, which if it were given the attention it deserves would tell us a good deal about what to watch for in the various departments of government. It would tell us much about the character of the people who seek to join those departments. One would have to be seriously naive to expect those who aspire to become high ranking military officers to care about the same things as those who wish to rise up in the Park Service.
It’s entirely possible for government officers to be as narrowly focused as those who work in the so-called private sector. And there’s nothing which dictates that either have to be good citizens.
The trouble is that right now in the United States there is little evidence to indicate that any large groups are concentrated intensely on the health of our national society. Most people, whether private or governmental employees, have other fish to fry.
That being the case, who is it that is going to guide us toward strong and intelligent efforts to serve the well-being of all the people? That, of course, is what politics is supposed to do. But the idea that politics is performing that way in the United States at the moment is laughable. We have lost the ability to know what real political effort is. When we think of it at all, we view it as the efforts of not very bright opportunists to squirm their way into public office. That’s certainly how the mainstream media treat it. Almost never does one see on the journalistic page or screen mention of the serious political analysts we have had in this country over the past twenty years. What percentage of Americans have heard the names of Sheldon Wolin, John Lukacs, Thomas Frank, Morris Berman, Jeffrey Sachs, or Noam Chomsky?
The idea of democracy is that the general population knows what the government is doing, and stands ready to express approval or disapproval. It is also that the functionaries of government are interested in what the people know and like. Bringing those two groups together in genuine conversation is what has to happen in legitimate democracy. If we want anything like the latter, millions of people are going to have to change their minds about what their responsibilities are.
©John R. Turner
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